In our tech-enabled, always on work environment, maintaining a healthy work-life balance is no easy feat. One reason it may be so difficult to achieve, is that we strive for “balance” in its most literal sense: “A state of equilibrium or parity characterized by cancellation of all forces by equal opposing forces,” according to TheFreeDictionary.com. Thought of in this way, “work” and “life” become opposite and opposing forces, and we can only achieve “balance” when the two are in equilibrium. This black and white definition creates a false choice between “work” and “life” that sets us up for disappointment and frustration.
What we need is to adopt a more nuanced understanding of “balance” as it relates to our work lives; one that takes into account the fact that work consumes a significant portion of our time, and that for many of us, it is a viable investment option for our discretionary effort. In this regard, another alternative definition provided by TheFreeDictionary.com is more appropriate. Here "balance" is described as “a harmonious or satisfying arrangement or proportion of parts.” The beauty of this definition is that it does not equate “balance” with mathematical equality. Rather, it provides for a more subjective interpretation that anoints individual discretion as the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes balance.
This is significant, because for some, work provides a greater sense of fulfillment than it does for others. They might not think twice about putting in a 10-hour day only to come home and spend their evening preparing for the next. Others may derive greater fulfillment from family interactions or hobbies, and may be extremely protective of their 40-hour work week. The point is that work-life balance is an individual matter. What’s important is being true to you, because what constitutes a healthy balance for one person may be an extremely unhealthy balance for another.
Another way to look at work-life balance is to view it as an important part of your overall fitness. Donny Shimamoto, an AICPA volunteer and the founder and managing director of an IT audit and consultancy firm based in Honolulu, coined the term “Work/Life Fitness” to address the individual nature of work-life balance, and its susceptibility to one’s life stage and career progression. “Basically, it comes down to the suitability or appropriateness of the ratio of ‘work’ to ‘life’ that a person chooses to undertake at a given point in time,” Donny explains. Thought of in this way, work-life balance is a qualitative rather than a quantitative measure, and it all depends on the level of satisfaction and happiness you derive from working. Do you take pleasure from immersing yourself in your work and relish the feeling of completing a work project in which you had a lot invested? Or do you take greater pleasure in relaxing after dinner conversations with your spouse, playing catch with the kids, or throwing yourself into a hobby or household project? Some professionals “live to work” and receive great personal fulfillment and a stronger sense of accomplishment from their work, while others “work to live” and view their work primarily as a means of providing for their family or allowing them to partake in hobbies, travel or do other things that they find personally rewarding. The first person’s work-life fitness may skew towards the work side of the scale, while the second person may have more weight on the life side. As Donny puts it, “I work a lot, because I'm one of those crazy people that actually LOVES my work. I get a lot of personal satisfaction from my work and work-related accomplishments. Does that mean that I don't have work-life balance? I tend to think no…” Work/life fitness does not mean perfect work-life parity or choosing one over the other. It means finding and maintaining a mix of work and life that works for you and allows you to feel fit.
Achieving Work/Life Fitness
To achieve work/life fitness, consider the things that you need to do and the things you want to do. What are your professional goals? Do you want to get married and have kids? Do you want to travel? If you have an important deadline coming up or are striving for a promotion, then you may find work/life fitness despite devoting more time to work. Remember, the ratio of work to life that you can take on while maintaining work-life fitness may shift as you progress into different life phases. For example, having children may mean that you have to put greater emphasis on family activities to feel fit. The key is being comfortable with who you are, where you are in your life and where you want to go – and knowing what makes you feel personally fulfilled. You can’t have it all, but you can achieve work/life fitness, and strike a balance that’s suited to the realities of your current life stage and future goals.