How to Achieve Work-Life Balance In 3 Hard Steps
Every day millions of people across the world go to something called a job. The premise is simple. Give a company your time, labor, and brainpower and they’ll give you money. You can then use that money to buy things to survive: food, shelter, Netflix, etc.
In junior year of high school, my English teacher asked my class to choose between five jobs:
1. Work 40 hours a week making $40,000 a year
2. Work 50 hours a week making $50,000 a year
3. Work 60 hours a week making $60,000 a year
4. Work 70 hours a week making $70,000 a year
5. Work 80 hours a week making $80,000 a year
Although my class was small – 12 people – I was the only person who chose option 5. At the time, I was confused. Didn’t my classmates understand, if they made more money, they could buy more things?
Now that I work 50+ hours a week, answering that question is harder. Don’t get me wrong, money is still awesome. Money not only brings financial security but it also lets me afford living in New York. I’m also a single 20 something with no debt or dependents, why not work a little harder now so I can someday retire in a condo in Florida drinking Mai Thais?
At the same time, after having come home exhausted from some long workdays, I wonder if my time isn’t more valuable than money. What’s the point of working so hard if I don’t have time to enjoy it? Am I just wasting my life away and I’ll one day wake up and ask myself where the time went?
These are the delightful questions that pop up in my head between two and three in the morning.
In another article, I surveyed random people on the internet to see how they would respond to my English teacher’s question. But the more I reflected on this question, the more I thought about work-life balance. What is it? Does it actually exist? How can I achieve it? I began reading books and articles on the topic by people much smarter than me. This is what I discovered:
1. Figure out your goals
The first step to work-life balance is determining the most important long-term goal for each area of your life – work, personal, family, health, and spiritual. If this sounds difficult and daunting that’s because it is.
Choice overwhelms us: 20 brands of toothpaste at CVS, hundreds of profiles on Tinder and thousands of job openings on LinkedIn. School teaches us a lot of things but it doesn’t do a good job teaching us how to think about who we are and what we want in life. So we have a hard time making decisions with so many options available. Is my life goal to get promoted in my current company or do I want to do something completely different? Do I eventually want to have kids or is getting married enough? These are important questions we’re afraid to get wrong so we hold off answering them. I have difficulty choosing what McDonald’s breakfast to order so I understand the feeling.
Unfortunately, not making a decision can be worse than making the wrong one. When we don’t know our goals in life, we wander aimlessly, or worse, let someone else set those goals for us.
To figure out your goals, use what Gary Keller in The One Thing calls the “focusing question.” Ask yourself “What’s the one thing I want to accomplish in life that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” Apply that question to your career, personal life, spiritual life, etc. If it takes a lot of meditation, spa retreats, and Soul Cycling classes to arrive at your answers, so be it. You’ll know yourself better because you’ll know what’s important to you.
Give your goals serious thought but keep in mind that they aren’t final. You can always change goals as your priorities in life change. But it’s better to work towards a goal and adjust along the way than wander aimlessly and let other people dictate your life’s direction.
Once you have what Keller calls a “someday” goal, extrapolate your long-term goals to the present. Figure out “What’s the one thing I want to accomplish in the next 5 years that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
Apply the same question to a one-year goal, a one-month goal, a one-week goal - eventually working your way back to what you should be working on right now. Then do that thing. Because your goals are aligned, you’ll always be working toward your long-term goals.
2. Figure out your work orientation
Certain goals will be more important to you than others. Maybe it’s important that you’re married before you’re 35. Maybe you want to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Maybe you can die happy if you complete your collection of Star Wars Wookie Action Figures. There are no wrong answers – except the last one. Think about where your career falls on your priority list.
Yale researcher Amy Wrzesniewski found that people generally approach work in one of three ways:
Job Orientation – Work is a means to an end. These people treat work as a way to support their personal goals – family, hobbies, traveling, etc.
Career Orientation – Work is a way to earn external validation. These people work to climb the ladder and earn status, achievement, and prestige.
Calling Orientation – Work is an identity. These people view work as integral to who they are and want to feel fulfilled through their work.
