Why I Banished the Phrase “Work-Life Balance”

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If you’ve ever set the daunting goal of work-life “balance,” you know it doesn’t exist. It’s not achievable, so working toward it feels exhausting.

I realized that the “B” word wasn’t helpful almost 20 years ago, when I was talking to a senior leader in a large bank. I was trying to convince him he needed to give his people more “balance.” I pulled out all of my research and data. Finally, he stopped me and said, “Every time you say ‘balance,’ all I hear is ‘work less.’ We have so much work to get done, and I can’t agree to any policy that’s going to lead to less work.”

A lightbulb went off for me. I needed to start talking about “fit” — how everyone has a unique work+life fit that allows them to get their jobs done and manage life in a way that works for them. “Fit” allows for personalization, creativity and innovation. It isn’t one-size-fits-all. It helps us move toward a space of potential and possibility that’s exciting.

I recently talked to entrepreneur Morra Aarons-Mele on her Forbes.com podcast “Hiding in the Bathroom,” about what work+life fit means for each of us and how teams can create a flexible culture that works for everyone. Listen to the full podcast below, or keep reading for highlights from our conversation.

Why We Need to De-Gender, De-Parent and De-Age the Flexibility Conversation

Say it with me: Work+life fit is not a mommy issue. Unfortunately, the conversation about work, life and flexibility has become all about moms, but it’s not. We all need to know how to intentionally fit our work and life together, to be our best on and off the job. So when we just talk about moms and women, we’re missing out on a huge opportunity to help everyone leverage whatever work flexibility they need to be productive and happy.

Flexibility in the way we work today isn’t about women, it isn’t about parents, and it isn’t just for millennials. I’m thankful that millennials have made flexibility a cultural norm inside organizations, but work+life fit is about everyone — including those valuable, experienced Baby Boomers who might consider sticking around to help with project work instead of retiring if they have the flexibility they’re looking for.

What We Can Learn from Work+Life Fit Naturals

When I was researching my book “Tweak It,” I discovered that a small percentage of people (10-15 percent) are, what I call, work+life fit naturals. They seem, from the outside, to fit all of the parts of their life together without breaking a sweat. I figured their secrets must be very complicated (since I was not, I’ll admit, a work+life fit natural), or we’d all be doing it. But it’s actually pretty simple, and it’s more “intentional” than “natural”.

Here are the steps you can follow to think and behave like a “natural”:

  • Sit down at least once a week and think about the small, meaningful priorities you need to get done at work and in your personal life over the next seven days. Look at what habits (like exercise) and what moments (an important training and your kid’s science fair) you want to fit in.
  • Create a combined calendar where you can see all of those different priorities in one view and schedule your “tweaks” for the week.
  • Consider what resources you’ll need to make your work+life fit tweaks a reality. What flexibility do you need in how, when or where you work? What tools or technology do you need to set up? Who do you need to communicate and collaborate with to make sure everything flows seamlessly? If your flexibility (like coming in late to work on Tuesday or working from home on Friday) will affect someone else, let them know about it so that you can plan together.
  • Will it all happen as perfectly as you plan? Probably not. Things come up. Regardless, at the end of the week, celebrate your success. Work+life fit naturals don’t focus on the goals they didn’t quite reach or the hanging tasks that didn’t get finished. They celebrate the little victories, since they know that doing 60% of what you intentionally planned is better than 0%.

Even though our research shows that 97% of full-time U.S. workers say they have some degree of work+life flexibility and one-third already do most of their work from a remote location — not on their employer’s site — many workers still think “nah, I can’t work differently.” I’ve heard from many, many managers who were shocked when employees quit instead of asking to work remotely or rethink their schedule. My advice: Put together a thoughtful plan. Consider how being flexible in the way you do your job could help you remain productive, manage your life and stick around. If you’re a good performer, you’re going to be even better if you have greater flexibility and control, and managers know that.

I’d love to hear from you. How do you fit work and life together? What tweaks help you be your best, on and off the job? If you’ve joined me in banishing “balance,” what advice do you have for others?

  • http://cuppls.com/ Michelle Barnes

    Loved reading your article. Balance is key to happiness. So, it’s not about women or moms. We need to consciously weave our work and life together, simply because we want to be great at both. You’re right, people do need flexibility to be creative and productive. Your “steps” will help a lot of people.

  • Claartje Vinkenburg

    I am fully with you, “balance is bunk”. And indeed, we need to change language to bend (gendered) norms and to promote sustainability in combining career and care (or work and family, if you like, as well as other responsibilities in life). See my 2015 book chapter on this. I read in the NYT about your work – there was also a mention that APA has now adopted the term fit rather than balance. Cannot find that decision / recommendation anywhere on the APA site, however. Do you have a link? Thank you for being an inspiration!