What a load of wishful thinking. When I was a trainee physiotherapist studying human gait and locomotion skills my tutor pointed out that walking is a process of constantly losing balance in a forward direction, and catching it again by thrusting out a leg. Repeat and you have walking. Repeat at speed and you have running. Don’t repeat and you have standing still, which itself is a constant process of almost losing balance and automatically correcting to remain stable.
Such is work life balance. A constant process of being out of balance and trying to restore equilibrium before falling over. Sometimes it is work that dominates other times it is family or leisure activities. If we sway too far toward work or life – one or other aspect will become neglected, triggering a recovery movement which will probably be an overcompensation until we perceive the next imbalance.
To remain perfectly balanced demands extraordinary awareness and perception of small changes acting on us. Increased work demands, family commitments, study, relationship maintenance, recreation, leisure hobbies or sports will all act on our balance. It is easy to be unaware of the shifts until brought to your notice by a spouse, partner, child, employer, mate or mentor that you are getting out of control.
Personally, I feel work life balance an impossible concept. Work is part of life, a subset of life that can swell or shrink from time to time. It can never be larger than the life that contains it. So if life is always larger, balance is not possible. Instead, I think of the work life ratio. The proportion of life taken up by the physical, mental and emotional demands of work that will displace the same applications to the other aspects of life. This ratio constantly varies as the demands ebb and flow. It varies throughout a work day, a week, a year and a career. It varies with the cycle of child rearing, steering and cheering. And, the optimal ratio for happiness, productivity and health will differ between individuals as well as across time. Understanding this concept within relationships (work, home, friends) should allow some elasticity without breaking the links.
The trick for each of us is to be conscious of the appropriate work life ratio for us at any particular stage, and to recognise when we have departed from this optimum and in which direction we need to shift to maintain equilibrium. And to make the correction before too much damage is done to career, family, relationships, health or sanity.
Being open to advice, counsel or at least listening to the view of others may provide us with an early warning that we may be swaying too far. Our natural hubris or confidence in our coping abilities can shield us from the internal messages, so the external input is vital.
What is the action plan? Give some thought to your optimal work life ratio, and how close you are at the moment to achieving it. Think back to when you had it right and what tools you used to get and keep it there. If you are currently outside your preferred range, are the reasons legitimate and within your influence to manage them toward equilibrium using such skills as delegation, negotiation or just saying ‘no’. Discuss the concept with important people in your life (life partner, kids, business partner, employer, coach or parent) and consider their thoughts instead of putting up your defense shields.