“Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”
~ Dolly Parton
Work-Life Balance: Does it Exist?
Work-life balance is a kind of holy grail for most working adults. It’s something people are incredibly eager to achieve, but in reality, many people find it elusive and end up feeling they are chasing their tail. I recently interviewed a friend on the topic, and her response captured this conundrum beautifully: “Work-life balance is a myth, it’s impossible to achieve, but I still strive for it. It’s important…and I think a lot about it…but there’s no single formula for it.” I think she speaks for many people.
Some experts says work-life balance is achievable if we focus on quality not quantity , and engage in meaningful work . Others say it does not exist ,  and speak instead of “work-life harmony or integration” (mincing words, perhaps). Many disagree with the concept altogether and argue that “we cannot seperate work from life“: work is life  – so therefore work-life balance isn’t a meaningful concept.
I get their point, especially if you are self-employed, as I have been for much of my career. Your work is your passion, you are CEO, manager and employee. Work is your life, it’s integrated, and you pursue it freely, finding your own harmony with all the aspects of your life. You’re in the driver’s seat at all times, and that can help! But there are plenty of business-owners who are completely out of balance. So running the show isn’t the secret to work-life balance.
Bean Bags and Bullies
And what about those well-intentioned workplace efforts? Bean-bags in the staff lounge, flexi-time, yoga classes… These are helpful…but I don’t believe these can counteract the impact of a workplace bully, meaningless work, unrelenting performance demands, or chronic stress from poorly executed change processes. The same can be said for self-care and wellness strategies – these are all well and good – but if your work environment is boring, stressful or toxic, then these personal attempts at balance can be like trying to nail jelly to a wall: How can you achieve “work-life balance” if the workplace itself keeps throwing you out of whack?
I found this out first hand when I tried to employ all my self-care, wellness and mindset strategies whilst working in an extremely negative environment. My strategies certainly helped me stay sane, but I did not experience “balance” nor did I feel happy, healthy or fulfilled.
TED speaker, Nigel Marsh, discusses his attempt to address the issue by taking a year off from his stressful corporate job:
“I found it quite easy to balance work and life when I didn’t have any work…Not a very useful skill, especially when the money runs out,” he says, mocking himself and the whole idea of work-life balance.
As frustrating and fleeting as it can be, I don’t think we can just write it off or say it doesn’t exist. It’s a concept we need to relate to and that’s because humans instinctively seek out balance. The search for it is hard-wired into out bodies and minds, and beyond us, its a system that operates on the smallest and grandest scale. The quest for balance is inherent in our universe.
Exploring Work-Life Balance
The first step is to understand what work-life balance actually is, so I started by investigating the idea of physical balance for some clues. Balance in a bodily sense refers to a biological system that tells us where our bodies are in our environment and help us to maintain a desired position. Our senses gather information, from inside and outside, and help us achieve a harmonious state. The system gives us feedback continuously and seeks to answer questions like these: Have we found the right amount? Is there too much or too little? Are we in harmony? Is there equal weight on all sides? Are we in a steady position so we don’t fall?
Understanding the inherent nature of balance as a system leads us logically to our next step, which is to recognise that balance is a continual and evolving process; a relationship between organism and environment, where feedback is relied upon to correct any imbalance. Balance is not something you set and forget. And it’s not a destination you arrive or remain at. It’s perpetual. Of course there is an ideal of harmony, which may be realised in moments, only to be lost and corrected for in the next moment.
Finally, it’s essential we understand the mechanics of the system. For example, what are the key components of balance? Turning again to science, we find that balance is the inter-relationship between four parts: position, space, direction and motion – when all four are in harmony, we have achieved physical balance.
Diagram: Four Elements of Physical Balance
I have taken these key concepts and adapted them into a model that I hope is useful for thinking about work-life balance (see diagram below).
“When I think about work-life balance, I don’t imagine it as a perfect day where I got to spend the exact right amount of time having an impact at work and snuggling with my kids at home. I never achieve that. But over the course of a month, or a quarter, or a year, I try to make time for the people and experiences I value.” ~ Jane Park
Creating The Balance
So, in the above model we have four core concepts: position, space, direction and motion, and those central elements are surrounded by four additional concepts: attention, awareness, feedback and change. Let’s look at each concept in a little more detail, consider possible questions to help you assess how you are doing in each domain, and then we can explore the relationship between the 4 inner and outer concepts:
The Inner Circle
Position relates to your exact location in time and space. Your coordinates or bearings. Your current situation. Your perceived state of balance or imbalance.
- Where am I right now?
- What position am I in?
- How balanced do I feel right now?
- What is happening in my work/life?
- What is working and not working?
- How fulfilled am I in each of the major areas of life?
Space relates to the surroundings; the workplace; the qualities of your work; physical aspects of your environment; the tasks you do; your social/emotional environment. Some questions that help you explore the spatial aspect:
- Do I like my current environment?
