Work v. Life: It’s Boundaries, Not Balance

By midlife, you’d think we’d have this problem sorted. You’d probably be wrong. Reframe your thinking and start enjoying your life.

In his 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” English philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed a four-hour workday. This, he reckoned, would “entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life.” Yet here we are, some 80 years later, working longer and longer hours, throwing our work-life balance more out of whack than ever: A Harvard Business School survey of a thousand professionals found that 94% worked at least fifty hours a week, and almost half worked more than sixty-five.

For some, the impetus is fear: "A lot of people are having a more difficult time finding balance in their lives because there have been cutbacks or layoffs where they work. They're afraid it may happen to them, so they're putting in more hours," says psychologist Robert Brooks, PhD. And then there are what executive coach Ed Batista calls in his HBR blog post “happy workaholics”—people who simply love their work and don’t know when to stop.

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Regardless, a balance that is perpetually skewed toward work will eventually imperil your health, relationships and energy. Here are three ways to reframe the equation:

Create (and Protect) Boundaries Batista’s colleague Michael Gilbert draws on his training as a biologist to suggest that we substitute boundaries for balance: “Just as functional membranes [letting the right things through and keeping the wrong things out] facilitate the healthy interaction of the cells of our bodies, so do functional personal boundaries facilitate the healthy interaction of the various parts of our lives.”

To establish boundaries around your attention, turn off call ringers, message alerts or put your phone away altogether. Temporal boundaries help you designate specific times for non-work activities, whether it’s Saturday morning breakfast and cartoons with the kids, Thursday date nights with your partner or weekly cycling with college buddies.

Don't Rely on Perception Alone As management guru Peter Drucker said, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Rushing through a hectic week makes it unlikely you’ll have an accurate perception of what you actually do and don’t do. So put it in writing. Keep a spreadsheet to track daily activities toward career and personal goals. In the column “spend quality time with family,” one client of mine logs things like “watched Despicable Me with my daughter” or “went to dance class with wife.” Be as specific as you want, within general categories like career, fitness/health, personal development and relationships.

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This kind of tracking gives you a quick visual of where the gaps are, like too many consecutive days without activity in your “quality time” or “self-care” column. At the same time, you can see the bigger picture in context (“Oh, this was the week I had that big proposal due”) and manage accordingly.

Avoid All-or-Nothing Thinking You don’t have to quit your job or move to a seaside cottage to achieve better balance. Start with incremental changes. Leave the office 30 minutes earlier one night per week. Or take a true lunch break to read a chapter or two in a novel. Like a single drop of food coloring in a glass of water, small shifts in your habits will infuse the rest of your routine.

There are no hard and fast rules, no one-size-fits-all work-life balance. Recognize that it will be an ongoing process, and that each day offers another chance to practice your balancing act.

Renita Kalhorn is passionate about helping entrepreneurs succeed. As founder of performance strategy firm Step Up Your Game Now, she provides leadership and mental toughness training to entrepreneur CEOs and their teams.

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