I’m the poster child for work-life balance at my company. It’s great: I work a reduced schedule and my department and company gets to say things like “we support working mothers” and “we care about the work-life balance of our employees”
I’m extremely appreciative of my reduced schedule. They didn’t have to say yes to my suggestion that I worked a four-day week nearly ten years ago. They didn’t have to allow me to continue with that schedule indefinitely. I am in a very fortunate position that I know others would find hard to replicate.
However, calling it ‘work-life balance’ is what really rubs me the wrong way. I have a very kind department manager who would regularly inquire how my work-life balance was working out. I had to bite my tongue and smile. Nod my head and say “Great!” I’m pretty certain he didn’t ask anyone else in my department the same question, but then I am the poster child!
But why does that rub me the wrong way? Well, the very phrase work life balance implies a see-saw. A balance between one thing and another where only one aspect of your life gets attention at a time. If work is up, life is down. Choose life and work loses. It also implies that work is not life and life is not work. How does that work? When I’m at work I’m not living? Life is what happens outside of work?
This work-life balance phrase also seems to be the domain of the working mother. Sure, working Dads get a cursory look in too, but when did you last see a company being rated highly for being good for working Dads? How about working people who care for elderly relatives? How about working people who love to volunteer? How about working people who love to ski and hike? The phrase allows a company to check a box in their employee relations, but the reality is often very different. I wonder how a company would react if an employee wanted to adjust their hours to accommodate different desires. While ideally allowing flexible work arrangements should be ‘reason-neutral’, how many people would be comfortable asking for a more flexible schedule for reasons other than family?
Mrs PIE’s work-life philosophy
What I really wanted to say to my department manager was this:
“There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There’s just choosing what’s important to you and fitting everything else around that”
What it comes down to is that it’s a whole lot more complicated than just Work and Life. Most people are juggling many different aspects of their life – and trying to keep many balls in the air at the same time without dropping them. It’s just that some of those balls are made of glass and cannot be dropped.
In my mind it’s all about values. Knowing who you are as a person and what you need in order to make you happy. What aspects of life do I value over others? What gets the bulk of my time, energy and passion? If you’re honest about what your highest values are everything else can fit around that. Which are the glass balls that cannot be dropped?
Here’s a list to think about. What level of importance do each of these things have in your life right now? Are you prioritizing your most important values? What should take up most space and what should take up less?
Instead of a see-saw type balance I tend to think about values big and small. Large and less large. What fills the page and what fits in the corners? If not a work-life balance see-saw then what? maybe bubbles, circles? blobs? Yes, I like Blobs! Let’s take a look at Mrs. PIE’s priority Blobs:
Once we stop thinking about trying to balance work and life we can see that there are many more aspects to think about. The size of each of your Blobs may change as your life or career progresses. My Work Blob was probably much larger in the past, but I have begun to value and spend more of my time and energy in other areas.
What about balance in Early Retirement?
Well that’s a great question. In the traditional see-saw model Work just left and went to play on the swings. Life is sitting all alone, stuck with no one to play with. That’s another reason the simple balance view doesn’t work. It implies that work and life are the only two ways to define a person and their values. Take away Work and the game is over.
Early retirement means readjusting your Blobs. It’s unlikely that my underlying values will change in Early Retirement, but what I choose to spend my time and energy on can can be adjusted. I can still choose what is important to me to expend my time and energy on. Some things like Friends and Volunteering can come to the forefront, while Work in the traditional sense takes a back seat. The core values are still the same though: Family and Happiness. It’s as simple as choosing what’s important to me and fitting everything else around that.
How well do your work and life play together? Have you got a see-saw or some Blobs?