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Why Work-Life Balance is a Lie

Just about all of your clients struggle to get everything done in their lives. You probably do too. But, balancing everything just isn’t possible. Here are three ways to get more realistic about what you can accomplish.

There’s a dream that many professional people have — both men and women — that, someday, they’ll find a “balanced” life. They’ll get caught up with work and start being more productive. They’ll lose weight, exercise regularly, and maybe even train for that marathon. Their house will be spotless and well-maintained, and they’ll be more patient and present with their kids. They’ll have meaningful hobbies and closer friendships. They’ll have time to volunteer, and they’ll put healthy, culturally interesting meals on the dinner table every night at 6:30.

Yeah, right.

Unless you’re cloning yourself, this version of balance just isn’t possible. Why? In part because the idea of balance itself  —  that everything should fit together in equilibrium — is a lie. Yet people continue putting pressure on themselves because they can’t achieve it. They feel like they’re constantly falling short in some area.

This is something you’re probably wrestling with — and many of your clients no doubt are too. But, if you think systematically about the challenge, and get more realistic about what’s possible, you can bring a healthier perspective to your client interactions. You’ll be more empathetic to the issues they really face.

What Is Wellbeing?

According to the book Wellbeing, by Tom Rath and Jim Harter, which is based on Gallup research, there are five universal domains of wellbeing for most people: career, social, financial, physical, and community. As the authors put it, “While 66 percent of people are doing well in at least one of these areas, just seven percent are thriving in all five. If we’re struggling in any one of these domains, as most of us are, it damages our wellbeing and wears on our daily life.”

(As a side note, just by being good at your jobs, you help clients address one of these five domains: the financial aspect of wellbeing.)

Instead, the trick is to look at your life through three lenses — A-I-M: assess, integrate, moderate.

One of the underlying lies of balance is the idea that you need to do everything. It’s like that famous Successories poster from the 1990s: “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” That suggests that you can do everything, take on everything, and control everything. When something falls short — well, that’s on you.

For people who have young kids, you know the drill. You’re constantly asked to volunteer for something at school: bake sales, field trips, costumes for the holiday recital, and on and on.

Instead of automatically taking on those things — or accepting any obligation that looms in front of you — you need to assess them via a few key questions:

  • What are my unique gifts, skills, and experiences?
  • What’s my specific role to play in this scenario?
  • Is this uniquely mine to do, or could someone else handle it?
  • Is this the right time in my life to take it on?

Unless you have some clear answers to those questions — unless the current “ask” is uniquely in your skill set, uniquely your responsibility, and uniquely your time to do it — let it go.

Next, look at your calendar. It is probably filled with meetings, deadlines, to-dos, and other obligations. Some people have multiple calendars, or they fill them up with sticky notes in different colors for home, work, family, school, church, and anything else going on in their lives. That seems like a good approach, but when you try to keep all those streams of obligations in individual silos — distinct and mutually exclusive — you will drive yourself nuts.

Instead, you can fit more into your life with less stress by integrating your various obligations whenever possible — in other words, consolidating and combining them. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where can I streamline my roles and responsibilities to focus on only what is uniquely mine to do?
  • How can I integrate activities I would like to do with what I have to do?
  • Can I combine activities so that I am meeting other needs (like socializing) while also handling my responsibilities?

For example, if you like to exercise and you feel like you never have enough time to see friends, exercise with friends. If you work long hours and do not have enough time to take on volunteer work, organize a community-oriented activity through work. If family time is important but you also have many household chores to do, turn a portion of family time into getting those things done with your kids. (They may grumble at first, but they will be better for it later.)

The third and final part of A-I-M is to moderate — i.e., avoid filling up every minute of every day and night with something to do. This is the curse of modern life. People do not give themselves any margin.

In Dr. Richard Swenson’s book, Margin, he describes marginless as “being thirty minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were twenty minutes late getting out of the hairdresser’s because you were ten minutes late dropping the children off at school because the car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station — and you forgot your purse.”

To give yourself a margin, you need to say no sometimes — even if you do not have another activity or obligation claiming your time. You can just say no! To get started, think about these questions:

  • What are your most critical priorities right now, for every aspect of your life?
  • What can wait for a later time?
  • What boundaries are missing that you need to establish?
  • How can you creatively establish more margin in your day-to-day?

By limiting the things you take on, moderation helps you achieve everything you desire over the long-term.

In sum, the people who say you cannot have it all are wrong. You can, just not at the same time. By applying these day-to-day strategies — assess, integrate, moderate — and keeping an eye on your long-term goals, you can have the life you want. It may not be in balance, but it will be amazing.

Tom Rath and Jim Harter, Ph.D., Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, Gallup Press, May 4, 2010.
Richard Swenson, M.D., Margin, Navpress, 1994.

This post was adapted from a speech given by Lisa Schultz, Chief Services Officer at CNL Financial Group.


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