Work life balance does not mean getting home on time (except when it does)


On this Go Home on Time day I hope you are making a timely return to domestic bliss. An appropriate moment to challenge the conventional thinking about the myth of work life balance.

Working with a group of entrepreneurs this week we had a fascinating discussion about what work life balance really is.

We started with a question – how is it that irrespective of whether we work for ourselves or for someone else we can sometimes work all the hours and be happy and in flow doing it, and other times it feels like we are battling a gale-force emotional headwind of resentment, frustration, isolation and exhaustion?

So much talk about work life balance focuses on physically separating work and other interests, whether that be hours in the office, taking holiday or checking our phones – hence Go Home on Time Day.

Far more significant for the entrepreneurs, and I believe any of us, is the mental work life balance – whether or not we are able to drop out of our work related thinking and give our full attention to whatever else we are choosing to do.

We are all familiar with that scenario where our peace of mind and enjoyment of our non-work time can be totally obscured by a mind whirring about things we or others have/ haven’t/ ought to/will do, little of which thinking is ever constructive. By contrast we have all also had the experience of being totally present to things other than work at very busy times, and vice versa.

That elusive, mythical balance is actually the feeling available when we are ok with wherever we are choosing to give our attention. Key here is that we are making an active choice based on what really makes sense to us to be doing – whether work related or otherwise – as opposed to doing things because we feel we ought to (out of responsibility, guilt, wanting to look good/ not look bad or just unquestioned habits).

Sometimes it will make total sense to work all hours and prioritise work over other commitments, other times to give ourselves time out and space to recharge or reflect. When we are choosing from a place of insight and wisdom we will know what conversations we need to have to make this possible in a way that isn’t at the expense of others, and will often find very creative solutions.

The friction or emotional ‘headwind’ comes when we perceive we don’t have a choice or are motivated by any other reason than this makes sense to me right now.

For those working for other people it can really look like we have limited choice, and there are many more structural and cultural norms that inform how we operate that seem to limit our freedom to be more intuitive in how we manage our time/ lives.

In truth it looks that way to me too still, that’s partly why I am now running my own business, because it no longer made sense to work in a more conventional office environment.

However, I suspect I’m missing something and this is still a blind spot for me. To delve deeper I offer up two questions:

How often do you challenge things that don’t make sense to you in your organisation and do everything consistent with really wanting to change minds or behaviours (vs making a point or looking good in some way)?

How often do you overlook the fact that, for the fortunate amongst us at least, you are choosing to do that role in that organisation knowing mostly what that entails, out of many other genuine possibilities for how you could use your time and talents?

I know the answers for me were barely ever and all the time!

So, if a missing dimension of work life balance is where we consciously choose to give our attention I thought it might be helpful to share a couple of very practical examples of the less helpful habits I’ve seen in myself and others that take people away from that mental balance (many more to come I’m sure, please let me know yours):

When we do things that trigger undesirable work thinking we don’t need or want to…

The classic here is the early morning or late night checking of emails and social media as a habit or compulsion (perhaps we’re worried about missing something, feel we need to be/look responsive or it makes us feel good/ important) vs when it genuinely makes sense to do that.

For me there’s a parallel with snacking – it’s the difference between just really fancying something sweet vs gobbling things down to make me feel better, avoid work or just because I’m sped up. In both there is a different feeling that comes when we are making an active, conscious choice vs being drawn into to doing things that don’t really serve us.

When we soldier on when our brain and body is telling us to stop…

Another very common experience for me is failing to pay enough attention to my state of mind when I’m in the midst of a task. I frequently fall into the trap of pushing myself to complete a piece of work long after my mind and body have been telling me I need a break.

For me I can just feel I’m getting up tight mentally and physically, thinking less clearly and feeling mentally tired. Especially if it’s leading up to an artificial deadline like lunch/ end of day/ Friday night I will push myself. Even though I may get it done it often impacts my mental performance for the rest of the day. Worst case it’s like blowing a mental fuse and it then takes ages to get back to productive work.

Far healthier and more effective is when I listen to myself and take a break, just long enough to settle back down and recharge. Most times I can return with clarity, perspective and sharpness restored. In this state of mind it is obviously much quicker and easier to complete any task.

From these examples I hope you can see that work life balance rather than being a question of physical structure (although that can help or hinder) is as much the choices we make in each moment about where we direct our energy and attention.

As such it is totally dynamic – one day it may make total sense to be posting tweets at 5am, the next day to walk the dog or have a lie in. What guides us is that inner sensor that tells us whether we are tuned into the wisdom and insight which powers inspired action, or acting out of fear, insecurity and habit.

I know this is a big topic for all of us and I will almost certainly add to this article so please I’d love to hear your take on this.

Is this a helpful way of thinking about it?

Do you have any examples of pitfalls or realisations you’ve had yourself that have been helpful?

As ever if you’d like to get a fresh perspective or be more unstoppable on any area you are stuck with get in touch via LI or

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