The Quest for Work-Life Balance – True Confessions of an “Expert”
It takes about five minutes with me to see my life is sort of zany. I am a lawyer, a scientist, a full-time student, a mother, and an owner of four businesses in three completely different places. There’s more to that list too, but you get the idea. I could make “searching for work-life balance” a full-time job in and of itself.
But, for kicks, I googled “work-life balance” the other day. There are seemingly endless articles and blogs on the topic. The general themes are managing stress, avoiding burnout and keeping meaning in one’s life. There are lots of recommendations on how to do this: create flexible work schedules; schedule time for family, friends, exercise, and hobbies; disconnect from social media. These all seem like reasonable- if unsubstantiated – bits of advice.
However, I am a scientist (among other things). I want data, research, backup. I am also curious as to what “balance” looks like for scientists, and if that’s different than for other professions. Turns out there are documented challenges that come with being a scientist trying to also have a life. I found data that showed definitively that the continuous pressure to publish and obtain research funding results in work-life balance being especially hard for research-based jobs, for example. That pressure, combined with the innate level of mental engagement required to just do a scientist’s job, equates to a disproportionate space that work takes up in scientists’ lives. And, bad news for me: apparently the same challenge is there for lawyers. Basically, all work and no play leads to stress, which leads to depression, which leads to an unhappy life.
That sounded somewhat dire. I decided took a look at my most recent week to gauge my own level of work-life balance.
On Thursday and Friday, I left work early and attended events at my daughter’s school. On Sunday, I spent an hour on the phone with a colleague discussing the latest research on coral disease, and spent four hours drafting documents for a client. During the week I also attended a day-long symposium on water-borne pathogens, had meetings on marketing and financials, worked on new protocols for the laboratory information management system, and did some underwater work transplanting coral. I also saw Avengers Endgame (more on that at the end of this blog), caught up with two friends over the phone and survived mostly on take-out food. The closest I came to exercise was walking the dogs at 9 pm. According to my iPhone, my screen time decreased 6% last week to 3 hours and 14 minutes a day. And this is probably – believe it or not – what my typical week looks like these days.
So, Is that work-life balance?
According to other “experts” on the topic, no. But hang on. Granted, I need to exercise more, eat less takeout, and I could probably stand some more sleep. I wear too many hats, never reach the end of my to do list, and lead a fairly stressful existence, but I get a lot done. And moreover, the things I accomplish are generally all really important to me. The things I don’t get to, generally aren’t that high on my priority list. This is my balance.
Which leads me to these conclusions: Most of the advice and goals for this thing called work-life balance is really oversimplified. Finding balance is something particular to a person – there is no one size fits all. Fundamentally, work-life balance is about knowing your motivations and prioritizing the things that are important to you right now, so you invest your energy and focus doing those things. For me, those priorities are supporting my daughter, working in two very different fields professionally, and growing my businesses.
In addition to this notion of advice on balance not being personalized, much of what I read implies that balance is some static, unwavering state. When I talk about my priorities “right now,” it’s because they have changed over the years, haven’t everyone’s? People change, circumstances change, and therefore what is balanced today may not be as balanced tomorrow. It is kind of like walking on a balance beam when you are a kid. Sticking your arms out, wobbling to the right, overcorrecting and then finding your center, you take a step. Then you do it again, but you wobble to the left before you find where to put your foot down. There isn’t going to be a single set of parameters that work for you all of the time – you just adjust as you go along.
Finally, much of what I see out there makes balance seem like some end point, a destination. No wonder so many people feel unbalanced! No one is ever going to get to this mythical place of “balance,” and never again feel overwhelmed, just as no one is going to suddenly get “healthy” and never eat another chocolate chip cookie. Trying to achieve an unachievable goal would make anyone feel bad. For me at least, there is not this one thing called balance, there is instead a constant shuffling of energies and priorities, and reminding myself that what is important to me is where my time is deserved. The rest of it can be saved for another day, or crossed off the list all together.
Despite the limitations I just identified, my research did yield one valuable lesson. Nothing I read definitively defined work-life balance. That means I can set my own standard. I don’t need to have my work-life balance externally validated, or compare my choices to another person’s life choices before I proclaim that I am successfully balancing my life. So here goes: Ta Da!!! I have achieved work-life balance! (which means I am now an expert, and am totally qualified to write a blog about work-life balance).
I hope you are as successful as me in finding your balance, and you stop wondering if you have it. But if you are still unsure, and want to do your own research, I highly recommend you start by watching Avengers Endgame, a movie about super heroes achieving work-life balance using infinity stones and time travel, among other things. If Captain America can save the world, and still have a happy home life, you can too.