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  • Writer's pictureWanda Wallace

The Work-Life Balance is Flawed. Here is how to fix it.

Carey often spends long nights in his office at a large electronics company, tenaciously looking for unique solutions to large-scale problems and adding great value to his team. Soon, his superiors take notice of Carey’s contributions and offer him a much larger role in the organization. Carey, who is passionate about his work and excited to add even greater impact, leaves the office elated.

But that elation quickly turns to guilt. By the time he arrives home, Carey’s partner and kids are already asleep. As he scrolls through social media while reheating dinner, Carey sees pictures of his friends, who have recently started a pickleball league. Having spent all day at his desk, he himself is out of breath just from walking up the stairs. Can he really do this new job without sacrificing too much of his health, family time and social life?

With his current approach, he is not going to be very successful. By seeing his life through the lens of sacrifice, he is setting himself up to be resentful, ineffective and burned out. Exhaustion and resentment are not the right fuels for great leadership, nor will they lead to a sense of satisfaction.

I hear stories like this one from most of my clients. As a result, I have been looking for a better way forward for those who face a similar struggle.

To start making positive change, we need to first do away with the notion of the work-life balance. Both work and non-work activities are part of life and should therefore not be managed as separate entities. In addition, the image of a balanced scale implies that work and non-work activities are to be given equal amounts of attention and time, and that an investment in one area inevitably detracts from another. The truth is that for many of my clients, work is a big part of their identity, and a source of great fulfillment. Thus, I encourage you to make your own decisions about how much time and energy you devote to work and non-work commitments. In addition, I want to show you ways of exploring activities that benefit all areas of your life.

Step One: Define Who Really Matters

Organizational  psychologist Stew Friedman recommends starting with who matters most to you. What do the people closest to you want from you? What do you want from them? Instead of asking about, sharing and negotiating expectations, we often assume we know what others want. Then we feel guilty when we don’t meet the standards that we have set. At the same time, some of the needs of our loved ones go unmet, simply because we aren’t aware of them.

 In previous installments of this series, we’ve optimized your work calendar to make sure you can focus on the things that add the greatest value to you and your organization. Now, it’s time to find similar focus and fulfillment outside of work.

To change this, grab a pen and piece of paper and take the following actions:

·       List the people who are most important in your life.

·       Ask each person directly about their wants and needs.

·       Share what you want and need.

·       Then negotiate how best to meet expectations.

·       Make a commitment to what you have agreed to.

·       Honor that commitment.

For example, if you have agreed to be home by 5pm on Friday, then that’s the bottom line that you need to hold at all costs. This means that you need to prioritize the commitment and be fully present when you are with the family member or friend. It also means that you don’t have to feel guilty about not being home by 5pm on other nights.

Step Two: Define Your Boundaries

Now, set additional goals that matter to you, both at work or outside of it. This could concern your health, your personal development, your learning, activities that bring you joy, or anything else you want to commit to.

Suppose you have decided that you want to drop the kids at school in the morning. Ask yourself how many mornings would be a good number. You are looking for a minimum you can live with, not a dream scenario where you have infinite hours to spend. Suppose you say 3 mornings a week.

Then, ask yourself: “Could I live with one less?”. If the answer is yes, ask again until you reach your limit. This is the boundary you should not cross. When something else comes up, simply say: “I can’t, I have other commitments.” Don’t give the details on the nature of the commitment or explain why you are not available; just say you cannot make it. And don’t feel guilty about not rushing to work. You will be a better leader if you do the things that make a difference to you.

Keep in mind that there will never be enough time to do everything. There is always one more article to read, one more meeting to attend, one more workout to do, one more hour to spend at your desk. But is that extra hour of work really a good use of your time, or could you do it four times as fast the next morning? Decide what’s enough and stick to it.

Conflict vs. Compatibility

Now let’s take this a step further. What could you say Yes to, without having to say No to another meaningful area of your life?

Stop viewing your work, your family, your friends, and your own goals as separate buckets competing for your time and attention. Instead, experiment with ways of adding value to all the parts of you. What change could you make in one area that will have a ripple effect onto others?

For example, if Carey joined his friends’ pickleball league, he would fulfil his own goal of exercising more, and get to spend time with his social group. In addition, his improved health would make him a more active parent and partner. He might also become more balanced and level-headed at work, which would improve his relationships with his colleagues, and ultimately his performance.

A New Mindset

Contrary to a framework of sacrifice, this proactive, intentional search for integration can create positive change in all areas of your life. Doing what keeps you at your best not only boosts your sense of satisfaction, it also reduces stress and makes you more productive. Doing so will ultimately help you find even better ways forward – as a family member, as an individual, as a friend, and a professional.

As Stew Friedman said on my podcast:

“What can I do based on what I know about what matters to me and the people around me, that’s going to make things better for me and for them? When you take that approach, you’re thinking like a leader, because you’re thinking: What’s the reality of the world I’m facing, and how can I make it better for us?”


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