Could This Really Be the Key to Work/Life Balance?

I was recently interviewed for a podcast and at the end I was asked a series of rapid-fire questions. One of them was “What is the key to work/life balance?”

Hmmm. A lot of things flashed through my head. An understanding boss. A company that respects employee’s personal lives. A supportive spouse or partner at home. Some other kind of good personal support network.

All of those things are helpful, but I didn’t say any of them. Instead what flew out of my mouth was: “Self-knowledge.”

It’s funny because it’s a bit like the ending to “The Wizard of Oz,” right? The power was within you all along. Until I said it out loud I’d never really articulated it that way before. But as soon as I said it I knew it was right and true.

If I’ve learned anything since I became a working mom it is that there isn’t a “right” way to have work/life balance. Knowing what will bring you the balance you seek requires you to know what makes you feel balanced! What gives you energy and what drains you? How many hours can you work before you feel your productivity start to slip? Do you have times of the day when you are more productive and times when you are less productive? How much sleep and exercise do you need? What kind of diet do you need to maintain to maximize your energy?

Even more importantly you need to know what you want from your time. Wanting to be a great mom is a worthy goal, but what does that mean for you? Our culture isn’t helpful here — there aren’t enough hours in a week’s worth of days to do everything the “good” mothers of the media seem to be doing. So stop looking outward for the answer and look inward.

The same principle applies to work — what are you trying to achieve, for yourself and your family? When women ask me for advice about returning to work after a career break the first question I always ask them is: why do you want to go back to work? That “why” is crucial because it informs how you approach the job search process and the many decisions you’ll be making along the way. Your motivation for returning to paid employment will inform how much time you spend in job hunt mode, what types of activities you focus on, whether or not you invest in childcare ahead of securing employment and more. Once you are back at work, knowing why you are there and what you are trying to achieve will help you with the many, many decisions you’ll need to make that will affect your balance.

There are many ways to gain the self-knowledge you need to find your balance, but a method I’ve found effective is experimentation. Try something for a few days or weeks and then check in with yourself — do you feel better or worse? More balanced or less? Happier or not? If you feel better, more balanced and happier, keep doing what you are doing. If not, stop doing that and try something else. If you are familiar with the concept of agile, think of this as agile for personal development.

This experimentation process should be ongoing — sometimes the strategies and tactics that work in one season are a bomb in other seasons and vice versa. When I first started working I kept my to-do lists on paper, as most of us did back in the prehistoric era. In the late 90s, with everything moving online, I began to use different online systems for keeping track of my tasks — some embedded with my email or calendar, others that were standalone systems. That worked for a while, but I started to find it difficult to feel any sense of accomplishment when the list just went on forever and ever. Then when the list systems moved to my phone it was a disaster — the convenience of a list that was shareable and always with me was overwhelmed by the distraction of having yet another reason to pick up my phone 10 times a day! I read an article about bullet journals and made the switch last September. While I still do plenty of work online (and on my phone) my lists are now all in a notebook that I carry with me nearly everywhere. This switch has made me feel much saner.

More recently I discovered I’d changed in a wholly different way. Back in my 20s I tried early morning workouts and it was a miserable failure — culminating in a day when I fainted on the subway on my way to work. I convinced myself that I just couldn’t work out in the mornings. I believed that for 20 years. But I recently decided to trying playing around with early morning workouts. And I’ve discovered that not only can I tolerate them now, I actually enjoy them! What changed? I honestly have no idea. But I’m going to keep it up. Until it doesn’t work for me again, then I’ll try something else.

At the end of the day the question is less about work/life balance and more about your life — specifically, are you living a life that makes sense for you? If not, what can you change? And what’s the smallest change you can make as an experiment to see if that change can move you in the right direction? Identify a few key experiments and get started toward a more personalized fit between work and life.