work life balanceThree weeks ago, the weather was amazing in San Francisco — close to 80 degrees. As it is rare to have such good weather, and since my kids love the beach, I decided to spend the day at the beach with them.

You might be thinking that this seems like a rather abrupt choice, maybe even a rash decision.

  • Did I have meetings?  Yes, so I moved them.
  • Did I lose pay?  Yes. I get paid by the hour as a business contractor, so every time I choose something like this, I am not earning $$$.
  • Would I do it again?  Absolutely.  The smiles on their faces are priceless to me (wow, I sound like a MasterCard commercial).

I tell you this simple story to illustrate this simple belief: anyone can achieve work life balance!

I think most people have the wrong perspective about work life balance.  They usually want it, but won’t really do anything about it.  I know this perspective well, because I was one of these people a few years back.  In my last 5 years at Deloitte, I often thought a lot about getting work life balance.  I wish I had it, as I was working 50-80 hour weeks, and sometimes I would travel every week.  While I complained a lot about my schedule to friends and wished for work life balance, I was actually unwilling to do anything about it.

Why?  Because as much as I wanted work life balance, I didn’t want to give up anything to achieve it.  I think our society has trained us to want it all, and engrained in us that somehow, if we work hard enough, we can have it all – success, money, health, and work life balance.  It should come as no surprise that the concept of giving up anything to get something we want is therefore  foreign to us.

Well, I am here to tell you that’s not how it works.  Sorry to burst your bubble, but no one can have it all at one time.  You have to prioritize to get what you want.    The good news is that you can achieve work life balance as long as you want it and act accordingly.

What does this mean?  Well, work life balance is a choice you make whenever you make a decision between work and life.  In my days at Deloitte, I wanted work life balance, but work always won out in my decisions.  Here are two examples:

  1. I was commuting 3 hours a day for a client and working at least 10 hours a day.  I was exhausted when I got home, but I had to type up some notes from a CMO meeting.  What did I decide to do?  I worked another 3 hours to put together the most comprehensive notes my client had ever seen.  I couldn’t see any other options.

    Now I know I could have spent 30 minutes summarizing the high level outcomes.  It’s not perfect, but I would have gotten more sleep, and I am not sure that the detailed notes really made a difference.  I just couldn’t stop myself from being a perfectionist at that time.  You definitely have to give up being a perfectionist if you want work life balance.

  2. I had the flu and I lived in San Francisco, but I had an important presentation to give in San Antonio where my client was.  I was up for manager, and I really wanted to prove myself.  What did I decide to do?  I flew over there, made the presentation and used their infirmary to nap/rest because I was so exhausted.  I ended up being sick about 9 days straight, and didn’t take a single day off.

    If you respect me for what I did, don’t!  It was a foolish overachiever thing to do.  Also, I didn’t know how to say no.   I didn’t even think that I had other options.  Now I’ve learned to take time off when I am sick.  The meeting can be pushed, and I will heal faster if I give myself a chance to rest.

Looking back I realized that my decisions and actions illustrated what was truly important to me – fast tracking to manager and doing well in my career.  Work life balance was a distant third, and only if I could guarantee the first two.  Well, I can play lip service all I want to work life balance, but if my actions are the opposite, I can never achieve it.

So, the good news is that work life balance is achievable for anyone.  You just have to know what you must give up to get it.   In the beach example, I was willing to give up pay, and risk my work reputation (some people may think I am a slacker for rescheduling meetings to take my kids to the beach).  Frankly, that sounds ridiculous even as I write it, but I know that type A people (the old me) worry about it.  I am no longer a type A person, and I know first-hand that work can wait.

How do I know?  Well, the first time I told someone no or to wait, it was gut-wrenching.  I debated for hours if I should, and almost lost sleep on it.  Finally, I was ready to quit if they didn’t accept my “no” response.  When I told the partner that I was too swamped to do the work he wanted my help on, I was shocked by his response.  He told me, “That’s fine. I’d rather wait for you to do it than find other people.  Do whatever you can.  I need your brain – even 10 hours next week would be enough”  I was floored.  I was prepared for him to fire me for saying no.    Since then, I have learned to push back, and have gotten really good at it.  As a good friend and physician used to tell me – don’t stress, nobody ever dies from you not doing your work – words that always help me see the bigger picture.

So, the question is:

  • How important is achieving work-life balance to you compared to all your other priorities – doing a good job, promotion, gaining wealth, pleasing your boss, etc?  Be honest with yourself.
  • Once you know what your priorities are, practice making decisions or taking actions that are consistent with your priorities. This is easier said than done, as change can be hard.  The first time you make a decision that is different from your typical behavior, it will be uncomfortable.  But as you practice, it gets easier each time.  Things you never thought you could say no to or do differently actually can be done.  You can change if you choose it.

By choosing actions that are out of the norm for you, you can find a whole different world/life to enjoy.  I believe that with all my heart.  I hope you will give it a shot! Best wishes.

Your comments: What are you willing to give up to achieve work life balance? Add your comments and questions below and let’s have a discussion.

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I am always in your corner.

– Lei

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