The pursuit of work-life balance feels like a race without a finish line – people are trying to win the battle of doing more of everything while doing it well. The fruits of those labors create sentiments of disharmony, exhaustion, inefficacy, frustration and disappointment – also known as the warning signs of an imbalanced life.
According to Maryland Smith’s J. Gerald Suarez, a better approach is to think of balance as the integration of the elements of people’s lives in ways that contribute to their stability and steadiness.
“It’s in the process of mindful reflection and discovery that we find inspiration to execute our decisions and bring our priorities to life,” says Suarez, professor of the practice in systems thinking and design at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Much like a tightrope aerialist, successful work-life balance isn’t about going up rapidly, it’s about moving forward steadily. Aerialists set the goal of making it to the other end and recognize that there are no shortcuts. They focus on their next step and compartmentalize all other potential distractions.
In work and personal life, people must pursue their constancy of purpose and identify the small and achievable steps that will bring consistency of action each day, week and month. Unexpected events, conflicts, crises, requests and scheduling shifts, however, will challenge that consistency and require mindful choices to maintain the course.
“Is it possible to balance a conflict between an important work presentation that can contribute to a promotion or attending the first recital of our kids? By the time we find ourselves in this predicament, we can only justify our decision,” says Suarez. “But no matter the choice we make, there will be a residual emotional effect and an impact on ourselves and others.”
Discerning what is the right choice must be informed by our values – the balancing pole to a person’s character, attitude and general behavior. It also requires a reconceptualization of a person’s definition of success.
“I’d like to think of success as the coordinates where joy meets purpose, a combination that leads to a holistic sense of fulfillment.”
Suarez adds that those who don’t make time to reflect and articulate these aspects of their lives will find it remarkably easy to “succumb to the busyness of the moment, rely on coping mechanisms, inadvertently drift and face the insidious forces of an unstable life.”
He offers the following tips to those seeking to enhance their approach to work-life balance:
Be honest with yourself. Be genuine and articulate what truly matters most to you. Share your intent with your loved ones and heighten their awareness regarding your priorities and the context behind them.
Write it in the calendar. Schedule and honor personal activities and time with friends and family much like with important work-related events. It’s easy to embrace the “always-on” attitude at work and neglect the relationships and experiences that bring stability to our lives.
Set the right tone. For supervisors, be an example to others in the workplace by modeling adequate behaviors for work-life balance. Sending emails in the middle of the night or during weekends may signal there are no demarcations or boundaries.
Create safeguards. Empower and develop team members to become an extension of your leadership. If they feel trusted, empowered, and capable they will amplify your presence and create pockets of freedom in your schedule. Developing your team will allow you to mitigate the discomfort of taking time off, booking your next vacation or having a moment to unplug.