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The idea of work-life balance seems… kind of inarguably optimistic.
Who doesn’t want to ‘have it all’? We’ve been told it’s possible, so we should keep striving for it. Right? That grand ole equilibrium of family, work, health, and social life.
Wrong. I’m here to voice an unpopular opinion.
Here goes: work-life balance doesn’t exist. The idea that it’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is, in my opinion, is pretty impractical.
Now I don’t mean to come off like a Debbie downer, but I can’t be the only person in the world who feels like the idea of work-life balance that we’ve all been brainwashed to strive for more often than not leads to chronic stress, increased anxiety, and a dreadful not enough attitude.
Where’s the joy? Where’s the happiness? Where’s this grandiose sense of fulfillment that we are supposed to experience when we finally get this thing right?
Well, I think I’ve finally figured it out, and it all came to me from a quote I heard from non-other than Ms. Oprah Winfrey herself.
“You CAN have it all. Just not all at once.”
And the lightbulb goes off. Ping. What if we had been going about this all wrong. Trying to do way too much. All at the same time. In every aspect of our lives.
Let’s break this all the way down. Here’s where I think we’ve been missing the mark.
Unrealistic standards are deceiving. They’re easily confused with being ambitious.
However, unrealistic standards are when we strive to achieve the unachievable. By doing this, we set ourselves up for failure. When we feel like we’ve failed, our self-esteem takes a hit and we become less productive.
In the case of work-life balance, the standard we’re all scrabbling for is based on a myth: the myth of balance itself. Balance doesn’t exist – at least, not in the way it’s usually portrayed.
Four Light Bulbs
Reality is more nuanced than a black-and-white goal of spending equal energy on each ‘section’ of your life.
Sometimes, most of your focus needs to be on your family. Other times, it should be directed at work. At some points, you might need to channel your energy into your health.
I heard a podcast episode* a while back that talked about this concept using a smart metaphor.
Imagine four light bulbs, the analogy goes. Each represents a part of your life: family, friends, work and health. You have a finite amount of energy to power all four bulbs. As your circumstances change, you need to adjust; deciding which bulbs need to be turned up, and which will have to be dimmed for a while.
I like that metaphor because it acknowledges that none of us have infinite resources. We don’t have the energy to give 100% to everything (as much as we’d like to!), so we need to learn to prioritize.
My Own Worst Enemy
Trying to ‘balance’ your life stops you from realizing an important (and super positive) thing – you don’t need to segregate the different parts of you.
I had the idea that work and life should be perfectly balanced. This was so ingrained that I truly felt like I was failing if the two started overlapping too much.
“I must not be setting good boundaries,” I would chastise myself. “I’m going to ruin my chances of success.”
I was so determined to keep my ‘two lives’ separate that I was tearing myself apart inside.
There was a background, nagging feeling that I was just… doing something wrong.
Other women could work this stuff out. Why couldn’t I find the answer?
Turns out I was asking the wrong questions.
Instead of trying to tear myself apart, I should have been taking the best of all my roles – smart businesswoman, loving mother and wife, spiritual human being – and combining them to tackle each part of my life.
One of the most counter-intuitive lessons I’ve learned on the path to self-actualization is this: being busy is not the same as being productive.
Have you ever had those days where you felt like a hamster on a wheel? You ran for hours but made no progress?
Once I started looking out for it, I caught myself aimlessly completing tasks… any tasks. I’d spend whole days caught in a cycle of frustration, hesitation and anxiety.
I would be flustered and stressed, convinced that there weren’t enough hours in the day.
Eventually, I considered an old saying: “we all have the same 24 hours”. I’d never really thought about the deeper meaning behind the adage – every business whiz and superb mother – was working with the same basic resource I was.
I knew I had stuff I needed to do. And I knew I never seemed to have the time or energy. But I never stopped to work out what my aims were.
That’s the bone of contention. Being intentional about your planning and time management makes everything way smoother. It won’t eliminate stress, but it will massively reduce your chances of burnout.
Burnout comes from friction; from trying to move against the flow.
Fulfillment is the opposite of burnout. By squeezing every drop of joy and opportunity from the 24 hours we’re all gifted, we have a real shot at finding that fulfillment.
Put Down Those Plates!
Ever seen a plate spinner? It’s an old circus trick that delights kids: the performer balances spinning plates on canes, adding more and more until they’re multitasking with impossible speed.
Not many of us could do that trick with china. So why do we all try to do it with our lives?
People are really bad at multitasking. Research confirms it. Even if we think we’re doing everything effectively, we’re operating on reduced capacity when we try and switch rapidly between thought processes.
So, your Superhero Alter Ego is not going to do everything at once. They are going to master the different levels of life separately.
It’s hard to take that step back. We’ve all been told that we can be perfect mothers, wives and entrepreneurs/CEOs at the same time. Take me, for example. I tried to:
- Homeschool my son
- Plan dates with my husband
- Plan family outings
- Transition to healthier eating
- Lose 50lbs
- Build a sustainable small business
- Help others build their businesses…
Wow! Listed out like that, I have to ask – what the hell was I thinking? These things must be accomplished in phases, so that’s what I’ve started doing.
Embrace Your Reality – Now!
There are opportunity costs when you try to balance work and home life.
If you work ten hours a day building your business, or crushing it at your day job, you’re more likely to do well in your career. However, you might miss out on some evenings spent with your spouse and kids. It also works the other way around, of course!
Dealing with this challenge is something I still sometimes struggle with. When I am working on a passion project, it’s easy to overrun my allotted ‘work hours’ for the day. If that happens, stuff around the house (cleaning, errands etc.) gets neglected. I’m an at-home entrepreneur, so there’s always some work that I could be doing.
But learning how to call time is a vital skill.
It’s also essential to really stop what you’re doing and be fully present in your next ‘task’. I don’t want to be worrying about business emails or new projects when I’m reading my kids a story. Neither do I want to be thinking about groceries when I’m running a community workshop!
While I still don’t believe in segregating parts of my identity, I do believe in separating timeslots so that I can embrace the present in each.
The Wrap Up
I tried so hard to convince myself that I could ‘have it all’. But I was wrong. I hope this article helps you get to where I am without so much pain.
Becoming your best self – your own superhero – doesn’t make you invincible.
Your Superhero Alter Ego isn’t there to perpetuate the myth that women can always perform all roles; being everything to everyone. They’re there to help you learn to live life in your flow. To find your zone.
We need to strive for success and fulfillment; and acknowledge the beautiful, flawed realities we’re dealing with.
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