THE BLOG

Work-Life Balance Is Bogus; Here's How to Get It Anyway

11/18/2013 07:32 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

It was a crazy to-do list. I knew it deep down.

Recently I decided I needed to update my website, start writing my new book, get more client business, keep blogging and join a well-connected new committee.

Oh, and have a little fun, too.

I told myself it was completely doable. I just needed to focus on my work-life balance, to carefully divide each day into blocks of time devoted to various projects. Then, when work time was over, to leave my office, cross over into my personal time and begin all that fun.

So here's what happened on day one.
...an urgent call from a client crossed into my "updating the website" block...
....which then pushed into my "outline my new book" block....
...which got interrupted by a flurry of unexpected emails...
...and caused me to have to push completing a project to after dinner....
...which meant no wine with dinner - and no Modern Family viewing afterwards.

The sum total of all of this?

My very busy day also felt like a big, non-productive failure. All of my grand plans to excel at everything went out the window. And I excelled at nothing.

The pattern continued the next day...then the one after that.

Which is when I realized this work-life balance stuff is totally bogus.

We tackle the elusive work-life balance notion all the time. We think about balancing out each day, dividing up our projects and our life tasks as though they were each a square in one of those old frozen TV dinners.

But, it turns out, life just ain't that neat.

The way life works today...with technology making us and our work accessible anytime...with couples each juggling their own goals...with the pressure to excel at everything at all times...the division of the day into neat work-life blocks just isn't possible.

Instead, the boundaries between them are much fuzzier. Just consider:

  • The emails from the boss that pop up during dinner (always marked "urgent")
  • The school recital that falls right at the same time as our big meeting
  • The text that comes from our wife midday, saying she desperately needs help finding the file she accidentally just deleted (Common for me. Sorry Hubbie.)

Our work and personal areas, it turns out, aren't part of that neat TV dinner. They're enmeshed in a big, messy, stew.

So how can we achieve real work-life balance? Consider the following steps:

#1: Make some choices. Ahead of time

We simply can't be excellent at all things at all times. I've launched a business and published a book and been an awesome wife. But I've never done all three things to excellence at the same time.

Trust me. There will come a time when your sister's birthday party falls on the same day as the big shin-dig at your boss' house. It's better to know where you stand before then.

Determine your priorities: what's at the top for focused excellence (not too many listed here!), what will be maintained, and what needs to go away for now.

When you do this, think about how long excelling at your priorities will take. True balance means planning out the long term...the next few weeks and months.

This isn't to say of course that you shouldn't plan out each day for time management purposes. Just do so after you've figured out your big picture.

#2: Set boundaries and communicate with those impacted

Once you make your choices, let others in on the plan.

If all is fine at work and you feel you need to pay more attention to your kids, then let your boss know that you can't work so late at the office...and that responses to evening emails might not come until the next morning.

#3: Fight your own temptations by managing your environment

Temptations will come. If you want to focus on your deck on the weekends, don't leave your iPhone anywhere near you. If you need to get that big project done for work instead, don't plop down in the middle of the family room on game day.

Is work-life balance possible in the way we've thought about it in the past? Not for most of us.

But is it possible if you acknowledge that life is a messy stew, and that excelling at what's really important to you will take some extra forethought and strategy? Yes indeed!

Easier said than done, but that's why we're in this together.

And why I'm sitting here focusing on my blog after having quit that new committee and put my new business plans on hold for the moment.

This week...

Acknowledge your work-life stew. Choose your priorities, set yourself up for success.

Then be more successful at what matters most.

And just imagine what how great being truly balanced will feel.