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  • 10.16.14

9 Different Definitions On The Meaning Of Work-Life Balance

What does “balance” mean, and can we ever have it? Entrepreneurs who’ve made their work their lives weigh in.

9 Different Definitions On The Meaning Of Work-Life Balance
[Silhouette of slackliner: Alex Emanuel Koch via Shutterstock]

Ever since technology enabled us to work around the clock if we choose to, separating work and personal life has become tough for the best of us.

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If we all have 24 hours in a day to spend and we’re all putting in extra hours to build a better product, company, or brand, then how do we come up with another set of “extra” hours to “balance” our life?

The concept of balancing your work and life seems simple, but what makes “can we have it all?” so hard to answer is that work-life balance means something different to everyone. Below, nine business leaders share how they achieve their version of work-life balance.

Know What Feeds Your Energy

Jacki Zehner, CEO of Women Moving Millions

When Zehner, the first female trader to be invited into partnership at Goldman Sachs, left the firm in 2002, she thought work-life balance would get better. So far, it’s gotten worse considering the numerous boards and committee chairs she sits on. If she isn’t tending to her work responsibilities, Zehner is busy connecting people. Her biggest challenge: She doesn’t know when to “turn off” work.

To feel balanced, Zehner includes her family in all big decisions involving work. She says it’s always been about where her and her husband are in their careers and how the both of them should operate to balance their life together.

For the everyday decisions, Zehner chooses what she says “yes” to based on “the things that feed it” and “the things that depletes it.” For example, she knows that she gets energy from groups and networking events, but not everyone is wired this way.

Talk Openly About Your Struggles

Ari Horie, founder and CEO of Women’s Startup Lab

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“I really don’t like that word ‘balance.’ It really makes everything sound like it’s either right or wrong, black or white,” says Horie, who was recently named one of CNN’s most visionary women. “I recommend people to consider ‘work-life design’ because it gives you a healthier perspective.”

“So often, I see so many women feel guilty [about their work-life balance], but they isolate it. They don’t want to talk about it. I think it’s important to talk about it.” To start, Horie believes that successful women need to openly talk about the help they receive in order to “have it all.”

No one talks about the three babysitters Sheryl Sandberg employs so that she can keep up with work, says Horie. When we don’t talk about these things, we paint this picture that these women are Super Women and this makes the rest of us feel guilty that we don’t measure up, she explains.

Women need to talk about these struggles so that we can have a better understanding of what a realistic work-life design looks like. “Design your own life and don’t be scared by the culture or being judged,” says Horie.

Remember That Life Is A Marathon


Natalie Madeira Cofield, CEO of Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce and the founder of Walker’s Legacy

“I’m the CEO of two organizations … work-life balance is something I grapple with all the time. For me, it’s how I create space and time for myself and for the people I care about it in my life. It is difficult. A lot of times people ask if I ever want to have kids and they just infer that I don’t because I’m a CEO.”

It’s easy to look at successful people and think that their success happened overnight so to remind herself that all good things take time, Cofield reads biographies of people she admires.

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“When I was 25, everything needed to be done by 30. When I was 21, everything needed to be done by 25 … there are far more people who’ve done the marathon of life instead of the sprint. It’s all about perspective.”

Think More And Work Less

Brian Halligan, co-founder and CEO of HubSpot

“I find that I am at my best professionally when I am well-rested and have time away from email to actually think,” says Halligan. “I’m in violent agreement with Ideo partner Tom Kelley’s notion that the best ideas come from moments of ‘relaxed attention,’ so I’ve created significantly more time in my life for naps and meditation.

Doing so has had a huge impact on how I feel and the clarity of my thinking. One of my big initiatives this year is to think more and work less. I think it makes leaders and companies significantly more productive and successful.”

Don’t Require “Unnatural” Things From People

Chris Golec, founder of Demandbase

“People tend to act like there’s a formula for work-life balance, but there isn’t,” says Golec, a serial entrepreneur. “Put simply, work-life balance is about not requiring unnatural things of people. In other words, recognizing that everyone is in a different phase of life, has different challenges, and needs the freedom to handle those obligations.

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We all have to work a lot, but lack of balance happens when people start to feel guilty about taking time to meet their out-of-work commitments. It really all comes back to the flexibility, trust, and respect with your work and personal relationships.”

Get More Sleep

Amy Errett, cofounder of Madison Reed

Serial entrepreneur and former venture capitalist Errett doesn’t believe that work-life balance exists when you’re an entrepreneur. “When you start a company and it’s something that you’re passionate about and it requires every attention, it’s unrealistic to think I’m going to have work-life balance,” she says.

“I work all the time. I’m on 24/7, but it’s a choice I’ve made. I have a great home life, a great partner. I don’t have ‘this is my day off’ mentality.”

She might not believe in work-life balance, but Errett has figured out how to have a balanced life. “It’s little things like, I don’t put my phone next to my bed,” she says. “I know that I’ll be reading emails all night. The phone goes to a separate room in these hours so that I can get more sleep so I can be more effective.”

Schedule In Some Fun

Monif Clarke, CEO of Monif C. Plus Sizes

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“My secret to having work-life balance is to schedule in my fun. At the beginning of the week, I have a reminder that says ‘schedule fun.’ I have to give myself those incentives to stay balanced,” Clarke tells Fast Company. “When I first started Monif C., there was no balance and I got sick, often felt drained, demoralized, and just wanted to quit. It showed me that I had to make some changes.”

“Now I have scheduled time with my personal trainer, my boyfriend, family, and friends,” she says. “I also enjoy me-time–thinking, praying, and meditating–so I wake up an hour early to do just that. I actually think it has made me even more effective than I was when I was working 20-hour days in the beginning. I also am a stickler for sleep. I make sure that no matter what I get at least seven hours a night.”

Realize That You Can’t Do It All

Nick Taranto, cofounder of Plated.com


“You can only cut so many pieces from the pie. Work-life balance means making decisions around where, who, and what you’re going to sacrifice, because you can’t do it all,” says Taranto who believes that balance changes every day and even multiple times a day at times.

“When I was in my early twenties, I said, ‘F*** those old guys, I don’t need balance. I can do it all.’ … but I was juggling too many balls and was dropping a lot of them. Since I got married and had a kid, I’ve become much more focused. I now acknowledge that I can’t do it all, and that’s cool, because I’m going to be world class for the people and opportunities that I focus on.”

Follow Your Passion

Jeremy Wickremer, founder of Transformational Media Summit

Wickremer’s definition of the perfect work-life balance scenario is “doing the job you love, working with people you get along with, and not working crazy hours.”

He thinks that one of the [best] ways to feel that you have work-life balance is finding work that you’re passionate about and realizing your full potential. To do this, Wickremer says that you need to think about three things:

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  1. Your values and where you want to go in life.
  2. Decisions to take you into that direction.
  3. How your work impacts the greater good and other people.

When it comes to work-life balance, the business leaders above seem to understand that “having it all” doesn’t mean having it all, all at once.

Instead, work-life balance should mean that you generally feel healthy, happy, and balanced enough to spend time on the areas that fulfill you. Whatever it means to you, it shouldn’t make you feel bad that you’re not balanced enough every day. Perhaps you can only have it all once you learn how to integrate your two passions: work and personal life.

About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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