Almost everyone I speak with has angst about their work-life balance but very few people seem to be happy with how they manage it. I wonder if we’re looking at this topic in the wrong light and hence why there is so much dissatisfaction…

The phrase “work-life balance” implies that “work life” (or career) is on one end of a scale and our “personal life” is on the other, and that the goal must be to keep equal focus on each, by keeping the two halves of our lives separated just enough so they don’t interfere too much with each other. That’s a heck of a way to live – we need to make the two ends of the scale tolerate each other just long enough to make it to retirement and then we won’t have to worry about the conflict anymore.

I would suggest that perhaps the issue of balance needs to be looked at differently, perhaps through a more holistic lens of how we view our work and its role in our lives. Once we’re clear on how we view our work as a part of who we are, then it will become easier to accept the consequences of our choices.

I suggest four general views of work and then the implications for work-life balance of each:

  • My work is all that matters right now. It’s all about title, power, status and money. The dream is that if I work my rear end off for the next 10-15 years (or whatever number of years), I will reach a point of financial independence and then can do what I want from there. In the meantime, I will give my job whatever time is needed, regardless of personal sacrifices.

Implications for work-life balance: My priority is my work. Personal interests and needs take a back seat. Vacations may be deferred, and if taken, may be spent responding to texts, emails and calls as much as needed. Anything I do outside of work is a “bonus”.

  • My life is not my work. I earn money to live, but my life is really outside of work and I’ll find a job that fits in with my lifestyle—not the other way around. The dream is that I want the type of work that has regular hours, clear job requirements and dependable amounts of pay. If I know what I can count on financially and time-wise, I’m good.

Implications for work-life balance: I carve out of my life the necessary time to do my job well enough to keep it, but beyond that I am not going to worry about work, it’s not “who I am”. There are too many other things I want to do. Work gets me by until the next adventure.

  • My work is my life. My work and my life are pretty much the same thing. The dream is that I’m so focused on a cause (such as social justice, the environment or animal welfare, for example) that I don’t see what I do as work, because it’s my life’s mission. I spend my free time (such as weekends) doing the same things I do at work, but on a volunteer basis. The fact that I get paid to do what I do is a bonus.

Implications for work-life balance: No real issues. Occasionally I may need a mental break, but in general I can’t wait to get back to my life’s cause. My work largely defines who I am and I’d be doing the same thing with my time regardless of whether it’s part of my job or not.

  • My life and work complement each other. I’ll make my own career happen and then set my own schedule. The dream is that I am in control of how I allocate my time. I can control my hours, and decide what I will do and how hard I will work. I know that sometimes there will be a lot of hours on the job, and at other times the workload will be lighter and less demanding. The key is that I’m in control and my schedule is somewhat flexible.

Implications for work-life balance: It ebbs and flows, and I’m fine with that. In general, I can set boundaries and take time for the personal when I want to. Intense work periods are expected, but they don’t last forever and I know I’ll make up the personal time later.

Can you see yourself in one of the four categories? I think the answer to managing work-life balance becomes much easier if we are clear about how we view our career’s role in our life in general. Recognize the tradeoffs that you’re making and learn how to be comfortable with your choices. Don’t allow others’ lifestyles and choices to dictate how you “should” spend your time. Also, keep in mind that your priorities and decision points may change as you move further through your career—just because you’re making a certain choice now does not mean your dreams and goals may not change and that you might modify your lifestyle later on.

Decide first what you want out of your work career overall, and then the choices about how and where you spend your time getting there will be easier.