You should resonate with one orientation more than the others. This isn’t to say that you don’t want elements of the other orientations - even if you see work as a way to support your lifestyle (job orientation) doesn’t mean you don’t want work to be somewhat fulfilling. Just because you want to climb the corporate ladder (career orientation) doesn’t mean you don’t want to spend time with your family.
3. Figure out what work/life balance means to you
Your orientation will determine what your definition of work/life balance means. You can then dig into why you feel unbalanced and how to fix it.
Let’s look at how through some examples:
BACKPACKING BEN/FAMILY FREDDY
For Backpacking Ben and Family Freddy, work sustains their personal interests. Family Freddy wants to leave work at 5, have dinner with his kids, and spend weekends with the family at the park. Backpacking Ben wants to travel around the world and do Millennial things such as swim with sting rays, backpack through Asia and live out of a van. Ben and Freddy try to maximize time pursuing their real interests and minimize their time working.
Unfortunately for them, the 40 hour workweek is dead. The average workweek in the U.S. has climbed to 47 hours. Half of salaried full-time employees work more than 50 hours each week. And unlike 20 years ago, work doesn’t stop when you leave the office. Work is always just one phone call or email away.
So Ben and Freddy are frustrated when work cuts into their personal time: when they have to check emails on vacation or miss dinner because of a late night at the office.
So if you’re like Ben and Freddy, what should you do?
1. Flexibility > All Else
I realize that not everybody is lucky enough to have the option of looking for other jobs. But if you’re starting out in your career or in a position to change careers, prioritize flexibility in your job search. You should look for jobs where you can work remotely or have significant vacation time. Even if it means a paycheck reduction, these perks are more closely tied to your goals in life.
2. Set your own boundaries because nobody will set them for you
The days when work is over once you leave the office are gone. Because technology makes us constantly accessible, nobody will set boundaries for when to stop working - you have to set the boundaries yourself.
If Freddy wants to stop working by 6:30 PM every day, he needs to leave the office at that time. If Ben wants to stop checking email at night, he needs to turn off his WIFI once 9 PM hits. You may have to get creative with your schedule. Maybe you spend 6:00 – 7:30 PM having dinner with your spouse but log back on to your computer at 9 PM to finish that presentation.
Setting boundaries also means communicating those boundaries to your boss and co-workers. There are certainly horrible managers out there but I genuinely believe most people understand trying to find work-life balance. A one hour conversation between you and your manager can save hours of guilt and internal conflict about taking that vacation in Bali. These types of conversation will actually benefit the boss as well because it’ll make you more likely to stay at the company. A study of executives found that after a year of “active partnering”, 62 people who wanted to leave the firm ended up staying.
3. Enjoy your work (or at least try to)
Just because you see your job as secondary to your personal life doesn’t mean work shouldn’t be enjoyable. You’ll spend at least a third of your waking hours at your job so you might as well like what you’re doing even if it isn’t your calling.
One way to do this is through job sculpting. We’ll talk more about this later as well, but you should identify aspects of your job that you enjoy doing and shape your responsibilities to be more in line with those interests. If you’re not sure what those aspects are, make a list of everything you like doing – both in your personal life and at work - and look for patterns.
Maybe you find out you like thinking about strategy or working with numbers. Maybe you feel invigorated by counseling and mentoring people. Once you know what gets you excited, look for assignments or projects aligned to those interests such as managing the budget or starting a mentoring program.
Another way to find more enjoyment in work is to change your mindset. People generally fall into one of two mindsets when thinking about job fulfillment - the fit mindset or the development mindset. People who fall into the fit mindset believe you need to fall in love with a job from the outset. They tend to self-select into jobs they think they will enjoy doing. People who fall into a development mindset believe you can grow to love your job. They may prioritize pay and career opportunities over job satisfaction because they believe that will come later. The catch is that both types of people can be equally fulfilled in their jobs.
So if you don’t enjoy your job right now, change your mindset to a development mindset. Be open to the possibility that as you get better at your work and have increasing responsibilities, you’ll grow to like it. This mindset shift alone may allow you to find your job more enjoyable.
