The Elusive Work-Life Balance: Five Strategies That Have Worked for Me
Updated: Aug 22, 2022
There's a lot of discussion about work-life balance these days--is it possible (especially during extended WFH)? Is it even the right goal? The term is charged, but the concept is important. And after many years of experimentation, I believe there are some strategies that can help.
A few years ago I was invited to lead roundtable discussions on the topic of work-life balance at the ARA Seattle Mentoring Forum. Fittingly, I had to do some serious juggling to make it possible--coordinating schedules with my husband, arranging carpool rides, and rushing from my son's soccer practice at Magnuson to try to get downtown on time. Somehow I managed to squeeze in a quick run and a few hours of focused work--another full, yet mostly fun, day in this working mom's life.
Though I'd never call myself an expert on the topic of work-life balance, it is definitely something I think a lot about, and certainly one that I'm passionate about. And the roundtable discussions reminded me that though I haven't figured it all out, I have developed some strategies that might be helpful.
First off, the discussions were awesome--these were some really smart, articulate, thoughtful women. It was so powerful just to hear their stories and compare notes about our experiences. The thing that really struck me, however, was how many women accepted as fact that they had to choose between enjoying work-life balance and advancing in their career. I heard this expressed in a number of different ways--You could either be a good mom, or kick butt at work, but not both. You could either have a job that offered a lot of flexibility and vacation time, or get paid well, but not both. You could either take great trips and enjoy a rich personal life, or get promoted, but not both.
This tells me we have some work to do on the subject of work-life balance. I say, let's go for both.
Here are a few strategies I've found helpful.
1. DISABUSE YOURSELF OF THE NOTION THAT WORKING LONGER IS WORKING BETTER
This is pretty deeply ingrained in our working culture, but I truly do not believe that more hours at your desk ("cheeks in seats," as one of the participants called it) means you're doing your job better.
I was forced to discover this when my first child was born, but wow, I wish I'd figured it out earlier. Tasks tend to expand to fill the time they are allotted, but when you introduce hard constraints, it's pretty amazing what can get accomplished. When I had to leave at 5:45 to get to day care before it closed, things got done.
But on a deeper level, not only did I take less time to get my work done, I started to feel that I was actually doing it better. When I worked in focused stretches, knowing I had a hard stop, I got more, better work done. I also worked more strategically, knowing I had to delegate and make the best possible use of my more limited time.
A few ideas:
Give yourself your own deadlines and stick to them.
If you meet them, reward yourself with doing something you love to do (as opposed to simply starting a new work task).
Practice articulating your own success in terms of what you accomplished, not how long it took you.
If your colleagues indulge in complaining (bragging?) about how late they were at the office, or how they worked all weekend, you don't have to compete on those terms. Stay focused on your results and achievements.
2. CHOOSE YOUR CULTURE, OR TAKE STEPS TO SHAPE IT
At one of the roundtables, my heart sank as I heard about S., whose request to get home in time to have dinner with her husband twice a week was deemed unreasonable, and K., a new mom whose manager (also a mom!) recommended that she make up the time "lost" at work due to pumping by putting in a couple of extra hours at night after her child went to bed.
My first thought was, "I could never work in an environment like that!" And I thought about how, consciously or unconsciously, this clarity about the kind of culture that's right for me has shaped my career.
Certainly, I have sought out supportive environments because I know it's important to me, but sometimes I've had to create that culture proactively. When I worked at Cranium, I was the first woman on the team to have a baby. At the time there was no official maternity policy. Instead of asking how much time I could take off, I came in with a proposal. I requested four months off, and I outlined my plan for coverage while I would be away. (This also happened to be a great growth opportunity for one of my senior leaders to step up and take management responsibility.) I emphasized that I intended to come back to work, and that a little more time to get settled in our new family routine would set us all up for long-term success. It worked.
At other junctures in my career, I successfully proposed unusual arrangements like working three weeks off and one week on, or working from 6 am to 3 pm two days a week so I could pick my kids up from school and take them to soccer. In each case, I came in with a plan, set expectations about my availability, and set a tone of "let's try it and see how it goes." I demonstrated flexibility in accommodating important company meetings or milestones, and I made sure I always delivered excellent work.
It's not always easy to shape the culture, however--and for me, sometimes this has meant saying no to opportunities. I once walked away from an amazing-sounding job, leading marketing for a pretty famous chef, because of this very issue. I asked pointed questions, and (fortunately) he was really honest with me that the working culture was 24-7, and that it wasn't uncommon for meetings to happen on Friday night at 9 p.m. The job would also have required commuting to San Francisco each week. I knew that wasn't right for me and my family, and I decided to accept a marketing leadership role at Haiku Deck, a local startup with a far more family-friendly culture. I have no regrets about that choice.
A few ideas:
There are lots of ways to think about work-life balance--there are expectations about the number of hours in a typical day or week, flexibility about when and where you can work, amount of vacation time, and so on. Decide what's most important to you, and think about creative ways you can make it happen.
Asking doesn't guarantee you'll get what you want, but if you come in with a well-considered proposal, you're making it a lot easier to say yes. (And you definitely won't get what you want if you don't ask.)
