U.S. Independence Day is one of my favorite holidays because July 4th is the perfect mid-year date to take stock of the progress I’ve made toward the goals I set in January, and make adjustments so I can end the year even better than expected.
Work-Life Balance: Playing the Long Game
“Balance” is something we all seem to be seeking, whether in our diets, our perspectives, or the tradeoffs we make between our personal and professional lives. But personally, I find the term balance problematic. How do we measure balance, and over what scope in space and time? Everyone’s ideal balance is different; how do we know when we’ve achieved ours?
Take the diet example. Do I need a perfect balance of nutrients at every meal, or can I step back and assess my intake throughout the week? As an adult woman, how should my definition of a “balanced diet” differ from the definition we’d suggest to a teenage boy? Although we often talk about the proverbial “balanced diet”, we rarely address any of these nuances.
The same applies to the idea of “work-life balance”. When we hear this phrase, most of us think of balance over the course of a day or a week; leaving work at a certain time, for example, or guarding our weekends for personal hobbies and family events. But as our lives evolve and the demands of career and family ebb and flow, holding to a static definition of balance can become impractical—even stifling. Is it possible to achieve balance along a different axis, or in another way?
I believe it is. Rather than looking for a magical balance point, and stressing about the things I’m not currently making time for, I try to think of my life as a series of seasons. Some seasons are about advancing in my career, others are about supporting my family and friends, and still others are about investing in my personal development and hobbies. Some last only a few months, while others may go on for years. When I look back on my life so far, I can see how these diverse stages—some objectively very unbalanced on their own—fit together into a complete and balanced whole.
For example, early in my career, I decided to pursue an MBA. I kept a full-time day job, juggled night classes, saw far too little of my friends and then-boyfriend (now husband), and subsisted mostly on Hamburger Helper and Subway sandwiches. It certainly wasn’t a balanced routine, but I was content to let my academic and professional goals define that particular season.
Fast forward a few years. I was out of school, married, and a mom to two small children—and I realized that my next season would be much more focused on family. I took a new role at work, one that allowed me to cut down on overnight travel and evening commitments. I set aside an hour each week to volunteer in my childrens’ classrooms, which allowed me to meet their friends and gain insight into their experiences and behavior outside our home. I was still learning, growing, and succeeding, but my central priorities had shifted.
As my children grew older and more independent, my focus shifted back toward my career. I had the opportunity to take a big global role, one that would allow me to develop amazing new skills while building a multi-billion-dollar business. The position required extensive international travel, but my family agreed that I should go for it—we all knew I would love the work, that I’d likely only be in this role for a few years, and that the rewards and satisfaction would outweigh the downside of seeing a little less of Mom.
I said “yes” to the opportunity, and that decision ushered in a new season focused on my professional commitments and career growth. From one perspective, “balance” was nowhere in sight—I was working on the road about half the time, and missed some birthday parties, school events, and other significant moments. But that season also proved to be one of tremendous personal growth for our entire family. I learned to respect the routine that my husband and kids established while I was away, keeping in touch via written notes when we recognized that phone calls were too disruptive. My husband got better at running an active household, and my son left for college knowing how to cook, clean a bathroom, and do his laundry. My daughter learned to plan ahead and advocate for herself (if you see a hole developing in your shoe, best to alert mom now, before she takes off on a two-week international trip).
Now, I’m once again in a season of supporting my family, this time as an advocate for my aging mother. It’s as challenging as any business venture I’ve ever undertaken—learning about insurance and federal programs, coordinating with my siblings, practicing patience and true presence every day. And despite the hard moments, this is a season that I want to live every moment of. I’ve made changes in my career to ensure that I have the flexibility to respond to my mother’s needs, including starting my own business so I can be more in control of my schedule. I’m growing both personally, as a family member and caregiver, and professionally, as I navigate this new path of business ownership while maintaining the work-family balance that I need right now.
Some things in work and life require you to go all-in, whether it’s taking on a demanding professional role, bringing a new child into the world, or supporting your family through a crisis. In those moments, day-to-day “balance” can feel impossible. But by taking the long view, you’ll begin to see them as seasons— rich, vibrant, and ultimately finite. You’ll know that in time, the season will change, and you’ll have new joys to experience and challenges to face. And knowing that, you’ll be better able to make the most of the season you’re in today.
Tell me—how do you define balance, and what seasons have you experienced in your own life and career? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
This Post Has 3 Comments
Great blog JeanAnn! Really helps put things into perspective.
Great insight, JeanAnn. Your vision of “seasons” is a great way to look at the different stair steps in a career where each step benefitted from some thought, planning and priority-setting. I have made similar conscious decisions in my career. Now with zero physical differentiation between work and home (I am working at the kitchen table today) the separation is more difficult.
JeanAnn, I love this perspective. I feel like the ‘one season’ approach is like the ‘dads’ of the 50s, doing the same thing day after day at the same place until they retired, and then doing the same thing every day in retirement. We’re lucky to have the opportunities we have now. I’m grateful for my many changing seasons as well, and look forward to many more. It’s only balance if the weight is the same on each end, and that’s just not possible-nor as interesting.