Why Work-life Balance Doesn’t Work 

We shouldn't have to choose between success in our careers and success in other parts of our lives.

Westend61/ Getty Images
Westend61/ Getty Images

Have you ever felt pulled in too many directions? Have you ever felt that those in your professional life were being demanding or that no matter what you are doing your manager isn’t satisfied? Most of us have been there, and most of us at some point have been told that the solution is better “balance.” As a speaker on gender-related issues, I frequently get asked to discuss work-life balance. However, I respectfully decline this topic in favor of a more realistic and empowering approach to “time and energy optimization.” 

While balance is an elusive ideal at best, it also misses an essential point. Instead of imagining a scale with two sides that we’re trying to balance, we would be better off imagining a wallet with a limited number of dollars. We have a choice of where to invest those dollars—our time—and we want to invest them in the activities and tasks that produce the most returns. Optimizing our investments means that we have more opportunity to risk intelligently. Not optimizing them results in ongoing feelings of conflict and tension. Another consequence is having little energy or time to invest in the chances that matter. What is the rate of return on your investment of time and energy? Hint: If you’re investing based on assumptions rather than informed insights, you’re likely unintentionally creating a career and life with more tension and less time and energy for making bold moves. Use curiosity to ask, not assume, and optimize your time investment.

The Key To Reducing Feelings Of Conflict: Curiosity

The key to alleviating or reducing feelings of conflict isn’t in working harder but in getting smarter around the needs, expectations, and desires of those who matter to you and have a stake in your career and life. In other words, the solution is optimizing your time and energy investments to produce the best returns. The key to optimization: curiosity. While curiosity can’t give you more hours in your day, it can help you make the most of those hours so that you can reduce feelings of conflict and free up your time for risk-taking. 

Understanding Your Stakeholders

When working in consulting, rotating across strategic and people projects in different companies and locations, I realized that the success of most organizations hinges largely on their understanding of the needs of their primary stakeholders, those who have a stake in or influence on the future of their business. These included internal stakeholders, such as employees and leaders and board members, and external stakeholders, such as clients or customers. Leaders seek to understand the expectations of these important people in a structured way, such as stakeholder assessments, customer needs assessments, market assessments, client surveys, and talent and employee surveys and focus groups. All these assessments were based on asking questions to understand the needs and desires of others, ensuring that the business was functioning on data, not assumptions. Despite the fact that understanding expectations is core to the successes of the world’s leading organizations, many women don’t apply these skill sets to their professional and personal lives; they don’t ask.

Ask, Don’t Assume

One of the biggest mistakes that I see women making in the workplace is investing their precious and limited time and energy based on assumption rather than insight. My best bit of advice: Ask, don’t assume. It may seem simple, but it has the power to transform your work and life and to reduce feelings of conflict as you optimize your investments. In short: Use the power of curiosity to optimize your career and life. 

Many women with whom I work report feeling stretched and burned-out, and this affects their appetite for risk, as making bold moves intelligently takes both time and energy. While time is not infinite and we all have twenty-four hours in the day, what can differentiate us is whether we invest that time smartly and in the activities that produce the most returns. I often see women investing in activities that they think matter at work while overlooking what is actually critically important to their managers and teams. When I say, “Have you asked your manager what matters most to them? Have you set up time to understand how best to prioritize your tasks according to what is important to your leader?,” the answer is most often no. It’s easy to fall victim to frantically investing time in things that don’t matter, with increased feelings of tension and conflict. I see women receiving negative feedback in performance reviews and delayed promotions because they weren’t prioritizing and executing on the things that mattered most to their managers. They were pushing a boulder up a mountain only to reach the top and realize that they were climbing the wrong mountain. They never approached the climb with a spirit of curiosity and never asked their manager for directions on which mountain to climb. I often see women doing this at home as well, investing in things they think matter to their partners and families while not realizing that what really matters is something else. This is poor investment with poor returns.

Curiosity leads to Clarity

In her book Take the Lead, Betsy Myers speaks about clearly communicating expectations as a core component of life: “Clarity is just as important in personal relationships as it is in business. It is easy to make assumptions about other people’s expectations, about what matters to them or what makes them feel appreciated—but again, assumptions can often be wrong. The only reliable way to gain that clarity is to ask.” Curiosity leads to clarity. Clarity leads to reduced conflict. Reduced conflict creates more room for bold career moves.

Put It into Practice

Ask, don’t assume. So how do we go about doing this? Stew Friedman, an organizational psychologist and the author of Total Leadership, suggests that we engage in stakeholder dialogues to verify existing expectations, to change existing expectations where appropriate, and to explore how expectations might be met in new ways. He notes that many people put too much pressure on themselves because they inaccurately inflate the expectations of others and then feel as if they were letting everyone down. Building an understanding of real expectations can alleviate this pressure. Create a list of your primary stakeholders, your inner circle of relationships, including your manager or team leaders at work, as well as friends and family. Set up time for a structured dialogue with each of them, focusing on what matters most to them. Don’t be afraid to ask the important questions. According to Friedman, the goal is to verify and, if necessary, correct your perceptions of expectations. Get clear on what matters most to the people who matter to you and have a stake in your career and life. Curiosity leads to clarity. 

Optimize your investments.

You’ve clarified expectations and now you can optimize your investments. If you’re investing most of your time at work trying to manage client requests, when what’s really important to your manager is executing on a particular project deadline, you can tweak your time investment accordingly. If you’re generating stress and conflict in your life by trying to have dinner with your partner or children every evening when what’s really important to them is quality time on the weekend, when you’re less likely to be multitasking and exhausted, then you can tweak your approach. A stakeholder assessment at work and at home allows us to understand expectations and manage those expectations by investing in the activities that mean the most and generate the most value for our stakeholders. We invest our time for maximum impact and maximum return, rather than investing in things that don’t matter to the people we care about and those who have a stake in our careers. I encourage you to set up regular meetings, with question asking, to pinpoint what matters most to the people who matter, especially in your professional context at work, so that you can always be optimizing your investments. This can be as simple as a weekly meeting with your manager to discuss what was accomplished this week and what you have planned for the next week, and asking, Are these focus areas aligned with your priorities? What matters most to you right now? 

Lead an “outbox life.”

Betsy Myers encourages individuals to focus on owning their daily decisions. When speaking to a cross-company group of  women at Baker McKenzie’s New York offices, she asked the audience a resonating question: “Are you living an inbox life or an outbox life?” An inbox life is reactive and spontaneous. It lacks structure and involves replying to all items that get sent your way. An outbox life is proactive and focuses on planning, allocating time and energy to identified priorities, and recognizing key areas of influence. Successful women are proactive in their choices, focus areas, and allocation of time. They are the living examples of an outbox life. Inevitably, some part of your day will be spent addressing your incoming requests. But don’t lose sight of the balance and don’t hesitate to err on the side of strategically investing in crafting an outbox life. Ask yourself: Is the way in which I am spending my time aligned with what matters most to the people who matter?

The wallet is in your hands—spend your money wisely. It’s time to abandon the elusive quest for balance and focus on the wallet that’s in our hands. We get to decide how to spend our funds. We can invest our time and energy dollars wisely, to produce great returns in our career and life, or we can spend on items that ultimately don’t matter the most. Rather than strive for the impossible work-life balance, use curious questioning to optimize your investments and make the most of your life in all spheres. 

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