Why Work-Life Balance is Bogus…and How to Get it Anyway

Recently I found myself tackling an ambitiously crazy to-do list.

I decided to update my website, start writing my new book, get new client business, keep my blog going and join an extremely well-connected new committee.

Oh, and I wanted to have a little fun, too.

I told myself it was completely doable. I just needed to focus on my work-life balance, to carefully divide each day into blocks of time devoted to various projects. Then, when work time was over, to leave my office, cross over into my personal time and begin all that fun.

I don’t know what I was thinking, exactly. It was like I thought I was part of some weird group of superheroes.

superheroe group subway

So here’s what happened on day one.

  • …an urgent call from a client crossed into my “updating the website” block…
  • ….which then pushed into my “outline my new book” block….
  • …which got interrupted by a flurry of unexpected emails…
  • …and caused me to have to push completing a project to after dinner….
  • …which meant no wine with dinner – and no “Modern Family” viewing afterwards.

The sum total of all of this?

My very busy day also felt like a big, non-productive failure. All of my grand plans to excel at everything went out the window. And I exceled at nothing.

The pattern continued the next day…then the one after that.

Which is when I realized this work-life balance stuff is totally bogus.

We tackle the elusive work-life balance notion all the time. We think about balancing out each day, dividing up our projects and our life tasks as though they were each a square in one of those old frozen TV dinners.

tv dinner

But, it turns out, life just ain’t that neat.

The way life works today…with technology making us and our work accessible anytime…with couples each juggling their own goals…with the pressure to excel at everything at all times…the division of everything into neat work-life blocks just isn’t possible.

Instead, the boundaries between them are much fuzzier. Just consider:

  • The emails from the boss that pop up during dinner (always marked “urgent”)
  • The school recital that falls right at the same time as our big meeting
  • The text that comes from our wife midday, saying she desperately needs help finding the file she accidentally just deleted (Common for me. Sorry Hubbie.)

Our work and personal areas, it turns out, aren’t part of that neat TV dinner. They’re enmeshed in a big, messy, stew.


So how can we achieve real work-life balance? Consider the following steps…

#1: Make some choices. Ahead of time

We simply can’t be excellent at all things at all times. I’ve launched a business and published a book and been an awesome wife. But I’ve never done all three things to excellence at the same time.

Trust me. There will come a time when your sister’s birthday party falls on the same day as the big shin-dig at your boss’ house. It’s better to know where you stand before then.

Determine your priorities: what’s at the top for focused excellence (not too many listed here!), what will be maintained, and what needs to go away for now.

When you do this, think about how long excelling at your priorities will take. True balance means planning out the long term…the next few weeks and months.

This isn’t to say of course that you shouldn’t plan out each day for time management purposes. Just do so after you’ve figured out your big picture.

#2: Set boundaries and communicate with those impacted

Once you make your choices, let others in on the plan.

If all is fine at work and you feel you need to pay more attention to your kids, then let your boss know that you can’t work so late at the office…and that responses to evening emails might not come until the next morning.

#3: Fight your own temptations by managing your environment

Temptations will come. If you want to focus on your deck on the weekends, don’t leave your iPhone anywhere near you. If you need to get that big project done for work instead, don’t plop down in the middle of the family room on game day.

Is work-life balance possible in the way we’ve thought about it in the past? Not for most of us.

But is it possible if you acknowledge that life is a messy stew, and that exceling at what’s really important to you will take some extra forethought and strategy? Yes indeed!

Easier said than done, but that’s why we’re in this together.

And why I’m sitting here focusing on my blog after having quit that new committee and put my new business plans on hold for the moment.

I guess my time as a superhero is officially over.

superhero sleeping

This week…

Acknowledge your work-life stew. Choose your priorities, set yourself up for success.

Then be more successful.

And just imagine what how great being truly balanced will feel.

Now, go do good…and do it well.


8 responses to “Why Work-Life Balance is Bogus…and How to Get it Anyway”

  1. Laura Alpert Avatar
    Laura Alpert

    I totally agree with you, Deirdre! I just took a class on memoir, and the instructor said that she divides her day into neat squares and plunks it on the wall. She writes for a living, so she makes appointments with clients in advance and then shuts out the world while she writes. We do all need to decide where we stand and what’s most important. And our goals certainly can change over time. Learning to say “no” gracefully is extremely important, so we can focus on what we care about most.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks for your great comment, Laura! Deciding ahead of time what’s important makes a big difference – then figuring out in the moment what to do when our best laid plans go to pot is our next step 🙂

  2. Patty Costa Avatar
    Patty Costa

    Deirdre, I so agree with you. Priorities. Sometimes we have to say no and sometimes we have to say maybe. Start with Plan A and have a Plan B. What helps me is that I do plan ahead so if I get side-tracked I’m not so far behind. Thanks for a great message.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks so much for this, Patty…and I gotta say that having that Plan B at the ready is sometimes more important than anything. It seems when our Plan A goes sour we can get so overwhelmed and stuck, so knowing where we go from there is critical. Great point!

  3. Hannah Avatar

    I’m glad you chose to focus on your blog. You always give me such encouragement in such manageable bites, which in itself is a bit of life-blog-reading balance. Thank you!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Wow, Hannah – thanks so much for your kind words! I’m so pleased you find the posts helpful…luckily I’m always learning lessons the hard way, so I tend to have lots to focus on…

  4. Kathy Avatar

    I always enjoy reading your blog – even when work/family postpone the moment. I find that I didn’t really achieve a sense of “balance” until I could let go of work concerns and enjoy family OR quit worrying about family concerns while I was at work. Each activity is definitely a balancing act: “some days, there’s a sumo wrestler on the other end of the teeter totter.”

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks very much, Kathy…I think the key word in your comment is “OR”. Once we accept that we need to choose not just the things we want most in life, but BETWEEN them, we can at least plan accordingly. Great comment!