When I ask busy executives to describe a satisfying life, they often envision a scenario in which they work hard but dictate their own assignments. They want time to take part in important family events. They are eager to make real contributions to their organizations, and they also want breaks when they’re tired. What they really need is control. But, frequently, what they think they want is balance--and that’s where trouble starts.
Here’s what I tell them: work-life balance is a myth. That myth compels many of us to view an ideal life as a set of perfectly level scales. On the tray on one side is your personal life. On the other side is your work life. With heroic efforts, you can keep both trays exactly level. If one starts to tip too far, you make some kind of nifty move that balances them again.
In reality, that perfect balance almost never occurs, except for those rare, fleeting moments when the trays pass each other on the way up or down--and we’re too frazzled to appreciate that brief moment of self-actualization anyway.
There’s always a lot of chatter in the media about the latest trends in work-life balance. As recently as last month, Reuters published a piece about Volkswagen agreeing to deactivate the BlackBerrys  of German staff members when their shifts are over, so they can really go off the clock. Having followed articles like these for years, as well as through reflecting on conversations with clients and colleagues, I’ve noticed a couple trends of my own. First, when it comes to work-life balance, we often adopt a victim mind-set. Our lives are out of balance not through our own fault but because of something someone else--a preoccupied spouse, nasty boss, or needy kid--is doing, or not doing. Second, we want to believe there’s a quick fix that we’re somehow overlooking.
Among those supposed fixes:
- Working from home gives you the best of both worlds: A decade or so ago, when my three boys were very young, I ran across one of those “you can have it all” articles that was accompanied by a laughable photo. A clean-cut, preppy guy sat in his home office in rays of sunlight, sipping coffee and joyfully pecking away at his laptop as he balanced a toddler on his knee. I had attempted a similar trick, under pressing deadlines, on numerous occasions. What did I learn? Doing what that guy in the photo was doing is impossible for more than a few minutes at a time. The only thing we had in common was a love of coffee, which would quickly be spilled on the laptop by my toddler.
- You can save yourself a ton of hassle by learning to say no: I tried this once back in junior high, when I took out the trash and mowed the grass at a cafeteria. The owner wanted me to do additional work in the kitchen, but I told him, no, I liked working outside more. The very next day he had me on a ladder with a paint scraper--and there I stayed for two miserable months. Lesson learned: don’t say if no if you don’t have any leverage.
- Getting more help around the house makes it all better: There’s definitely something to be said for having someone clean the house or mow the lawn. In theory, it gives people more time to do what they want to do. In practice, however, what I’ve seen is that people often invest that free time in doing more work. And that points to another faulty assumption in the work-life debates--that everybody wants more time away from work. In fact, some people--and I’ve met many of them throughout two decades of working closely with leaders--don’t really want balance. Their identity is rooted in work, and that’s where they want to be. Outside of work, in the complex dance of family and community responsibilities, they lose their autonomy. Their professional expertise doesn’t mean much. They no longer have control.
And control, in my view, is what we’re really trying to get to with all the chatter about balance. We need better ways to manage work-life boundaries, understanding that we are subject to phases, often dictated by events out of our control, in which our work lives and personal lives ebb and flow in their demands. The more we assume actual leadership of our own lives, instead of waiting for someone else to do it for us, the better prepared we are to deal with this unending juggle.
Here are a few ideas for getting started:
- Shore up the home front: A lot of stress in our lives, the kind that throws us way off balance, starts with relationship problems at home. Work on them. Get counseling, talk to your spouse and kids. If returning to your family after a day of work fills you with angst, that’s a situation only you can repair. Take ownership of the problem, and you’ll feel better for it.
- Quit complaining: If you feel overworked to the point that you complain about it constantly, how do you think everyone around you feels about it? It’s trendy in many companies to run around with multiple, flashing digital devices strapped to our belts or spread out on the table, just so everyone can see how unbelievably busy and important we are. Reinvest that energy in reframing your career possibilities.
- Say “no” strategically: The best time to take control of a job is before you accept it. Once you accept it, your negotiating power plummets. So set some ground rules. Be clear on how your performance will be measured. Test the waters. Does everyone in this organization work constantly? If so, don’t be surprised when that happens to you a few months later. If your boss loads you up with one more task, try to get an old one off your plate.
Forget about the even scales. It’s a really bad analogy. Take control instead.
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Craig Chappelow, who specializes in 360-degree feedback and the development of effective senior executive teams, is a portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership (www.ccl.org), a top-ranked, global provider of leadership education and research.
[Image: Flickr user vollefolklore ]