A "Balanced Diet" Approach to Work & Family

01/26/2016 12:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

We need to stop seeing work and family as "either-or." Time for work and time for family are both very important components of a full, meaningful life, and there's more to life, too!

The following is an excerpt from my book, The Working Dad's Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home (Motivational Press, 2015).

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A lot of people don't like the term, "Work-Family Balance." Some prefer "Work-Life Balance." I don't. After all, work is an important part of life and the two are not opposites or enemies. Also, there's lots in life that is neither work nor family. Others take exception to the term balance, and prefer terms like integration, fit, blend or success.

But I like the word balance, as long as we have the right visual in mind. When some see "work-family balance," they think of balance as in a scale, seesaw, tightrope or balance beam in which there is a single, hard-to-find, precarious equilibrium point between two opposing forces.

Thinking about balance that way leads us (and, unfortunately, managers and employers) to think about work and family solely as trade-offs. I think this is the wrong way to think about it.

We need to stop seeing work and family as "either-or." Time for work and time for family are both very important components of a full, meaningful life, and there's more to life, too. If we don't reflexively see them as opposing forces, we may come to understand that both can enhance the other in helping to build a balanced life.

Therefore, when I think about a balanced life, I find it helpful to visualize a "balanced diet" rather than a tightrope. A balanced diet means eating enough of different types of food without eating too much from certain categories. Similarly, a full life means that we must tend to various parts of our lives (family, work, health, relationships, friends, hobbies, exercise, etc.), all of which are important parts of a whole.

Sometimes we need to prioritize one aspect of life over others and temporarily slip out of balance. There are inevitable ebbs and flows in both home and work. Some work weeks require intense hours and/or travel. Some weeks, home requires our full attention.

The use of a tightrope metaphor frames temporary imbalance as a failure; anything less than 50/50 means a perilous fall. If, instead, we think about a balanced diet, eating too many carbs one day can be balanced out by extra salad the next. And it also helps us recognize that we need many food groups to be healthy.

Just as a balanced diet requires more than two food groups, a balanced approach to life means time and attention devoted to the full range of life activities, not just work and family. A full, balanced life means attention to work, family, self, exercise, religion, community, extended family, friends, social needs, relationships and relaxation.

There's no sense in choosing just steak or just potatoes; let's take enough of each to make a great, balanced meal. A balanced diet extends far beyond steak and potatoes, or bacon and eggs, or spaghetti and meatballs, or PB&J (or any other yummy two-food combination). It's more like Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes and corn and green beans and some weird Jello-fruit thing and wine and beer and water and mashed potatoes and my wife's awesome lemon-poppy seed cake and far too many other desserts to list.

The best thing about a "balanced diet" metaphor is that it reminds us we don't have to choose between work, family, and the rest of our lives. We can choose enough of each to be successful in each.

So, please spend your time at work productively and efficiently. Support your family the best way you can. But be sure to balance career aspirations with spending lots of time with those you love. And take some time for yourself and your other important relationships. It's not a balancing act; it's a healthy "balanced-diet" approach to life.

What do you think about work-life balance? Any experiences to share? Let's discuss in the comments below.

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