Who isn’t attracted to the idea of achieving work life balance? Every where I turn there are articles like “10 steps to achieve work/life balance” or seminars that promise if you undertake certain methods or strategies all your work/life balance problems will be solved. What does it even mean?
For me, work/life balance has meant somehow giving equal attention to work priorities, family and my personal needs. To achieve this goal, I’ve tried everything. I’ve believed that if I adopted certain strategies especially around time management that I would get there. I’ve used to-do lists, blocked off time in my calendar, created special spreadsheets based on Stephen Covey’s 4 quadrants and set SMART Goals. Inevitably, I’ve aborted every single strategy because 1) they took up a lot of my valuable time and 2) they didn’t really move the needle. I mostly ended up right where I started: frustrated and hopeless.
It wasn’t until I became a leadership coach, which involved a lot of personal and professional development before I could coach others, did I understand why my goal of achieving work/life balance was so elusive. The problem is twofold. First, focusing on time management strategies only addresses the symptoms of bigger problems and not the root causes. For instance, I can have the best of intentions to block time off in my calendar for weekly exercise, but if I repeatedly override those blocks with meetings because I feel like I can’t say no, then there is a deeper mindset issue at play.
Second, focusing on specific outcomes like balance keeps us trapped in a specific definition or goal. If we don’t achieve that definition, then we just feel even more frustrated. Striving to achieve balance is a perfect example. Giving equal attention to all areas of our lives at all times is impossible. And each time we set that standard, we set ourselves up for failure.
Establish new beliefs
The solution is also twofold. Instead of focusing on specific strategies, address the underlying source of why you are not able to make the choices you want to. Usually, these are beliefs and mindsets that creating obstacles for those choices. Establish new beliefs and mindset shifts that will allow you to make the right choices. Here are a few beliefs that I’ve addressed in my life:
Let go of perfectionism and control
Perfectionism and control play a big role in my personal life. Breast-feeding my kids (or at least attempting), homemade baby food, homemade snacks to reduce plastic waste, perfectly balanced and healthy meals, making sure my kids are wearing matching clothes…yup all of it, I did (and sometimes still do). Perfectionism and maintaining control are HUGE time suckers. Slowly I’ve learned to challenge myself to let go of things that really don’t matter. A big win for me was that one night recently I was very tired and couldn’t bring myself to make dinner or even go to the store to find something easy. So I said, okay kids, go at it, you can eat whatever you want for dinner that you can make yourself…cereal, toaster waffles. And guess what…nobody died. Mind. Blown.
Set clear boundaries
Being accessible for my team at work has always been really important to me. Whether or not I’m on-site or off, my staff know they can knock, call, text or email and I’ll be available for them. But there are clear drawbacks to this mindset. I’ve found that if I’m not clear about boundaries, I’ll receive messages at all hours of the day or week and it prevents me from shutting off or focusing on my family. I’ve begun to shift this mindset and understand that I can still be seen as an accessible boss, without my staff having access 24/7. If I communicate when I’m available and when I’m not, team members can still get what they need without too much delay.
Give yourself permission
“I can’t possibly do that…” I can’t tell you how many times that phrase has gone through my head. I subconsciously tell myself that I’m not allowed to do certain things because what would other people think? Or because other people don’t do it that way. Or because people expect something different from me. A perfect example of this was how I design my work week. I was convinced that I had to work in specific places, at specific times etc. It took coming close to burnout after a hotel expansion project to give myself permission to do things differently. My life has drastically changed because of it and I believe my business not only hasn’t suffered, but has thrived.
Move towards a feeling
Second, instead of focusing on a specific outcome, establish how you want to feel. Focusing on how you want to feel, allows you to open up more doors and possibilities. Overtime I have found that what’s most important for me is that the time I spend on anything is about quality over quantity. I’ve let go of counting hours and put my time in where it is most meaningful. At work, this means being there for my team when we have staffing gaps. At home it means carving out time before and during dinner so that my kids can tell me about their day. I’ve discovered that more than anything, the way I want to feel is fulfilled and that I’ve made a meaningful contribution to the people that matter to me. The best part is that focusing on this feeling has residual effects. I make decisions easier, I’m present, I’m healthier and I’m downright a better mom and leader.
So what about those strategies and outcomes? Do they have no purpose? Strategies and outcomes are important, however, they are secondary rather than primary forces of change and improvements. They are supportive rather than causative. I have found that addressing limiting beliefs and knowing more generally how I want to feel have given me so much guidance in making choices, that I often need far less strategies and specific outcomes to get where I want to be in work and life.
Rachel Vandenberg is a leadership coach living in Stowe, Vermont with her husband and three children. Rachel also owns and operates a hotel and attractions property with her family. She sits on the board of the local tourism association and also created a leadership retreat for women leaders in travel.