Achieving balance in your work and life is not impossible. If you’re an exhausted juggler looking for a better way, consider the following five alternatives, gleaned from interviews with hundreds of busy professionals.
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“It was the year after my divorce, and I was working full time and getting my MBA in the evenings,” begins Stephanie, a researcher at a global electronics company. “My three kids were involved in Cub Scouts or Girl Scouts—all on different nights—and hockey or ice skating, also on different nights, not to mention the games every weekend. I think I went through that whole year without sleeping.”
Stephanie recounts her story during a work-life balance seminar. The exercise is a 21st century version of “Can You Top This?” with the prize going to the contestant with the most out-of-control experience. The tales are startling, outrageous, and, at the same time, almost universally familiar. As Stephanie finishes, the 60 other people in the room nod knowingly, a silent expression of “Been there, done that.”
Such out-of-kilter lives have become the rule, not the exception. Little wonder work-life balance has emerged as the Holy Grail of the workplace. Survey after survey shows that when people rank what they most want from their jobs, balance tops the list.
Now, the good news: Work-life balance is not an impossible dream. In our research, we talked to plenty of people who found workable solutions to the balance dilemma. In nearly all cases, they realized that they won’t achieve balance by running faster, working harder, and cramming more into their lives. They let go of the idea of juggling everything.
This doesn’t mean they dropped out of society and are surviving on organic vegetables and goat’s milk. Most of the successful “balancers” we studied aren’t interested in an extreme version of the simple life. They accept, as a given, that the three components of balance—meaningful work, satisfying relationships, and personal rejuvenation or self-care—rarely come together in a tidy, stress-free package. So they use a variety of methods to “rebalance” their lives into a more satisfying—and sustainable—pattern.
Why Juggling Doesn’t Work
Forty-five minutes, two seconds. It’s the longest time Anthony Gatto, a professional juggler and the world-record holder since 1989, has kept five clubs in the air. Add one or two clubs, and he can’t juggle much more than a minute.
Anthony is a juggler extraordinaire. Most of us are not. But we’re trying to do the same thing with six, seven, eight, or more simultaneous commitments. Patti Manuel, the president and chief operating officer of Sprint Long Distance, consciously identifies the roles in her life as her juggling props. “I’m a boss, an employee, a friend, a mother, a daughter, and a member of my church and community.” (That’s seven.) “Balance is about understanding what these roles are and not letting any one of them become dominant. Most of the time, I’m good at it. Other times, I’m trying to manage my way back from chaos.”
Juggling is a knee-jerk coping mechanism—the “default” setting when time gets tight and seemingly nothing can be put on the back burner. As long as our reflexes are sharp, it works. We can “have it all.” For that 45 minutes and 2 seconds, we have a meaningful work life, a satisfying relationship with a partner, quality time with our kids and friends, and sufficient snatches of personal rejuvenation or self-care. Then something happens and it all comes crashing down.
Comedian Steve Wright has observed, with his inimitable deadpan delivery, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” In our hearts, we know he’s right. But that doesn’t keep us from trying to pack everything in anyway. And when it doesn’t quite fit, we juggle as best we can.
If you’re an exhausted juggler looking for a better way, consider the following five alternatives, gleaned from interviews with hundreds of busy professionals.
Alternating. Alternaters want it all, but not all at once. Their work-life balance comes in separate, concentrated doses. They throw themselves into their careers with abandon, then cut way back or quit work altogether and focus intensely on their non-professional interests.
Murray Low is currently an organization effectiveness manager for Eli Lilly. Over the past 15 years, he has been a CPA, has worked for a strategy consulting firm, and has run the HR department for a steel plant, with three- to six-month stints of unemployment in between. He’s made the most of his time off, skiing fresh powder and mountain biking with his wife and kids.
Others alternate on a daily or weekly basis. These “micro-alternaters” focus while at work, but turn off their cell phones the minute they get home. They refuse to check e-mail at night or on weekends. And they take all of their allotted vacation days, every year. They consider their off-work time to be crucial for deepening relationships and rejuvenating their spirit and energy.
Outsourcing. “We have a family of four and a staff of eight,” quips Jon Younger, a New Jersey-based executive. He and his wife have precious little free time to allocate to a seemingly endless list of demands. Their solution: Prioritize those activities in which they want to be personally involved, then hire out the rest. On the “personal” list are spending one-on-one time with their two sons, coaching children’s sports, attending church services and events, sharing quality time with extended family, and walking the dog. Just about everything else—yard care, food prep, academic tutoring, vacation planning, and car maintenance, among them—gets outsourced.
Outsourcers achieve work-life balance by off-loading responsibilities—usually in their personal lives—to free up time and energy for those areas they care most about. Their motto might be, “I want to have it all, not do it all.” Those with limited disposable income rely on a robust, reciprocal network of family, friends, neighbors, and other supporters who band together to help each other gain a bit of balance in their lives.
Bundling. Bundlers involve themselves in fewer activities, but they get more mileage out of those activities. They examine their busy lives and look for areas in which they can “double dip.” For example, a group of women gets together three mornings a week to work out. This accomplishes an important goal for physical exercise, and at the same time provides regular social contact and deepens their friendship.
Everyone bundles to some degree, but we also found a lot of “faux” bundling—a version of juggling in which people fool themselves into thinking they’re multitasking. The most egregious example is people who talk on their cell phones from the “privacy” of a public restroom stall. Sure, they’re doing two things at once. But is it really helping them feel more balanced?
The essence of bundling isn’t so much multitasking as “multipurposing.” Its genius is in giving separate tasks greater meaning by putting them together.
Techflexing. Techflexers dream about leveraging technology to the point where they can conduct their work from almost anywhere, anytime. The key to their strategy isn’t just technology, but flexibility. Techflexers figure out how to maximize the control they have over their schedules.
In contrast to jugglers, techflexers don’t use technology to increase the work hours in a day. Rather, they use it to liberate those work hours from the more rigid 9-to-5 structure, as well as to enrich their personal lives.
Simplifying. Simplifiers have decided they don’t want it all. They’ve made a lasting commitment to reduce the time and energy devoted to “non-essential” activities, whether at work or at home. The payoff, they hope, is greater freedom—from stress, from minutia, from the rat race.
In the physics of work-life balance, simplifying strikes us as an equal and opposite reaction to the craziness of juggling. Some people pursue it from the beginning of their career. Others come to it after they’ve tried juggling for awhile. In either case, a common characteristic is the willingness to make some sacrifices—small ones, like “I’ve decided to buy only one color of socks,” or large ones, like “I took a voluntary pay cut to work only four days a week.”
Rebalancing Your Life
These five strategies—alone or in combination—have helped many people as they strive to juggle less and enjoy life more. Not one is a panacea. Each requires tradeoffs. Balance, like happiness, appears to be a journey, not a destination.
But if you focus on rebalancing your life—making conscious choices and course corrections as you go—the small changes can have a big impact. Work-life balance isn’t an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Spending an hour or two per week on the things that matter most to you can spell the difference between feeling out of control versus feeling tired yet satisfied. And in a world brimming over with meaningful opportunities and fascinating distractions, “tired yet satisfied” isn’t a bad way to go.