I have a dirty little secret. Almost every day, I struggle with work-life balance.
It starts about 6 a.m., when the alarm goes off, and lasts until 11 p.m., when I fall asleep with my head in a book or my iPad. As in the movie Groundhog Day, I wake up the next morning and it begins again. I spend each day evaluating the plans, choices, priorities, and sacrifices I need to make to be the mom and wife I want to be, to run my business, to be engaged in my community, and to take care of myself in some way so I can continue at the pace at which I choose to live now.
Why am I embarrassed to admit this?
I earn my living advising others about work-life balance. My coaching clients depend on me to help them change the way they work and live to attain greater professional effectiveness and personal satisfaction. Corporations hire me to teach their employees my keys to work-life balance. When I'm in front of a room guiding people through identifying, clarifying, and rectifying their work-life balance challenges, it's a good bet that most of them assume I've figured out this messy dilemma for myself.
In the last few years, the volume has been increasing on the national discussion about work-life balance. Can women have it all? Should we "lean in" or out? How can employers and governments enact better policies that support women, men, and families, and make work and life choices more manageable and sustainable?
All of this talk thrills me, because it means this topic is finally getting the focus it deserves. It's also frustrating, as each hot new book, speech, or article shares only the approach that worked for its author, which is offered as the solution for the work-life balance quandary.
What's the problem? The path to work-life balance is personal. What helped Sheryl Sandberg (the author of Lean In) won't work for me. We have different life situations, career aspirations, and, likely, values, priorities, goals, resources, and support. If I follow her path without considering my own needs, limits, and barriers, I will only feel frustrated, demoralized, and less satisfied, because I cannot live up to standards, expectations, and results that she prescribes. The same goes for blindly following the work-life balance advice of anyone else, even your best friend or sister.
I want women to develop their own individual definition of work-life balance. It probably won't look like Sandberg's or mine. Instead, it will be based on what matters most to them right now.
I also want to redefine the way we think about work-life balance. Rather than visualizing it as a sustainable state to be attained, let's recognize it as a journey. There may be days, weeks, and months when you will move toward your preferred work-life definition. There will also be days, weeks, months, and sometimes years when you will make choices that move you in the opposite direction - away from more time at home, pursuing a hobby, or being involved in your kids' school, and toward a challenging assignment, a promotion, or an entrepreneurial venture. The key is to get comfortable with your choice, because you have to do the hard work of evaluating what's important right now. Looking at balance this way, we can quiet the voices of comparison, compulsion, and competition that make us think we'll never have it together like our friend, colleague, or role model.
As bedtime approaches, I'm feeling happy about the day that is ending. I've met with clients, written this essay, prepared for my next workshop, and, in between, run to the post office, picked up a saxophone for my budding musician, cooked dinner, and attended a school board meeting, plus the 40 other odd things that needed to get done to keep my house, family, and business running. This is not an average day - there isn't one. Tomorrow I want to work more, sleep more, and worry less that I'm not doing enough in any one of the roles that are important to me. I want to be comfortable knowing that the choices I'm making are, for now, fine for me.