Saturday Blueprint on Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance is not an equation to solve, but there are some tips to help navigate the choppy seas of work and life.

Saturday Blueprint on Work-Life Balance
Photo by Дмитрий Хрусталев-Григорьев / Unsplash
20 years from now, the only people who will remember that you worked late are your kids. — Sahil Bloom

So, work-life balance could be the defining struggle of my middle years with young children and a demanding job. The tension is ever-present and is something I fret about daily.

⚖️ On balance

The reality is, in nature, optimal does not align with extremes. Instead, you need to find the right balance that suits your unique context and goals.

And of course, our context and goals change constantly: on a daily basis I may need to both pick up the kids from school and attend an important work meeting. It’s not that one is more important than the other. But you get to choose the right balance for your own circumstances and that’s something I could do well to remember as I struggle with this daily.

Does this sound familiar: you take a day off work for childcare reasons, perhaps to take your child to a class or because they are poorly. And you know that time with your child is precious, but you also have half a mind on work. Perhaps a niggle of stress that even though you’ve used a day of annual leave you’ll now have to ‘catch up’ and it’ll feel like cramming 5 days of work into 4. Is this balance?

It’s important to recognise you are fighting yourself here. The tension and conflict tend to be internal. And I get it; you are a professional who takes pride in their work so of course you want to do your best on the work front. You also love your children more than anything. But it does mean that any guilty feelings (on the work front or the home front) are just that: feelings. You can choose to recognise that you’re not a victim and can choose your destiny on a daily basis.

I’ll call this a daily micro destiny - a choose-your-own-adventure on a daily or hourly basis. I like the concept of micro-destiny — each day is a new day and a chance to course-correct due to the current context and goals but still aligned with your core values. It’s also permission to let go of work guilt when you’ve made the choice to take a day off with kids.

Take a moment to recognise your core values, and lose the negative self-talk where you have expectations from others. This quote from Richard Feynman has been really helpful for me personally:

You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing. — Richard Feynman

Wow. I'll read that again it's so painfully true.

It occurs to me then that there is no static work-life balance equilibrium point. Instead, it’s more like balancing a long stick on your finger - you constantly have to adjust to maintain a dynamic equilibrium. (And sometimes you lose focus on the goal and drop the stick.)

I routinely have to turn down meetings from my seniors at work because I am collecting my kids from school (“Sorry, I’ll be on the school run so can’t support that 8 am meeting”). I work from home because it’s the best way to work for maintaining what’s important to me: taking and collecting my children from school - this is one of my key values. I don’t need to (but still do, and often) apologise for having to leave a meeting to collect my children. Why am I apologising? Should I be? I summise that there is tension at work because I am applying a different set of values perhaps to my seniors or peers when maintaining my own version of a dynamic equilibrium of work-life balance. I put the time in and work my hours at my desk, but those hours are on my terms and mean I can also meet my core value of taking care of my children.

I don’t get it right all the time, and I am minded to come back to the original quote now:

20 years from now, the only people who will remember that you worked late are your kids. — Sahil Bloom

I must try to remember this when I’m working late. Not because working late is bad - I’m not encouraging laziness - but because I need to remember to work late for the right reasons. For me personally, I don’t mind going above and beyond in support of my colleagues. It matters to me to support others at work. But I’m doing it for the people, not for the business, and that distinction is important to me. But I will not kill myself at work when I have three young children who are infinitely more important than a mere job. It’s unlikely you’ll regret spending time with kids, but you might well regret missing your child’s sports day for an ineffective work meeting.

I do enjoy the challenge of work, and it is positive that my children see me working hard. I suppose it comes down to choosing at any given moment what to focus on and committing to that without being internally conflicted. If you’ve made the decision, then the whole of you needs to stand behind it. We’re back into Saturday Blueprint 35 on Free Will and the Self territory here… perhaps an intractable problem, but nevertheless eased by just recognising the reality that we appear to have multiple versions of ourselves inside our single head! Sign a peace deal with your other warring factions goddammit!

One of the many humble lessons I’ve learned from having three children is the importance of using time efficiently and effectively. This has been great for work because of the tools and techniques I’ve adopted to manage my time and workload and productivity. Necessity is the mother of invention, and it’s been true for me for finding approaches to work that get the job done without undue faffing. The beauty of this is I disconnect from all politics at work because that is the ultimate example of something unproductive, distressing and not helping me just do the task at hand in an effective way.

So we’ve covered a bit of ground here, albeit in more a rambling form than useful (I guess I'm still coming to terms with my feelings on this):

  • you can actively choose what to focus on based on your goals and values,
  • you can recognise that there is no static balance between work and life; it’s always changing and you have to constantly adjust,
  • you can stop the internal conflict and stand by your decisions regarding how to spend any given moment,
  • you can remember that children are young once, yet a job will still be there when they are fully grown.

Ultimately, you can be present with the present - if you’re at work, focus on it fully. If it’s a day off with children, forget work entirely and concentrate on those smiling, happy kids.

It’s a pleasure writing to you. Have a great week. 😊


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The Saturday Blueprint is a weekly newsletter every Saturday on health, vitality and philosophy by Nick Stevens.

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