Debunking the Myth of Work-Life Balance – The Wobble
by John Humphrey | EVP Cyber Group, Inc.
In 2003, I co-founded Pariveda Solutions with Bruce Ballengee. One of our keys to success was recruiting top computer science and MIS students from leading universities. I spent a lot of time on the road speaking on Networking for Life (now Connect for Life) on college campuses. Invariably, somebody asked me about work-life balance at Pariveda. I started thinking about this topic, and in 2006, I wrote a short piece in the Pariveda Solutions’ internal newsletter called The Wave on the topic of work-life balance. It was titled “The Wobble.” I thought about it for several years and wrote an updated piece in 2010 called “The Wobble – Two.”
Now, COVID. It would seem this topic is more relevant than ever. We have moved from corporate locations or at the offices of our clients to our dining room tables, a spare bedroom, a home office, or a kitchen table. Forget about balance, “work” has taken on an entirely new perspective. When and where “work” takes place is shifting. For the single mom, work happens from 5am to 9am and 8pm to midnight. For those with elementary kids, school and work have often blurred. For college students, they are away at school, but many are doing remote work. It would seem like the contract between employer and employee has shifted in the white-collar world to the employee. Quality work. Longer hours. Integrating all our other dimensions in a world that seems to be on 24 by 7. Balance? Are you kidding me? “I’m just trying to survive.”
So, with that backdrop, I’d like to beg your indulgence to consider the “wobble” as the model for life rather than “balance.”
Balance would seem to be a fleeting wisp of calm in this crazy world we are living in. Many of us cannot heed the wisdom of Simon and Garfunkle when they wrote the words “slow down, you’re moving too fast, you’ve got to make the moment last.” It would seem the topic was as relevant back then as it is now.
So here it is, Debunking the Myth of Work-Life Balance – The Wobble.
The original paper began:
On a recent recruiting trip, I was asked by several candidates about work-life balance at Pariveda Solutions. This question always begets a question in my mind which is “over what time period?” A day, a week, a month, a year? I was not balanced yesterday, but I am today. I had a rough week, but I’m making up for it this weekend. My kids need me, today, should I go? How much strain can my family take? What is balance anyway? Is anyone else feeling like they are on the treadmill of life and having to make daily decisions in an attempt to be “in balance?”
Maybe this will help.
There is no such thing as work-life balance! So, if you want to, you can stop reading! Otherwise, explore this topic with me. The largest challenge we have is the healthy tension between ours and others’ expectations and the realities that tug at our schedules. Now with COVID, the challenge is ever-present. The schedule is upside down. The pace of life is gone. How do we return to the center where things make sense?
When I think of balance, I think of a gymnast in the Olympics on the balance beam or a couple of kids on a see-saw in the park. I think of equilibrium, a constant state, with one side always having the same weight as the other. Our lives in this business are anything but balanced on a short-term basis, but they better be on a mid or long-term basis. You are who and what you are because of the things you are passionate about. Whether it is family, athletics, politics, service, church or some other interest, if you ignore the important dimensions of your life, you are doomed to failure.
I would argue that when you think about balance, there are two dimensions, whereas humans are multi-dimensional between more than two dimensions. We have spiritual, emotional, physical, relational, and intellectual dimensions that cannot be ignored. Instead of seeking balance, I’d like you to consider calling it the “work-life wobble.” The “wobble” is the process that illustrates how we go through life, always checking our internal compass to see if we are losing our way. When people think about work-life balance, it implies that these things have an equal distribution of our time and focus all the time. Clearly, they do not from day to day. But, to be a consistently whole person, you have to pay attention to these dimensions, or you will eventually crater.
It may be easier said than done. I would argue that we are constantly making course corrections. My belief is that you can’t have it all… all of the time. You can have most of it, most of the time, but our striving for excellence in any one dimension in our lives is at odds with the other dimensions of our lives. Let’s face it; a career in IT consulting takes a lot of time. Our clients require us to go above and beyond on a regular basis, but most of us are driven by the desire to do great work. Our society tells us that success is found in money and possessions, but I would argue that true joy is found in the little things in life: a sunrise, a smile, a pat on the back, a warm fire, and the company of loved ones. If you ignore the people and activities that feed your spirit, mind, and body, then you will become average, and the contribution you make to your workplace will be diminished. It is not always easy to discern where to wobble next.
The last observation I will make is that the wobble is now happening on a daily basis. With COVID, your concept of a day should expand. Employers need to be more flexible. If you need to teach your kids math at 3:30 pm, why shouldn’t you have that choice as long as you’re getting the job done? Employees are now getting more flexibility and managers must look at outcomes and results. Micromanagement simply will not work.
I believe the structure of that contract between employee and employer will be permanently changed and I hope that corporate America has learned the flexibility, resiliency and trust are the way forward when it comes to people. We must all realize that we go through seasons of life. The things that are important in your twenties are less important in your thirties. If you have kids, life is different, harder and more demanding than not having them. As you transition from season to season, your passion will shift between dimensions and that’s ok. Wisdom is recognizing where you are and what you need to be your best. Sometimes we fall short and make mistakes. Seasons change. Don’t strive for balance every day, but wobble your way back, giving time and attention to the area that is lacking. If you are constantly checking and making changes, life and work will provide you with all the joy and success you desire.