‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking out new landscapes but in having new eyes.’
Attributed to Marcel Proust 1871-1922

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Work – Life Balance?

Work life balance is in the news as one of the great problems of our times. Technology has been the main driving force, especially the technology of communication. Years ago I would pick up the phone to call a colleague is Brazil. And it would have cost a lot of money. Now we not only have E mail, but I can call him on Skype for free. As work has become easier to do anywhere, so it has encroached on time and activities that had been reserved for family or personal life. Technology has lowered the starting bar to compete in many industries, so people are more anxious, working harder to stay ahead of competition.

There has been a general shift in belief too: just because work can be done from anywhere, therefore people think it should be done from anywhere. And if it is possible now with cell phones for people to be available anytime and anywhere, therefore should be available anytime and anywhere. Bad logic! Once you are on the grid, it is not easy to get off, and people start to feel they should be available for work out of work hours. And then work creeps into all parts of our life until we have the archetypal workaholic type executive who does conference calls on their mobile phone while sitting at the beach as the partner plays with the children. This means that he (a man more often than not) is not being very effective as a work person and not being very happy as a beach person. Multitasking means you do neither task well.

We have been exploring this issue with quite a few executive clients recently. And we found (as is often the case!), that the way the problem has been framed – is the problem. Once we say ‘work life balance’ we have made a separation right there. Now work and life are somehow different. Not only different but somehow antagonistic. Now we have to balance them. We have to define what is work and what is life, and then make sure that they balance each other.

This can feel like walking a tightrope – in the wind and with people shouting at you.

How can you make a balance? Do you put the same number of items on each side of the scale? Or are you allowed to balance one large commitment with a lot of smaller ones? How much extra work does a holiday away with the kids buy you? What should you do if you have to miss your son’s school prize giving because are called to work?  Will the boss give you time off if you put in a lot of unpaid overtime? And does guilt weight anything?
Over what time do you have to balance? Is it OK to devote three weeks to work, then three weeks to holiday, or does each day need to be balanced? Or each week? Or month?
You have to balance the demands of other people. The boss. Your spouse, your children. Who decides whether you have a good balance? You might be satisfied but others not. You have to balance the perceptions of others as well based on their values.

work-life3So this gets very complicated very fast. The balancing act becomes more strenuous than the work. Some clients strive very hard to keep work and personal life distinct and in air tight boxes. No work allowed on holiday, no work after certain time at night. No pictures or reminders of family life at work. But sometimes the boxes do get mixed up. Usually the work invades the home, with spouses and children feeling resentful and neglected and the person in the middle feeling guilty. Yet the demands of work seem non negotiable. It seems like, a double bind – a lose-lose situation where you have to choose. But there is hope… a double bind always means the problem is framed badly.

In reality, you do not have work and a life – you have a life. In that one life you choose to do things. You will embody the values you have about all the things you do, including your work.
So the answer to, ‘How do you balance work and life?’ is to unask the question, it is the wrong question. It tricks you by inviting you to look outside yourself as if life and work are extraneous forces that batter you. A better question is, ‘How can I have a satisfying, happy and fulfilling life embodying all the calls there are on my attention?’ Then it becomes a choice of where to put your attention in your life. We are not saying this is easy, there will be many competing calls on your attention, and there will be times when you will feel your values stretched. You will not be able to please everyone all the time (including yourself)
Here is another question, ‘How do I integrate all the activities in my life into a whole that has meaning for me and others?’ Move from the metaphor of a tight rope walker to the metaphor of an artist. You are the architect of your life, you make your life a work of art by building it from the pieces you have, and getting the pieces you want. If your life was a work of art, how would you go about it?

As always with coaching, the question you asks defines the space you have to answer.