- Do I enjoy who and what I am surrounded by?
- Am I happy where I am or with how things are?
- Do I feel good in this environment, workplace, relationship or career space?
- Does where I am bring me joy, happiness and fulfilment?
- Have I got the right things in my life that allow me to thrive?
- What kind of work environment would I find fulfilling and enjoyable?
Direction translates across in obvious ways: connection to purpose, your career goals and professional aspirations, life goals, personal values (what matters most), and your overall life vision. Potential questions include:
- Do I like where I am going?
- Does this direction align with my values, goals or purpose?
- Do I know my destination?
- Am I excited about where I am headed?
- Am I on track to reach my destination?
- Have I lost my sense of purpose or direction?
- Am I clear on my bigger goals beyond work that bring meaning to my working?
“You’ll always feel out of balance if you’re doing work that you don’t find engaging and meaningful.” ~ Brendon Burchard
The final concept in the model is motion, and it refers to our movement in space and time. Consider questions that reflect the concept of movement or motion:
- Do I feel stuck, stalled or bored in any areas of life?
- Am I feeling grounded, centred and solid?
- Am I moving forwards, backwards or stagnating?
- Do I feel unstable or off balance in any way in my life?
- Do I need to slow down, stop and rest at this moment?
- Are my actions bringing me closer towards my goal?
- Do I need to speed up, keep pushing, and make things happen?
So now, rather than just feeling stressed and “out of whack”, we have some specific questions to ask in each of these core domains. Asking good questions tends to bring greater clarity about the cause of any perceived imbalance. Additionally, asking questions also kicks us into the outer circle by putting attention on the problem, listening to the feedback, and increasing awareness as we do this. Let’s explore these outer processes in more detail.
The Outer Circle
Attention, Awareness, Feedback and Change
This outer circle is critical to our success in returning to balance.
1. Attention is the first step. You get to choose what you focus on. Take some time regularly to reflect. If you are stressed, exhausted or unfulfilled, stop and pay attention.
2. Awareness comes next. What do you notice? What’s happening? Where is the imbalance? Engage your brain. Get involved.
3. Feedback is what you are looking for. What are the signals? What do they mean? How urgent is the signal?
4. Change is the crucial step. If you keep ignoring the signals of imbalance, then those signals will get louder and louder until you create change or change is thrust upon you.
This system is not autonomous. If we want balance, we have to pay attention, increase our level of awareness, listen to and integrate the feedback we are getting, and make changes accordingly. If we bury our head in the sand, or put life in set-and-forget mode, then we are going to miss signals that things are going off-track. When we ignore feedback, then we have to accept the consequences of doing so. Don’t be the person who needs a heart-attack or a car accident to capture your attention. Meanwhile, if we refuse to change, and remain stuck in our comfort or fear zones, then we will not learn, grow and thrive (see diagram below).
We have to rise out of comfort and push through fear in order to create learning and achieve maximum growth.
We are dynamic organisms in an ever-changing universe and the more responsive we can be to feedback, the more we are going to feel aligned with life around us. And if we can acknowledge we’ve been ignoring the feedback, all it takes is a decision to consciously attend to each one of these four elements, and we can begin to restore a sense of balance in our lives. Balance is always trying to happen and we need to trust in that process and support it. Imbalances will happen. We cannot avoid that. But when they are sustained, it’s because we are ignoring feedback that tells us to change, or we are temporarily unwilling or unable to create change that would restore balance.
If you are someone who habitually pushes through tiredness to “get the job done” – then you are ignoring important feedback telling you that your approach is exhausting body and mind. Let’s say you manage chronic stress by having a few drinks every night as a way to tune out thoughts and feelings that something is “out of whack” – nothing will change until you turn your attention and face this imbalance. If you fail to prioritise your relationships and tune out in this domain, you may find yourself alone.
Creating work-life balance is an active process; it requires your conscious engagement. This model can provide a framework, but ultimately you have to see the signals and make the changes to correct imbalances in your system.
Putting it into Action
Attention & Awareness
Ideally, you would make paying attention to signals of imbalance a priority in your life, otherwise the system cannot work effectively. It depends on you and so you must engage your brain, and choose not to overlook signs that things aren’t working. Life can be full of distractions, so creating a system for this will ensure that you are checking in regularly, rather than hoping you remember.
Take steps to grow your self-awareness. If you lack awareness, you might miss connections between what’s happening in your life, and how your personal beliefs, fears, thoughts or emotions may be contributing to your challenges or frustrations. I have long held the belief that my outer life is a mirror reflection of my inner life, and this is the place I can always turn to begin making changes. A set of outside eyes can help you see patterns that you may miss. Get a coach, mentor or therapist or speak to a trusted friend or colleague.
