When people look at my life – tech company CEO, board member, motivational speaker, hockey coach, fitness fanatic, World’s Greatest Mom (hey, would my kids lie?) – they inevitably ask me the same question: “How do you balance it all?” And though work-life balance is a popular concept these days, I can’t help but think that people who are looking for some Golden Ratio between “work” and “life” have a fundamentally flawed understanding of both terms. If work is something that you have to escape to because your life sucks, you need to rethink your life. And if your life only starts when your work is over, you need to rethink your work.
For some, time is a constant battle – fighting traffic, struggling to get the kids to school, wrestling with a project – and it’s easy to see why people dream of an end to the ordeal: some idealized, Zen-like state of balance that we can hold permanently. But just like the Vriksasana Tree Pose in yoga, where one stands on one foot with arms extended above, all it takes is one gentle shove from the world to cause us to come crashing down. I’m all for making plans and keeping schedules, but flexibility is key.
No one – repeat, no one – can “have it all.” There are always compromises to be made. Sometimes I miss school fairs; sometimes, I miss hockey games; sometimes, I’m not there to tuck my kids into bed at night (not that now as teenagers they want that!). But I’m there as much as I can be, and when I have to miss, I make damn sure that I’m missing for a good reason. When my ex passed away, I had to make a choice: continue with a job that forced me to be a “road warrior” who was rarely at home, or transition to one that demanded less travel, giving me the time I needed to be there for my kids, who suddenly needed me more than ever. I chose to take the second path – hey, jobs come and go, but family is forever.
The thing to remember about work-life balance is that it’s not a stance you can hold, but neither should it be seen as a never-ending struggle. Instead, look at it as a dance: sometimes, you move forward, sometimes, you move back, but always, always, always, remember to keep moving!
Taking Time vs. Spending Time
I work out six days a week and play three to five hockey games per week. Some people ask me how I manage it (funny, I never get that question at the gym…) but I never see it as time I’m taking away from other activities that I could be doing instead. After all, it’s a great time for me to just be me, to focus on my own development and well-being – and while I’m working out, I can always catch up on music, podcasts, or “double-dip” in other ways. But then, there seems to be two kinds of people: people who see exercise as a drain on our resources (time, energy, etc.), and people who see it as the kind of no-brainer investment that rarely comes along in life: one with guaranteed dividends worth far more than any upfront costs.
The paradox of taking time for ourselves is that it often leads to gaining more time to spend. Exercise reduces stress and depression and increases our physical well-being, so for every hour we spend working out, we tend to gain more back from the productivity we would have lost due to sluggish thinking, foul moods, or lying in bed slurping down chicken soup and OJ. And while I can’t recommend the benefits of exercise enough (try it, you’ll like it!), having a bit of “me time” – dinner with friends, a trip to the movies, reading a motivational blog (wink wink) – should always be seen as time invested wisely, rather than time wasted, as long as it is well-spent.
And get some sleep! A well-rested brain moves faster than one that is clunking along on a few hours’ sleep. I wake up between 5:00 and 5:30 each morning – do you think I spend my nights burning the midnight oil?
Delegation Is a Force Multiplier
There are two kinds of bad leaders: those who do nothing, and those who try to do everything. Good leaders, on the other hand, learn quickly to spot people who are both trustworthy and capable, and give them the freedom to execute the vision of the leader – or even add to it, when their ideas are sound. As a CEO, I have to be able to spot when an employee can run with a project, or when they need assistance; as a coach, I have to trust my players to execute the plays that we’ve drilled over and over; as a parent, I have to have faith that my children will remember my lessons, even when I’m not perched over their shoulders.
Whenever possible, look for areas in your own life/work that don’t need your undivided attention to thrive. Part of achieving a good work-life balance is understanding that you can’t be everywhere at once, but if you instill the right principles in the right people, you can have the next best thing: your spirit will follow them around everywhere, like a little ghost Jedi.
Spin Those Wheels but Keep Moving Forward
Learning to ride a bike is scary, and nothing brings the fear back like watching your child precariously rolling down the sidewalk, screaming at the top of her lungs, with you chasing her all the while, yelling, “Keep going, keep going!” against all apparent logic. But where she see might see a sadist, you know you are her only savior: the person telling her the hard truth that on a bicycle, much as in life, balance is about momentum, not stasis.
Sure, there are times when you may want to chuck it all, go off the grid, and move into a cabin in the woods for the rest of your life. And sometimes you may want to do just that – for a weekend or two. But for most people, keeping life and work in balance shouldn’t involve throwing either out, or searching for some magical formula that will keep the two halves in harmony. Instead, look for work-life integration, ways that allow you to tread water when one side threatens to drown you, while striving at all times to reassert equilibrium in the stormiest seas so that you can keep swimming forward.
And the key to work-life integration, in a few words? Prioritize. Realize that you can’t have everything you want ALL of the time so set your list of priorities accordingly. Outsource. Your time is valuable and there are better ways to spend your Saturday afternoon than cleaning the toilets (unless you enjoy it!) Make time for the things you want to make time for. Life is about compromise and planning; block off space in your schedule for the things that are most important to you every week, and every week, try to come as close to your targets as you can. Some weeks, you will come closer than others. Other weeks, you will feel like you are simply spinning your wheels. But slowly but surely, you will find yourself pedaling less and coasting more… and learning to love the ride for its own sake.