People talk about work-life balance as if achieving it is the precious key to happiness. Tips and tricks abound. But there are two big problems with this supposed golden ticket. First, the very phrase suggests that work isn’t part of your life, it’s separate.
Yet your career probably takes up a huge amount of your waking hours, so how could it not be an integral part of your life? The second issue is that balance is elusive and rarely attainable. At its core, the act of balancing is both inflexible and delicate, but life requires flexibility. So on your quest for happiness, success, and fulfillment, there’s actually another “B” word you should get excited about. That word is boundaries. Develop a boundary-setting practice, and you’ll wonder why anyone is still talking about work-life balance.
It’s fine to value stability, but since life isn’t still, putting balance on a pedestal is problematic. Think of all the moving parts in a given week: big meetings, work travel, doctor’s appointments, family events, internet outages, a co-worker quitting, another one getting promoted, a lost Uber driver on the way to the networking event. Life, as you know, throws curveballs—like when your boss gets feedback from the client that he needs to push a deadline up and all of a sudden your planned 6 PM departure goes out the window, and instead of going to your favorite boxing class, you work late and pass out at 2 AM. On that kind of unpredictable day, it’s pretty hard to feel good about the whole work-life balance thing.
You can, however, feel good about boundaries, which put you in the driver’s seat with the understanding that stuff happens and won’t always go as planned. You can regularly reconfigure how your day and week is going to play out based on professional responsibilities and personal needs and not freak out if one day is all work and zero play.
Here are three ways to ditch balance and embrace boundaries:
1. Set Your Boundaries Daily Based on Your Priorities
The amount of time or effort you’re willing to put into a work day, planning a friend’s engagement party, or blogging will change based on what each day looks like. If your boyfriend’s 30th birthday involves you pulling off a surprise party with all his friends, you’re probably not going to volunteer for a time-sensitive work project. If you’re in the middle of putting together a conference, you’re probably not going to double your volunteer hours. When you learn to set boundaries based on your various priorities and obligations, you’ll feel in control and at liberty to make decisions that work for you and the kind of life you want to lead—not the kind of life you're supposed to lead.
2. Practice Establishing Your Boundaries With Others
Let people know what you’re up to. Tell your colleagues and friends why you’re doing away with the idea of work-life balance and explain how your boundaries mean you can’t meet for happy hour as frequently as you used to. Up for a promotion? Speak to your significant other about working a few late nights while the higher ups are making a decision on your advancement.
By sharing some details of your boundary practice with the people in your life, you give them an opportunity to support your goals instead of constantly tempting you with invitations that threaten to step on the lines you’ve drawn.
3. Understand Your Boundaries by Failing First
Sometimes you have to slip up to learn about your boundaries; redefining them is a part of the process. Pushing yourself too hard, or underestimating how long something takes will help you draw better, clearer lines in the future. Let’s say you’re having a relatively busy week at work, but it’s important for you to make time for friends and get in a long bike ride.
Even though you think the way you’ve planned it makes sense, you end up sacrificing sleep, which leads to a longer day at the office because you’re unfocused and easily distracted. That leads to bailing on dinner and drinks. Don’t stress over the change of plans—just know that next week, you’ll tweak your boundaries. Correctly identifying what you need under the circumstances to comfortably achieve your goals takes some time.
So go ahead and give yourself permission to set balance aside and instead start drawing some lines. Each week will look a little different, and not all of the lines are going to be straight. You’ll be surprised at how much control and comfort you find when you stop trying to achieve the impossible work-life balance.
Photo of man on phone courtesy of Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images.