Work-life balance is a myth. Popularized in the 1980s, the idea of “work-life balance” was created as more women entered the workforce. The idea of balance was designed to encourage women to spend as much time at work as they did at home. You can learn more about its history here. But what most of us have come to realize is that “balance” is an illusion, there is no such thing. The media shows us women who are “doing it all” without breaking a sweat when in reality most people are struggling to keep up. Many of my clients are hustling to achieve a romanticized version of a woman who “has it all” and “can do it all” which is extremely damaging. When we compare ourselves to something unattainable, we end up miserable trying to achieve the impossible.
How do we separate the so-called “ideal” working woman from reality? This is part of “The Great Resignation.” People are tired of living for work instead of working to live. As part of the hustle culture we live in, we’re trained to make work our top priority to the exclusion of everything else. If you’re spending more time at home and less time at work you’re viewed as “lazy” which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Work-life “balance” sounds great in theory but is hard- almost impossible- to achieve, especially for women, and definitely for working moms. Why? Because neither system truly values nor has the infrastructure to support the other. So, it’s on us to create a balance that works for us. This means creating and honoring boundaries around your time, space, and energy.
A recent coaching client shared this gem with me, “I am no longer looking for a career upon which I rest my identity or purpose in life. I’d like my career to support my life.” This is what we should all adopt as our mantra. Remember:
You have to find the “balance” that works for you. It looks different for everyone. And it can change depending on where you are in life and the various roles you’re trying to negotiate. Heck, it can even change hourly! The trick is to work at having a life, not only a career.
Clarify Your Priorities
If you feel like your job is taking over your life, take some time to reflect on your priorities and values. You’re never going to satisfy everyone. If you set boundaries at work to spend more time with your family someone is sure to be disgruntled about it. If you spend all your time at work and neglect your family, you’ll miss some big moments.
Between the demands of work, home, and family these days you might be taking on a lot more than usual. If you’re a high-performing individual, many people rely on you to get things done. Unfortunately, people might also try to take advantage of your can-do attitude. If you’re always putting yourself last in your daily life, you can take back your power!
Don’t put other people’s needs above your own – remember you are the priority. When someone asks you to do something, ask yourself if they are really asking you for guidance. Can you give them advice and send them on their way? Is this something you can fit into your daily priorities? Does it align with your personal and professional goals?
I encourage you to spend some time setting your priorities and setting a hierarchy for them. For example, you might decide that a non-negotiable is to always be home to put your children to bed. Or that you need to use all your vacation days in the same calendar year. On the flip side, you might have a promotion in your sights or certain things you want to accomplish in your career. By setting goals and identifying what those are, you then have a framework on how you can compromise. So when you’re asked to stay late one evening, you can decide if it’s helping you reach your goal of that promotion. If it’s not, then it’s clear you should decline. You might be willing to compromise one time if staying late will help you reach your goal. If your goals are still a little fuzzy, take a look back on this previous blog post where I share how to Achieve Your Goals.
Once you have clear goals and priorities then you can focus on setting boundaries. There are always emergencies, but keep in mind if a new priority springs up, then one or two of your old priorities may need to get pushed off. Don’t assume you have to do it all.
It’s okay to say “NO” or “Not right now.” Saying no and setting boundaries is the opposite of what the work-life balance myth promotes. You’re expected to “do it all” with no regard for yourself and people will continue to take advantage of you until you learn to put yourself first. This may be uncomfortable in the beginning but being a people-pleaser only benefits other people. Once you get used to it, you will feel less stressed and have more control over your life.
Setting boundaries takes a lot of practice, but it gets easier the more you do it. Everyone has the same 24 hours in the day – you can’t manage your time, but you can manage your priorities. Here are a few ways you can start setting some limits:
- Set limits on the times of day you will respond to emails – Make sure your team is aware that you won’t be responding immediately during that time period. You can even set an out-of-office message to let people know what to do in case of an emergency.
- Create do not disturb times to complete work – If your Outlook calendar is open, people tend to schedule meetings at their convenience even if you had planned to get things done. You can set do-not-disturb work blocks and take control of your day. For example, maybe you need two hours in the morning to get work done and can be available for questions the rest of the day.
- Take time off – You have PTO for a reason – use it! When you are on vacation make sure that you are unplugged and not checking in back at the office.
- Communicate clearly – When a boundary gets violated, don’t wait to address it. Make sure your team knows exactly how you want them to proceed in that situation.
- Learn to say NO – Sometimes when we get assigned a new project, we immediately say yes without thinking about how it will fit into our current workload. If something else is going to suffer, take a pause before responding to make an informed decision. Don’t let someone else’s lack of planning become your emergency.
Once you have clear boundaries, I encourage you to start focusing on all the amazing things you’ve accomplished versus all the things you haven’t. If you are struggling with this, try starting a note on your phone and listing your “wins” for the day. They can be small – any success counts whether it’s finishing a project before the deadline or coming up with a great idea. Maybe you made the bed today – it can be anything, but over time these small wins add up and when you are really struggling you can look back and see all the ways you are crushing it. You can also start a gratitude journal or practice looking at how far you’ve come. There’s a book by Dan Sullivan called The Gap and The Gain: The High Achievers’ Guide to Happiness, Confidence, and Success that shares how you should be competing against a previous version of yourself, not comparing yourself to the ideal.
Normalize the Struggle
So let’s normalize the struggle, STOP ASKING WOMEN HOW THEY FIND WORK-LIFE BALANCE! Nobody wants to highlight their failures, so they are going to give you a canned answer that doesn’t accurately portray that they were late to work today because they forgot Kid #1’s favorite teddy bear and was up all night with Kid #2. Let’s normalize helping other women and sharing our real-life stories and struggles.
My goal at Sheldrake Consulting is to help you find alignment, that is helping your career to fit into your life/lifestyle. Setting goals, prioritizing, setting boundaries, and finding alignment are all things that don’t happen overnight. They are things you have to work towards on a daily basis. Without a clear direction, you’re more likely to be frustrated by the work-life balance myth. Let’s work together to set you up for success and help you move forward with confidence.