I recently shared my belief that “balance” (as in “work-life balance”) was a lie. It is obviously a lie many still believe, so let me offer you my argument against balance and see what you think.
Balance gives the false sense that all things can get equal playing time, at the same time, and that there’s a magic formula you’ve just got to persevere to find. I’ve found this to be impossible. Whether it’s hobbies, career, family, volunteering, traveling or anything else you have passion around, prioritizing one area will result in de-prioritizing another. If I am striving for balance, I’d need to find an exact point of equality among all the things I find important. And every time I chose one over the other, I’d throw off that balance. And, for me, feel like I was failing.
What I have found to be effective is to simply forget balance, and instead, to focus on finding a rhythm that works for me. Rhythm, by definition, simply means regular and repeated patterns. What does this look like in practice?
When I am working in rhythm, then some weeks or months, I will spend more time on client work than other times of the year when I leave consistently before most of my colleagues. When my client load is more, I’m not volunteering much (or at all), I’m still with my family, but we may eat in restaurants more often. My priorities are changing—and I’m adjusting the expectations I set for them and myself. Rhythm.
In this philosophy, I have two practical phrases I repeat to myself:
“Focused beats faster” – When it comes to a client project or housework or anything else, I don’t try to get faster at my work in order to get more done. I use the power of focused time to get more accomplished. There are tons of studies on the power of focus. The brain science also shows we can’t actually multitask. It’s why I come into the office on most Tuesdays about 90 minutes before the majority of my team. I can get more accomplished in those 90 minutes than an entire day filled with meetings and pop-in collaborations. It’s part of my rhythm.
“Quality beats quantity”— I have absolutely wrestled with the rhythms of being a working parent. I’ve cried because I missed the Mommy-and-Me field trip with my church and because I only sign up to take the napkins and forks to the daycare parties. So, I can’t tell you what a relief it was to read “How Our Careers Affect Our Children” in HBR last fall. It will take a moment for you to read and process, but the overarching idea is that the quantity of time spent working and on childcare did not influence children’s mental health. In a lot of detail, the research showed the quality of time is what matters. So rhythm means we focus on play and being fully present, not on trying to clock “balanced” hours at work and at home. Interestingly, this study also showed that my own personal self-care was associated with positive outcomes for my kiddos. I like that!
In reality, we know that balance sets us up to feel like failures. It’s the notion of defining rhythm that helps me own my priorities and be okay with faster, then slower paces. I hope you’ll be convinced that rhythm moves you forward at both speeds. Good luck finding your beat.