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Erase "Work-Life Balance": Change the Conversation (With Yourself)

Erase "Work-Life Balance": Change the Conversation (With Yourself)

My daughter once described a disagreement she was having with a friend at camp. She exclaimed that her friend’s idea was “so stupid!” I remarked that her words were not very descriptive of the point she was trying to make and rather likely to stir up anger in her friend, making things worse. I suggested that she demonstrate that she herself is not “so stupid” by coming up with words that more effectively communicate her opinions and solve the problem with her friend. (She rolled her eyes but said nothing more, so I can only hope something sunk into her consciousness.)

The exchange made me think of the importance of words and their impact on our thoughts and actions.

If I had my druthers, I would erase the phrase “work-life balance” from our collective consciousness. I’ve been in this field (first as a researcher, now as a coach) for more than two decades, and I strongly believe the notion of “work-life balance” sets us up for failure for three reasons.

[Related: I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time]

First, the phrase is not balanced in and of itself. On one side you have work and on the other, life. In reality, work is a subset of life. Equating the two reflects our society’s bias toward and overemphasis on money, employment and production. Even if we change “life” to “family,” the phrase is still problematic because it implies that family doesn’t require effort or work. It also suggests that work cannot be pleasurable or meaningful.

Second, “work-life balance” is problematic because the act of balancing is often precarious. What comes to mind is a tightrope walker or a unicyclist; a slight shift in the wind or a bump in the road could lead to a fall with serious consequences. Moreover, the perfect state of balance can be fleeting. Achieving balance requires much effort for just a moment in time.

Third, “work-life balance” implies that when one side goes up, the other must come down. That assumption can produce the judgment that a woman who is successful at work must have a messy home life, or vice versa. It perpetuates the belief that career has to be at odds with family. It ignores the fact that family life experiences can often inform and help improve career, and vice versa.

So what term should be used instead? My beloved mentors at the Families and Work Institute, Terry Bond and Ellen Galinsky, devised the notion of “navigating” life. Galinsky describes it in her book Ask the Children: What America’s Children Really Think About Working Parents. It better explains what actually happens in life: we are each trying to manage what we care deeply about — whether that be career, family, hobbies, interests, passions or religion/spirituality.

As a coach, I have learned that we have to navigate consciously and continuously; it is a process, as well as a goal. My clients and I focus on the present as well as the future. We tweak what we do each day so that we feel a little less overwhelmed and stressed. Doing that helps us face the inevitable daily challenges and surprises that come along with a bit more grace. We find that over time we are able to navigate life with greater ease and joy. For examples, check out some of my clients’ stories here.

[Related: The Handful Of Smart Things I Did As A Working Mom, With Sallie Krawcheck]

My clients and I have discovered that successful navigation starts with how you talk to yourself:

  • Don’t beat yourself up because you haven’t already figured it all out. Start by telling yourself, “If it were so easy, it wouldn’t be such a challenge for all of us. It’s a process. I’m starting to navigate in a new way now.”
  • Take just one baby step with an exploratory attitude: “Let’s give this one small thing a try and see what happens. I’ll get to the other stuff later.” If the baby step doesn’t work, most likely it’s because it wasn’t small enough. Try again with an even smaller step.
  • Because the brain is wired to register what has been left undone or went wrong, make a conscious effort to recognize your daily accomplishments big and small. For example: “My child/boss had a meltdown that threw a wrench in my plans, but I dealt with it!” Better yet, make a got-done (as opposed to a to-do) list each day.
  • Don’t compare yourself with those around you. For example, tell yourself, “Her situation is different than mine. I have unique children, values, resources and so on, so I need to find what works for me.”

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.


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