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How I Let Go of the “Balance” Ideal

The goal is not to balance work and life, but to build a harmonious lifestyle.

Close-up view of unrecognizable woman sitting at table in office and writing information in notepad, tablet with beautiful photos seen beside
Close-up view of unrecognizable woman sitting at table in office and writing information in notepad, tablet with beautiful photos seen beside

By Stephanie Dismore, Senior Vice President and Managing Director, North America, HP Inc.

Over the course of my career, I’ve felt the push and pull of evolving norms within the workplace and our society at-large. I rode the dot.com boom and bust of the late-90s and 2000s and have been inspired by the growing mindfulness around purpose and meaning. This movement is replacing the “have-it-all” pressures that many women have felt weighed down by with a growing trend toward blurring work-life boundaries. Thanks to technology, we can now be in the moment, at any time and from anywhere – moving closer to a true “One Life,” as we say at HP.

This ethos, informed and honed by the lessons I’ve learned along my own journey, has taught me that the goal is not to balance work and life. In fact, I believe the idea of ‘balance’ is a misleading myth destined to create disappointment. After all, work is a big part of my life – a satisfying and engaging part – not a separate compartment I unpack at 8 a.m. and stow carefully away at 5 p.m. The goal is to build a harmonious life that supports a unified, holistic picture of who you are.

Here’s how I do it.

Put people first

Tactical tasks can be a tempting distraction from what’s most important – the relationships that transform your goals into meaning. We have all had those moments: the email alert on your laptop during a meeting or your cellphone ringing during dinner with the family. When we give into these distractions, we are signaling that we are not fully engaged and the message lurking behind that “ping” is more important than person in front of us. Almost always, the opposite is true. 

Whether it’s your customers, your boss, your kids or your neighbor, respect is an indispensable True North.

What does this mean for me? Contrary to the abundant celebration of multi-tasking, I intentionally focus on single-tasking: giving one assignment or interaction my full and present attention. Am I always successful at single-tasking? Of course not. It can be especially challenging when I’m on the road and feel I need to be in multiple places at once. But there are times I need to remind myself to be right here, right now.

Whatever I’m doing, I strive to be 100% present and distraction-free. Dinner with my kids means the phone, email and texts can wait. At work, I’m equally fully engaged. In fact, I schedule my single-tasking. I set aside time to check and respond to email, for instance, or to block out time for exercise. Of course, there are situations when an emergency forces the borders to flex, but for the most part, I’m unflinching about respecting the boundaries I create.

Adopt an outcomes-based approach

Focusing on outcomes is embedded in how we at HP approach challenges. I absolutely love the philosophy behind it, the idea of starting with the end in mind and knowing how you define success. This crystallized for me when a mentor asked me: what was the final role I wanted to have before I retired? That clarified things quickly.

First, identify your roles and responsibilities – and not only in the office. For me, the list includes titles such as mother, leader, ambassador, director, partner, friend and daughter. Then comes the hard part: rank how important each is relative to the other roles and how much of your resources you want to invest in each.

Get exceedingly specific about what you want to achieve in each and, depending on the role and the specific circumstances, these might be a mix of short-, mid- and long-term objectives. They could change week-to-week, month-to-month or perhaps even daily, and that’s okay. In fact, as just one example, research shows that only 8 percent of people achieve their New Year’s goal. What’s important is being able to reassess and being honest with yourself about what you are willing to sacrifice, both short- and long-term, to work towards a stated goal. This is not an easy task; it’s something I struggle with often. Figuring out how to do this is a continuous journey unique to each individual.

Finally, analyze where you are and where you want to be and figure out what experiences, tools, resources, support and guidance is needed to move you along the journey. Your job is then to check off as many of those boxes as possible, unless or until you reevaluate that goal.

Navigate intermittent chaos with clear communication

Let’s face it, there are times when harmony just flies out the window – a new job, a lost job, an illness, a move, the birth of a child. Life happens. And as you accumulate more responsibilities, when chaos hits, there will be times when you will have to drop or dramatically reprioritize something in order to stay on track.

I have found that the outcomes-based approach and people-first orientation act like a pilot boat, a guide through the storm so you can deliberately decide what to give up and avoid the risk of inadvertently dropping something important. Add to this a keen ability to delegate effectively (to co-workers, family members, friends, whatever makes sense) and a strong bias for proactive communication and you’ll ride out any storm intact.

In the workplace, more than half of employees report not being given clear direction on a regular basis and two-third of managers are not comfortable communicating with their employees. If you don’t work to proactively communicate with team members on a regular basis, the turbulent times are likely be to chaotic and disastrous.

Have the tough conversations before the tough times arrive. You should work to establish a culture of transparency and communication with everyone in your life — colleagues, friends, family members — so that when intermittent chaos does rear its head, you’ll be prepared.

Balance is an outdated ideal; a fully satisfying and harmonious life is the goal. Achieving it means doing the hard work to determine what’s right for you and then intentionally prioritizing the outcomes you desire. I won’t lie, it’s not easy, but committing to be fully present in your One Life empowers you to invest in the relationships and outcomes that matter, and adjust in the moment to whatever life throws at you.

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