”When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.” ~ Wayne Dyer
Feedback & Change
With attention and awareness operating consistently, you are in a position to notice and make sense of feedback, which comes in many forms. Learn to recognise the various ways your world is trying to communicate with you. Imbalance may show up as boredom, feeling unfulfilled, stress, conflict, problems at work, accidents, health issues, insomnia, and many, many more ways. It’s important that you give yourself permission to listen to and follow feedback as soon as you notice it. Remove beliefs and rules that get in the way of tuning in and following the signals: “should,” “must,” “have to” and “need to” are words to consider removing from your vocabulary. Replace them with “could,” “might,” “may want to” and “would like to.”
A friend says this of paying attention to such signals in her business:
“I allow myself to feel like it’s okay not to work on my business, there’s never pressure to push through. If I feel tired, I rest. If I have a family thing on, I prioritise that. And when I do push, then I make it conscious, commit to that process, and accept some temporary imbalance. It’s a rhythm I find with myself and my life.”
Finally, you have to be willing to find solutions and make adjustments, minor and major, to correct your course. You may not always be able to make immediate changes, but if you cultivate an openness and willingness, and then allow your mind to solve the puzzle and offer up solutions. Choosing to rest rather than push is an instant change that will impact your feeling of balance. Opting to reduce your working hours so you can have more time with your kids may take some more planning – but making progress in this direction may help you feel closer to finding balance. In the mean time, you can focus on improving the quality of the time you have with them.
“You have to balance your passions, not your time.” ~ Lisa Sugar
6 Steps to Navigate Work Life Balance
Based on the above model, I want to suggest Six Steps that may help you navigate closer to the point of balance in your own life.
– Using the model above (position, space, direction, motion); create a system that encourages evaluation to happen routinely; a quick weekly check-in is a great approach, as is a yearly or half-yearly review.
– This relates primarily to position and direction. Use the questions in this section to make a list of priorities, and then develop a plan that will support you to focus on what matters. Ask: Who or what do I want to bond with? Focusing on valued action increases fulfilment. Accept time limitations, you can’t do everything.
3. Set Boundaries
– This relates primarily to your space and how it is impacting you. Switch off, say no & push back, keep work and family life seperate; take holidays regularly, leave work early, take mental health days. Wherever you choose to be, be there fully (when on personal time, forget work etc). Focus on what you can control.
4. Generate Energy
– This relates primarily to motion. Find out what’s keeping you stuck and what get’s you moving forward. Create rituals to refuel: morning and evening routines, regular breaks. Evaluate your personal habits (stop tuning out to TV, go to gym instead, stop eating rubbish and clean up your diet).
5. Get Support
– Speak with your coach, mentor, boss, partner, family. Practice gratitude, acceptance and self-compassion. Drop perfectionism, “should” and expectations. Create support systems to keep you accountable.
– Track your time, what’s working, what’s not working? What can I change next week, next month, next year? Keep a calendar so you can review your activities. Life-Fulfilment Wheel activity.
“Balance is not better time management, but better boundary management. Balance means making choices and enjoying those choices.” ~ Betsy Jacobson
The urge to seek balance is hard-wired into human beings. At the same time, balance is tricky, impossible to maintain, and requires our constant vigilance. We need to strike a balance (pardon the pun) between focusing on finding balance, and accepting that balance is elusive. Hold it lightly. Have a compassionate relationship towards yourself when it goes out of whack, but don’t bury your head in the sand and hope it will sort itself out either. Understand the mechanics of balance, and ask yourself powerful questions routinely. Use imbalance as an opportunity to get to know yourself better and shift your ever-evolving relationship with the world around you. Focus on progress, not perfection. Learn to become a master at reading feedback and signals, and develop a mindset that is comfortable with big and small changes.
If balance is your goal, then you might appreciate this video on having the right relationship with your goals…
“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; her labor and her leisure; his mind and his body; her education and her recreation. He hardly knows which is which. She simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever she is doing, and leaves others to determine whether she is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.” – Lawrence Jacks
Please leave a comment below if this information has been helpful, or if you have any thoughts to share on the topic of work-life-balance…if you have questions to add, or if you think there are gaps in this framework, please tell me, I’d love to hear from you!!
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Have fun finding the balance,
 Brendon Burchard, High Performance Habits, p.180
 Brendon Burchard, High Performance Habits, p.183
 Jeff Bezos, Youtube
 Tony Robbins, Youtube
The Mindset Mentor
Michelle McClintock is a Life & Business Mindset Strategist who specialises in transforming your mindset so you can experience more peace, happiness, success and fulfilment.
Michelle has 30-years experience in personal development, as a Psychologist, Facilitator, Speaker and Results Coach. She loves it when people get new insights that spark massive growth and positive transformation.
Through her writing and videos she makes complex coaching and psychology ideas easy to digest and assimilate, so you can create your ultimate life.