For Ambitious Abby, work is a game. Winning means moving up the corporate ladder. Maybe she’ll figure out what she really wants out of job in the future, but for now, Abby is just looking to climb.
Abby accepts that she will have to stay late at the office and make sacrifices to her personal life. But what Abby doesn’t accept is not being recognized for her efforts. Abby is frustrated when she doesn’t believe she is getting promoted fast enough, making enough money, or getting the recognition she deserves. She has high expectations for herself and gets especially upset when she sees other people moving faster than her.
So what would I tell someone like Abby?
1. Be Patient.
Technology has trained us to expect instant gratification. Services such as Netflix, and Amazon Prime instantly cater to our every need. Want to binge five seasons of a show? Stream it on Netflix. Want to order 500 rubber ducks and have it arrive tomorrow? Order it off Amazon.
Your career is one area in life where you can’t get immediate results. No matter the industry, career progression takes time, effort, setbacks, and awkward co-worker small talk. Nobody is making 7 figures out of college except for my friend James whose dad is a hedge fund manager.
Traditional and social media has only made our impatience worse. We hear about the meteoric successes of college dropouts on TV and we see the glamorous lives of our friends on social media. It’s hard not to feel like we’re falling behind.
Science has shown that we judge our own happiness by comparing ourselves to those around us. A study found that people’s self-reported happiness were lower the more money their neighbors made. Now with the best parts of everyone’s lives posted on social media, it’s no surprise that higher social media usage has been linked to depression.
So if you’re ambitious like Abby, you need to be patient. Stop creating unrealistic expectations for yourself based on who you see around you. Nobody’s life is that put together. I certainly have no idea what I’m doing - I’m just a guy trying to write advice I badly need in my own life.
Rather than focusing on getting the next job or promotion, focus on the present. Master your current job and reflect on who you are and what you enjoy doing. Focusing on your career is fine for now, but eventually extrinsic motivators such as status and money won’t be enough. By truly knowing yourself, you can figure out what you really want in life.
2. A break a day keeps the burnout away
When you have a to-do list a mile long, working feels good. And when you spend all night finishing a report, the praise from your boss can be addicting. Because work is always on our cellphones and laptops, we have to constantly choose not to work. Especially if you’re ambitious like Abby, it’s easy to prioritize work above everything else –your friends, family, hobbies, even your health.
You need to take breaks.
Even though breaks seem like a waste of time, they’re actually productive. Daily breaks throughout the day have been shown to help maintain your quality of work. Vacations have also been shown to make you more productive because they force you to prioritize what needs to be done.
If you’re still not convinced, think about death. It’s a little morbid but researchers who interviewed people on the verge of passing away found that the second most common regret people had wasn’t getting that Mohawk in the 70s, but was working too much.
So if you’re finding it hard to take that vacation in the Bahamas, ask yourself what regrets you would have on your deathbed.
3. Channel your inner three year-old and say no.
Because you’re capable and ambitious, your boss will give your more responsibilities and your coworkers will ask for your help. Unless you start saying no, your workload will continue to increase until you sacrifice all your free time or the quality of your work diminishes. Warren Buffett has said that “the difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
That’s why 2-year olds are the most successful people I know.
So how do you say no? It’s already hard to turn down a request for help from a co-worker much less an assignment from your boss.
One strategy is to recast your role as an agent. If a boss or co-worker gives you a task you don’t have time to work on, reframe your reasons for turning it down. You aren’t saying no because you’re heartless bastard, you’re saying no because you’re acting on behalf of the company to be as productive as possible. Advocating on behalf of someone else has been shown to overcome our guilt of acting selfishly.
A second strategy is to set strict limits on your workload to ensure you complete all the work you need to get done. One tactic is to block off the first three hours of your calendar every day to focus on your own projects. Afterwards you will respond to your colleagues’ requests for assistance. And if your boss gives you a new assignment, clearly communicate to her what completing that assignment means for your existing projects in terms of quality and timeline. Many times people just don’t know what you already have on your plate.
