What Is Work-life Balance?
It’s always nice to have a little breathing space! In 1988, when I started formulating the concepts in my book, Breathing Space. whose subtitle is Living and Working at a Comfortable Pace in a Sped Up Society. I stumbled upon some insights that are still true to this day.In the first edition, published in 1990, as well as the latest edition, I discuss five overarching trends – what I called “mega-realities” – that influence every aspect of our being, and from which no one is immune. Briefly, these five mega-realities include:
- An expanding volume of knowledge
- Mass media growth and electronic addiction
- the paper trail culture
- an over-abundance of choices
- Population growth
The impasse of this over-information era is that the time necessary to learn the rules for effective living seemingly exceeds your lifetime. This is why time management books so often miss the mark: They list dozens – if not hundreds – of rules, when you are already grappling with more rules than you can handle.
Second is Mass Media – The effect of the mass media on our lives continues unchecked. More than four out of five American households own DVD players. In 1972, three major television networks dominated television – ABC, NBC and CBS. Today, there are more than 500 full-power independent television stations. Cable TV subscribers can receive 300+ channels that offer more than 72,000 shows per month.
With its sensationalized trivia, the mass media “glut” obscures fundamental issues that do merit concern, such as preserving the environment or feeding the poor.Next comes Paper Trails – Like having too much data and eyewitness reports, having too much paper to deal with makes you feel overwhelmed and overworked. Americans today are consuming three times as much paper as ten years ago. There are two basic reasons why society spews so much paper:
- We have the lowest postal rates in the world.
- We have the widest base of paper-generating technologies.
Fourth is An Overabundance of Choices – Having choices is a blessing of the free market economy, but it’s overwhelming, increases time expenditure, and is a mounting form of exhaustion. More than 1,300 varieties of shampoo are on the market. More than 2,000 skin-care products are for sale. In excess of 125 different types of exercise shoes are available, each with scores of variations in style, function, and features.
Last and certainly not least is Population – From the beginning of creation to 1850, world population grew to one billion. It grew to two billion by 1930, three billion by 1960, four billion by 1979, five billion by 1987, six billion by 1999, and it is currently en route to seven billion. Every three years, an astounding 268,000,000 people are added to the planet.
Each day, world population (births minus deaths) increases by more than 275,000 people. Can you believe it? Geometric growth in human population permeates and dominates every aspect of our earth, its resources, the environment, and all living things. So those are the five mega-realities of our era. And against this backdrop, the quest for work-life balance becomes more vital than ever. Predictably, a preponderance of speakers, trainers, authors, journalists, and others whose professions entail regular communication with the masses proclaim the virtues of achieving and maintaining work-life balance.
But a glaring question arises: What, exactly, is work-life balance? Compared to the legions of instances in which the term is cited, surprisingly little has been written in articles and books about what the concept actually entails.
For 23 years I’ve pursued a detailed understanding of why the pace of society has sped up, what the impact has been on the typical individual, and how each of us can forge our own sense and experience of breathing space throughout our lives. From my studies, I’ve honed and refined the tenets of what I personally consider to be work-life balance, and here it is:
Work-life balance is the ability to experience a sense of control and to stay productive and competitive at work while maintaining a happy, healthy home
life with sufficient leisure. It’s attaining focus and awareness, despite seemingly endless tasks and activities competing for your time and attention.
Going further, work-life balance entails having some breathing space for yourself each day; feeling a sense of accomplishment, while not being consumed by work; and having an enjoyable domestic life without short-changing career obligations. And it’s rooted in whatever fulfillment means to you within 24-hour days, seven-day weeks, and however many years you have left.Now, here is the involved part: Several disciplines support work-life balance, though individually, none are synonymous with work-life balance. These disciplines include:
- Self Management
- Time Management
- Stress Management
- Change Management
- Technology Management
- Leisure Management
Next is Time Management. Effective time management involves making optimal use of your day and the supporting resources that can be summoned, for you can only keep pace when your resources match your challenges. Time management is enhanced by creating appropriate goals and discerning what is both important and urgent versus what is important OR urgent. It entails understanding what you do best and when you do it best, and assembling the appropriate tools to accomplish specific tasks.
Next on my list is Stress Management. By nature, societies tend to become more complex over time. In the face of increasing complexity, stress on the individual is inevitable. More people, more noise, and more distractions – independent of one’s individual circumstances – require each of us to become more adept at maintaining tranquility and being able to work ourselves out of pressure-filled situations. Most forms of multi-tasking ultimately increase our stress, while focusing on one thing at a time helps decrease stress.
Change Management is the fourth element. In our fast-paced world, change is virtually the only constant. Continually adopting new methods, adapting old methods, and re-adapting all methods are vital to a successful career and a happy home life. Effective change management involves offering periodic and concentrated efforts, so that the volume and rate of change at work and at home does not overwhelm or defeat you. Too much change at once, and you’ll see people revert back to old ways.
The fifth factor is Technology Management. Effectively managing technology requires ensuring that technology serves rather than abuses you. Technology has always been with us, since the first walking stick, spear, flint, and wheel. Today, the rate of technological change is accelerating, brought on by vendors who seek to expand the market share. Often, you have no choice but to keep up with the technological “Joneses;” still, you rule technology – don’t let it rule you.
Now we come to the last and, I must say, most overlooked of the work-life balance supporting disciplines: Leisure Management. It’s vital to acknowledge the importance of rest and relaxation – you just can’t short-change leisure! “Time off” is a vital component of the human experience. Curiously, too much of the same leisure activity, however enjoyable, can lead to monotony. So, effective leisure management requires varying your activities.
To summarize, thus far, as we move into the brave new world of accelerating flows of information and communication, the quest to achieve work-life balance on a regular and continual basis will be increasingly difficult, but it’s a challenge that is entirely worth pursuing. I mean, we owe it to ourselves, to our families, to our communities, and to humanity in general to achieve work-life balance.
A world that consists of human “doings” – not human beings – scurrying about to get things done, with no sense of breathing space, is not a place where you or I would likely want to live. I don’t want to be part of a culture of overwhelmed individuals who can’t manage their own spaces or the spaces common to everyone. I don’t want to live in a society, or a world, of time-pressed people who have nothing left to leave for future generations. My guess is that you don’t either.
I choose – I hope – to live in a society composed of people leading balanced lives, with rewarding careers, happy home lives, and enough breathing space to enjoy themselves. I’m convinced that for much of the world, the pace of life will speed up even more. So the future will belong to those people who steadfastly choose to maintain control of their lives, effectively draw upon their resourcefulness and imagination, and help others to do the same.