As a serial entrepreneur, I am occasionally invited to perform speaking gigs. When it’s somewhere nice, I take my family and we have a mini holiday.
At the end the MC always says, “I’m sure everybody in the audience has lots of questions, so are you happy for people to come up to you?” And I unapologetically tell them: “No problem, but I’m here with my family, so if you want to speak to me I’ll be in the pool playing with them. You’re welcome to come up and ask me anything.”
And they do. And I answer what I can, to these guys in suits hanging around the pool, getting splashed by my kids. I’m pretty sure I’m the only entrepreneur at the conference giving business advice in her bikini.
That might not be the traditional picture of work-life balance. But the traditional picture carries a whole mess of problems.
Firstly, “balance” is usually discussed as a female problem, not a male problem. It feels normal for a man to work and have a family and a social life. Nobody praises that guy for somehow managing it all. So we have to shut down the B.S. about women needing to acquire some special skill that apparently comes natural to men.
Secondly, the concept of work-life balance is designed to make us feel bad about work. It implies that work isn’t really part of life, just a thing you have to get through to enjoy the rest of your time. Excuse me, but I love my work. I love my husband, my kids and my home, too, but it’s not one over the other.
The experts expect us to switch our phones off during family time, take regular vacations and refuse to look at work emails after hours. But what’s waiting for us when we get back? The emails and task list don’t go away, so the work piles up. Just the thought of returning from a trip to hundreds of emails is anxiety inducing.
That old idiom that you should keep business and pleasure separate is dead, I say.
You’re human. Your colleagues know that. If I weren’t friends with the people I work with, I’d never have any friends. (My friends joke that the best way to get me to spend time with them is to go into business with me.)
It doesn’t make you unprofessional to admit that you’re answering a work call from home, or during the school pickup run. You don’t have to find a quiet corner and pretend to be in an office when somebody “important” calls. And you don’t have to feel guilty for taking that call on the weekend. You love your work, don’t you? Sometimes it needs you, just like your family does.
In the same way, you need to give yourself permission to have some availability for personal things during work hours. There’s plenty of evidence that allowing people to be more “human” at work actually benefits the organization and increases productivity, not the other way around. So cut yourself some slack. If you duck out early some days to do the school run, you’re going to impact your day’s work about 5 percent and improve your family-related guilt about 1,000 percent. So go for it.
It’s just not realistic to manage your personal life and run your business or career well without this flexibility.
So what’s my answer to work-life balance? My friends and I call it blending.
We’ve all seen articles about “work-life balance.” They always seem to be accompanied by a photo or illustration of a woman standing with her arms stretched out on either side, work stuff balanced in one hand and personal stuff in the other. Or a set of scales with career on one side and personal on the other. Your job, we’re led to believe, is to get both sides to balance each other out.
What if you just threw away the scales and chucked all of it in a blender? And depending on your priorities and what you feel like at any moment, you’re allowed to blend in anything you want.
Depending on how I feel today, maybe I’ll blend afternoon drinks with my friends and a discussion about the business projects we’re across together. Or I’ll blend the school run with a work call (and if I call you from the car with my kids, they’ll be saying hi to you on speakerphone). It’s important to respect people’s time and ask for permission, but their having to put up with a bit of background noise and a quick hello from the kids often outweighs them having to wait until tomorrow for an answer or some direction.
It’s all about giving attention to what’s important right now, without worrying about whether you’re on the clock or not. It’s about managing your commitments so that everything you want to do gets done, without forcing yourself to conform to “work time” and “personal time.”
Here are some examples of what makes it work for me:
- My executive assistant knows everything about me. Her job description is totally blended, personal and professional: She’s across everything, on top of everything in my life. Having people who can help you juggle your commitments is crucial to making it all work.
- In my organizations, we don’t have any meetings before 9:15 a.m. or in the evenings. We do daytime meetings and lunches only, so that people can drop their kids at school and be home with them at night (or I have the team around for a barbecue and we talk business while the kids are playing). On the other hand, if a staff member is at their child’s soccer game and they get a work call, I’d encourage them to take it if they can. My staff know it’s fine to say, “I’m at the kids’ soccer game. I can talk for five minutes.”
- If I have to go away for two weeks or more for work, the family comes with me. When I do go away by myself, I extend the break for half a day per every day that I’m away, and spend some time with the family at the beach or somewhere away from home once I return. I go back to work with my batteries recharged.
Obviously your blending choices aren’t going to be the same as mine, because your life isn’t set up exactly the same as mine. You might be reading this and thinking “good for you, but I couldn’t do those things. I don’t even have an assistant.” That’s fine—what could you do? And who could help you?
Take a second now and imagine how blending might work for you. What kind of freedom could you create if you let go of the idea of work-life balance and started blending instead?
What would change if you stopped apologizing to your spouse and kids for giving attention to your work, and instead showed them how much you love it? Or invited them to be involved?
How empowered would you feel if you started setting boundaries unapologetically around work, and managed your time according to what you know serves your productivity best, instead of what makes you look like a hard worker?
How free would you be if you stopped switching between different versions of yourself and started being the same person all the time—whether you were with your family, on a date, catching up with your friends, or talking to your colleagues?
All of that is possible. You just have to know what you value most, promise not to compromise, and live unapologetically in line with what’s most important to you. It isn’t always easy—it’s bloody hard sometimes—but that’s why you have to commit to it and become part of a new wave, a working culture committed to rising without compromising.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Balance is B.S. by Tamara Loehr. Copyright (c) 2019 by Tamara Loehr. All rights reserved.