As we start the new year full of resolutions about getting our lives in order (at least I always do), I remind myself that the notion of work-life balance all the time just doesn’t work, at least for me.
I argue with it on two fronts.
First, “work-life balance” sounds like work is separate from life. For me, life is the umbrella that all else falls under — work, friends, family, me — so that means work is a part of life, not separate from the rest of my life.
Second, I have learned I am unable to give full attention to all of those chunks at a given time. Sometimes it’s work; other times it’s family, and yet another time it will be me. This is the only way I’ve learned to avoid beating up on myself for not having them all “in balance” all the time.
Years ago, I was deep into a big project for the university that required lots of travel to Asia. It was no different than what colleagues at global companies deal with, but I just never expected it as an academic. I spent years commuting 36 hours to my workplace — over to Hanoi or back to Boise. One semester, I lived in Hanoi full-time with my children.
On a regular basis I dealt with the frustrations of a 24-hour work day — when my work day in Boise was “over,” it started for my colleagues in Asia, so when I woke up, they had already sent piles of work to be done (along with whatever else I had brewing in Boise). When I was in Boise, the Vietnamese said they needed me more. When I was in Vietnam, my Boise colleagues thought I wasn’t “doing my job.”
In 1998, on a long weekend in New York City with my family, I bought a ring for myself with three stones of different sizes. To me, they represented three chunks in my life: work, family/friends, me. I realized that those stones or parts of my life would never be the same size or weight for me at any given time, but I needed to be sure they “balanced out” over time.
When I bought the ring, work dominated and then came family, period. I had no time or space for friends or myself, really. After the project ended, the chunks shifted, so my sons dominated time and space — I went to every tennis practice and tournament and play they had, and I hung out more at home in case they were ready to chat (teenagers). Eventually, as our sons left home, I found my way back into friendships and found time to get myself into shape. Now, I’m at a new phase, where the dominating piece is another family member.
So in this new year, when things seem “out of balance,” I just look at the three-stone ring, a bit worn for wear, and know things will work out.
Nancy Napier is distinguished professor in the College of Business and Economics at Boise State University. firstname.lastname@example.org