Passionate Pamela isn’t looking for a job, she’s looking for a calling. She listens to Steve Job’s commencement speech on repeat and dreams about the day when she is pursuing her passion in life. Maybe Pamela knows what that passion is or maybe she doesn’t, but whatever the case, Pamela doesn’t feel fulfilled right now.
So should Pamela switch jobs? Switch companies? Maybe Pamela imagines striking out on her own but is afraid of taking the leap. Pamela is increasingly frustrated that her work has no meaning but she isn’t sure what “meaning” should feel like.
So if you feel like a Pamela, what should you do?
1. Sculpt your job
Just because you don’t feel fulfilled at your current job doesn’t mean you can’t feel fulfilled. As mentioned before, the solution may not be to quit or switch jobs but to reshape your role through job-sculpting.
For a job to be a meaningful, it needs to pass three criteria, you need to feel:
Autonomy – Feel in control of your choices
Challenging – Appropriate balance of playing into your competencies but helping you grow/develop new skills
Impactful - Feel you are making a difference and being recognized
So you should reflect on what you enjoy doing and which of three criteria is missing. If you don’t feel autonomous, you should look for initiatives that you can lead such as creating a mentoring or volunteering program.
If you don’t feel challenged, have a discussion with your manager on how to expand your responsibilities. Nobody is ever upset when someone offers to take on more work.
And if you don’t feel like you are making an impact, look for ways to get closer to the end result of what you do. Adam Grant found that a five minute interaction with a scholarship student at a public school call center made a huge difference regarding the amount of money raised on average. Maybe you “go out into the field” for your industry or talk to the people who are affected by your work.
2. Accept that passion is overrated
Famous people such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and J.K. Rowling make success seem simple. Figure out what you’re passionate about, work really hard at it, and one day you will make it.
Unfortunately, the reality isn’t that straightforward. Figures such Ben Horowitz and Mike Rowe state that passion is overrated. Passions change, especially if they become a full time job. You might be passionate about traveling, but a job as a travel writer with no permanent home and writing deadlines is lonely and quickly can lose its charm.
Also, just because we are passionate about something doesn’t necessarily mean we are good at it. Think about the number of passionate singers who audition for American Idol but are objectively terrible. Even if you are good at your passion, it doesn’t mean you are good enough to make money off of it.
So you need to accept that your passion may not turn into your career. Especially if your passion is non-marketable, such as the history of African drum circles, it’s unlikely that you can make a living in that field. Rather, you should look for larger themes within your passions.
For example, if you’re passionate about the Revolutionary War, maybe the real interest is storytelling or strategy. You can then look for roles and companies that are more aligned to those broader themes such as marketing or consulting. And just because your passion isn’t currently your full-time job, doesn’t mean it never will be. You can always..
3. Experiment On the Side
If you don’t know what your passion is or are unsure whether your passion can become a career, you should experiment.
Although society idolizes the entrepreneur who quits his day job to chase his dream, the reality is that testing the waters of your interests is usually better than immediately diving in. Adam Grant has shown that successful entrepreneurs are often risk-averse and usually wait to learn from the mistakes of the first-movers in their industry.
So look for ways to pursue your passion on the side. If you want to explore a future in photography, look for freelance photography opportunities. If you’re an avid painter, try to get yourself in an art gallery on the weekends. These experiments will reveal if you’re good enough at your passion to make money off of it. You’ll also know whether you actually like your passion enough to do it on a full-time basis. Experimenting on the side also allows you to take more creative risks because you’re not pressured to support yourself based off what you produce. You can afford to be bold and fail because you have your job to support yourself.
In the end, you shouldn’t feel guilty that you aren’t chasing your dreams all the time; you should only feel guilty if you aren’t chasing your dreams at all.
Figure out what you want in life, figure out how work/life balance fits into those goals, and then work to make that balance happen. Just keep in mind that there will always be more work to do but we only have this one life to live.
I mentioned before that the number two regret of people on their deathbed was working too much. The number one regret was “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
As long as you are defining the life that you want and chasing after that life, you will eventually find the balance that you’re looking for.