Breaking Down Stereotype #1–Work/Life Balance is the Goal

Be sure to scroll down and check out the final Holiday Work+Life “Fit” Tip–Start Planning for Next Year Now!

“Work/Life balance” is the concept we’ll tackle first. It’s the phrase most often used to describe the work+life outcome we are all striving for. In fact, one of my terrific readers who is a professional coach wrote:

“I agree that new terminology can be used among professionals who are constantly on top of new developments in work/life——but I have found that the general public understands the term” work/life balance.” I have balance as part of my counseling practice name and it works well. People get it! I won’t be discarding the term.”

While I agree the general public uses the term, over a decade of experience developing work-life flexibility strategies for organizations and individuals has convinced me that this stereotype isn’t accurately describing what they are experiencing day-to-day in their work and life.

Here’s proof…

For four years I’ve opened all of my speeches with the following challenge, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever achieved work/life balance.” Of the approximately 10,000 people who’ve received that challenge in a variety of venues, maybe 100 people have raised their hands, or 1%.

We decided to test the concept of “balance” further in the Work+Life Fit Reality Check. We defined it as “having the time and energy for all the things that are important to you both personally and professionally.” The good news is that 85% of respondents thought work-life balance was possible. But the bad news is that only 15% said they had it!

If only 100 of the 10,000 people I’ve questioned and only 15% of respondents from a nationally representative survey said they had “work-life balance,” something is not connecting between the term and reality.

What’s the problem?

I believe the problem is how we are thinking and talking about “balance.” Somehow the term evolved into a deficit model, or the goal we all never seem to achieve.

For many it means a magical 50-50 split between work and personal life, the nirvana destination we are all working toward (but never reaching), or just another name for “having it all.” It’s a static word for a dynamic process with an outcome that shifts along with everyone’s unique work and personal circumstances. There is no one perfect solution for all of us. But there are many different solutions for each of us.

Here’s an illustration of how changing language can shift the perception about work and life from negative to more positive. Compare the results of the Reality Check with those from a study of Generation Y conducted by the Pew Research Center (USA Today). It reported that 63% of Gen-Yers who were self-employed versus 43% who were not self-employed were “completely satisfied with the flexibility of your hours.”

Look what happens to the results when the question is presented in terms of “flexibility of hours” instead of “balance.” The outcome is more positive—63% and 43% said they were satisfied with “flexibility,” whereas 1% and 15% said they have “balance.”

In other words someone could feel completely satisfied with the flexibility of their hours but may devote a majority of their time and energy to work and therefore not have anything that resembles “balance.” When they are asked if they have “balance,” they say “no,” but if they are asked are they are “completely satisfied with the flexibility of your hours,” they answer “yes.” Same set of work+life circumstances, but different perceptions. One is positive, while the other is negative. It’s all in the framing and the meaning attached to the concept.

Why does it matter?

Many individuals and organizations are struggling with how to effectively and strategically combine work+life in today’s 24/7, high tech work, global work reality where we could work 24 hours, seven days a week if we let ourselves. Yet, how can we create new models when the term we use to describe our goal makes most people feel like they are consistently missing the mark? Solutions come from seeing countless possibilities, not from failure and disappointment.

What’s the new stereotype?

We need language that describes the process of looking at our unique realities as they are today, and of creating the combination of work and life that supports that reality. For some it might be mostly work. For others it might be mostly their personal life. For others it may be some variation in between. “Balance” doesn’t seem to conjure up those countless possibilities.

We have two choices–either reinvent the underlying meaning of the “balance” stereotype, or come up with a new term to describe the goal we are trying to achieve in our work and our personal lives, and how we are achieving it.

Obviously, my attempt at a different more dynamic description is work+life “fit.” Others I’ve heard include work-life integration, work-life blending, career customization, and flexibility.

Whatever path you choose to take, breaking down the existing “balance” stereotype will open our collective thinking to the countless possibilities for combining our work and life, and hopefully end the feeling of discontent and failure that limits creative problem-solving.

Happy Holidays! I will see you again to kick off the New Year by breaking down even more work+life stereotypes on Tuesday, January 2nd!

Holiday Work+Life “Fit” Tip #4 – Believe It or Not, Start Planning for Next Year!

So how did it go? The holidays are upon us. And do you find yourself stressed doing last minute shopping, writing holiday cards, planning for visitors, meeting tight year-end work deadlines even though you created work+life strategy to avoid this situation after Thanksgiving? Well, guess what? Maybe planning your strategy after Thanksgiving wasn’t enough time.

The beauty of the holidays is that we KNOW they are coming again next year. Just like we know if we work for a company or industry that has tight year end deadlines. So, leveraging what we already know, let’s start earlier—right now. Take out your calendar for 2007 and flip to December. Mark off the weekends you want free, the days you want to try to take off or work from home and the evenings you want to leave early. “But what if things come up?” you say. They might, but at least you have a running head start going into the holiday season next year.

2 thoughts on “Breaking Down Stereotype #1–Work/Life Balance is the Goal

  1. Cari,
    I believe that your insight about creating a new language for the notion of balance is right on the money. I’ve watched clients struggle with that for years, because the image of balance is that of a see-saw or scales that are visually “even.” Yet the reality of it is the proper weighting and living out of our priorities which don’t all carry equal value.

    You’ve got me thinking about the definition. Now I need to go to the fitness center and balance out my frustration from not coming up with an instant answer.

    Keep up the good work…will be checking back in.


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