Remember that a job interview is an opportunity for you to decide whether the company is a good fit. Ask specific questions about what people like to do in the evenings, or their interests outside of work. Ask how frequently they get to do those things.
Do I work late sometimes? Of course, if I need to! I just don't make it a habit, and I always try to keep the focus on the work itself, not on how long it took me to do it.
A lot of women I talked to felt they were paying their dues in order to get promoted, when they'd obviously have to work more, longer hours. I tend to think of it in the opposite way--you pay your dues, and demonstrate your value, so you have more leverage to dictate your own terms.
3. PRACTICE THE FINE ART OF SAYING NO
The other thing I heard at every single table was how reluctant many women are to say no to things they don't truly want to do. To me, learning how to say no--without guilt--is an absolute survival skill if you're trying to carve out balance.
A few years ago my mom's friend, a yoga teacher who is wise and absolutely wonderful in every way, commented "If I can't do it with joy, I choose not to do it." That really stuck with me, and I think they are words to live by.
Work-life balance is not about leaving work at 5 or 6 to tend to a bunch of obligations that aren't meaningful and fulfilling to you. It's about preserving time for the things that are important to you.
For me, right now, the most important thing to me is to be home with my family in the evenings. I love to cook real dinners for my family, to help my kids study for their spelling tests, to cuddle and read with them. I recognize that this chapter in my life is fleeting, and I don't give up my evenings lightly.
In just the past two weeks alone, I've said no to a parent-teacher meeting, a gun control awareness event, an invitation to play on a tennis team, and three after-work happy hours and networking events. This doesn't mean I'm a recluse, however (or that I don't love tennis, because I do). I said yes to my monthly moms group, a fundraiser for my husband's work, a reading my friend did at a local bookstore, and, of course, the ARA event. I did each of those things with joy, and I could enjoy being there more knowing that I wasn't spreading myself too thin with other evening commitments that were less important to me.
At the ARA event, when I brought up the subject of saying no, at every single table, someone asked me, "But don't you feel bad?" And the honest answer is no, I really don't. I don't even feel that it's necessary to come up with a detailed excuse when I'm saying no. I just say, as graciously as possible--thank you so much for the invitation, and I'm sorry I can't make it.
A few ideas:
At the beginning of each week, I look over my calendar and identify the things that are making me feel stressed, and I get them off the calendar.
I make it a point to separate my feelings about the person who invites me to do something from the event itself. One of my closest friends is organizing the gun control event, but this week was just too packed. It doesn't mean I won't go the next time, or that I don't care about her.
Out of necessity, I use this strategy for coffees and lunches, and even meetings at work. If it doesn't feel like a great use of my time, I address it proactively.
I know some people might consider this mindset to be selfish, or rude, but my take on it is that if I'm feeling fidgety, or wishing I were someplace else, that feels more rude. I'm just choosing not to put myself in that kind of situation in the first place.
4. DON'T FORGET YOU
To me, a critical component of work-life balance is not just the amount of time you're spending outside of the office, but the amount of time you're doing things that truly bring you joy. I also have to be completely honest that with so many competing demands for my attention (see #3), this one is the most difficult for me to achieve.
But the point is this: find the things that truly light you up and make them non-negotiable. It might be exercise, creative expression, reading (something you want to read, that is), playing music, or something else altogether.
During the roundtables, Christina and Meghan lit up when they talked about travel and new experiences. Lakeisha absolutely loves going to Toastmasters. Jessica is inspired by dance, and attending dance performances. It was amazing to see the joy that came over their faces when they talked about their passions. We all need that in our lives!
It's easy to get yourself into the mindset that you don't have time for these things; that they feel like luxuries. We need to train ourselves to think of them as necessities--for a full, rich, satisfying life. They can feel like they are subtractive from work and career, but in the big picture, they are often additive, enriching your perspective and helping you perform at your best.
A few ideas:
Give yourself a concrete goal--doing something you truly love for 30 minutes a day, even, and stick to it. Notice how you feel and how it affects other areas of your life.
I heard from a few women at the roundtables that they block out time on their calendar to go to the gym or go running. That's a great strategy! I know I often get some of my best ideas when I'm running.
There's plenty of research that shows that exercise and spending time on creative pursuits can make people feel more productive and energized at work. When you come across these, share them with your colleagues and your leaders--remember, you are shaping the culture, too!
5. DEFINE YOUR SUCCESS AROUND WHAT MATTERS TO YOU
At the highest level, there are multiple ways to define success, and you can create your own. My personal definition of success includes wanting to do excellent work and being recognized for it, continuing to improve my lifestyle, having control over my own schedule, and ensuring that I have time to be the kind of mom and wife I want to be.
I'll admit that every once in a while, I'll get a little twinge of jealousy over a friend's big promotion or fancy title, but then I remind myself that it's not that I'm not capable of achieving those things, it's that I don't choose that life and that kind of business culture. I love and enjoy my work, but I don't want to miss my kids' childhood. I don't want to stay up late working every night. I want to see my kids play soccer, hear their chatter in the back of the car, cook them a homemade dinner, read to them, and tuck them in. I choose those things. I cherish them. This is the life part of my work-life balance.
What are your challenges and successes on the work-life balance front? Let's keep the discussion going! I'd love to hear your experiences in the comments.