Forget Work-Life Balance: It’s All About the Blend
No matter what we try, work-life balance always seems like a destination that we have yet to reach. It’s around the corner, out of our grasp.
It sounds nice, doesn’t it? We all say we want it, and why wouldn’t you? You envision that perfect 50/50 balance point, where you magically finish everything you need to do at work and still have time left over for going to hot yoga, making homemade bone broth, getting 8 hours of sleep, and everything else Instagram tells you to do to be a well-rounded human.
Reality looks a little more like this: You’re working on that report but you have to leave the office early because you haven’t been to the dentist in an embarrassingly long time. Or you’re trying to meal prep at home when an important email comes in, and next thing you know you’ve burned everything and you’re stuck eating instant ramen for lunch tomorrow. Or any one of about a thousand other scenarios that have happened to all of us, pretty much every single day.
Simply put, when you’re at work, your personal life seeps in, and when you’re at home, your brain’s often still at work. More frequently, it’s a combination of all those things, happening all at once. And when you have that paragon of balanced perfection in mind, the constant spillover effect can make you feel as though you’re failing on both fronts.
No matter what we try, work-life balance always seems like a destination that we have yet to reach. It’s around the corner, out of our grasp. Maybe, we think, we could get there if we rearranged a little, woke up earlier, or just tried harder.
But maybe the problem isn’t what we’re doing, but rather the concept of work-life balance itself. Perhaps it’s time for a new standard: work-life blend.
A healthy balance
An American Sociological Review study found that seven out of ten US workers struggle with this issue, so you’re not alone. But figuring it out is really important. Not just for your own sanity, but for your health, your productivity, and your company’s bottom line.
One study found that work-family conflict can increase poor physical health by 90 percent, while another found that work-induced stress can increase your risk of mortality by almost 20 percent. But reducing work-life stress brings numerous benefits, such as lowered hypertension, better sleep, less alcohol and tobacco use, decreased marital tension, and improved parent-child relationships. So it turns out how you work affects how well (and how long) you live.
Given how important it seems to be, why is ‘work-life balance’ so hard to actually achieve?
Finding the right words
Meetings and presentations, errands and appointments, conference calls and research, laundry and takeout, pets and sippy cups — they’re all threads in the fabric of this little thing called life.
In some ways, the very idea of work and life as two things to be balanced sets us up for failure.
For one thing, ‘balance’ implies that one of those components is a negative that needs to be counteracted, like the dark side of the force. But there’s nothing negative about having a job and a life.
More importantly, work really isn’t this ‘other’ thing overshadowing your life. It’s a huge part of your life. Even if you’re not incredibly passionate about your day job, it’s still where you probably spend the bulk of your time.
Meetings and presentations, errands and appointments, conference calls and research, laundry and takeout, pets and sippy cups — they’re all threads in the fabric of this little thing called life. In pursuit of work-life balance, we treat them as different entities, trying to separate the individual strands. It’s a stressful, unrealistic, and unnecessary exercise to put ourselves through.
So ‘work-life balance’ just isn’t working anymore. We need something different. Something more fluid. Something that captures the way we actually work, live, and do all the things we do in between when our eyes first flutter open and when our heads hit the pillow again at night. We need to be focusing more on work-life blend.
How to actually build work-life blend
Work-life blend doesn’t mean that everything is happening at the same time, all the time. It’s about finding a way to fit together the important pieces.
The truth is that it’s going to take some effort to pivot from the ideal of work-life balance to being content with the reality of work-life blend. It will be messy, and it will be hard, but it’ll be worth it.
Here are some tips for cultivating and practicing work-life blend:
1. Acknowledge the blend.
As with almost anything, the first step is acknowledgment. We need to come to terms with the fact that work-life blend is how our life actually is, instead of striving to create perfection. We can’t let the amorphous pressure to ‘have it all’ pour in through the seams, making us feel like failures.
This can be hard, especially when you’re scrolling through a feed of perfectly crafted photos from people who appear to have it all figured out. “A lot of people try or claim that they have perfected balance. But in reality they’ve just drastically deprioritized, so they really are just working on fewer things,” says Joshua Zerkel, a certified professional organizer, productivity expert, and former head of community at Evernote. “The key is to accept reality and then come up with some strategies to prioritize within your blended lifestyle, knowing that’s the playing field,” he continues.
2. Be clear on your priorities.
Part of the reason why work-life balance often doesn’t work out is that it’s pretty tough to do it all. “The biggest challenge people run into with trying to have a balanced or even blended life is that they want to fit all of it in,” Joshua observes.
And doing all of the things is not really a plan (nor is it balance). Work-life blend doesn’t mean that everything is happening at the same time, all the time. It’s about finding a way to fit together the important pieces.
“To me, work-life blend is like Tetris,” Joshua says. “You have to fit the pieces of your life in in a way that makes sense to you. The difference is that you’re choosing which blocks to fit, instead of just having this big pile of blocks in the corner giving you anxiety.”
Figure out the key components that you want to get to in your days, whether it’s fitness, self-care, meals with the family, and schedule them on your calendar at a regular cadence. Treat them with the seriousness you bring to meetings and deadlines at work.
3. Set boundaries.
Once you’ve determined the pieces that matter most to you, you need to carve out time to make them happen. “I’m a big fan of time-boxing things,” Joshua says. “Give yourself time and space for personal things and then for work things. If you have a loose framework laying out where you intend to spend your time, it won’t feel like this big overwhelming mess.”
Of course, the other piece to this is knowing that sometimes your boundaries will change and bleed over, and you have to be okay with that. “Your time boxes will definitely break,” Joshua observes. “It’s okay if you run over working on your project or miss family dinner this week.” Acknowledging that things are imperfect and will naturally overlap is key to making it work. Your boundaries can’t be so rigid that they won’t bend to give way to the irregularities of real life.
Even if you can’t eliminate overlap, you can minimize it. Try out small tactics, such as using a different computer to get personal tasks done so you’re not tempted to check those Slack messages.
4. Check in on how you’re doing.
After you’ve identified your priorities and set up rough guidelines for how you want to allocate your time, you need to check in with yourself and see how your new approach is making you feel.
Ryan Smith, co-founder of Qualtrics, developed a weekly system to evaluate his progress. “Each week, I examine the categories of my life — father, husband, CEO, self — and identify the specific actions that help me feel successful and fulfilled in these capacities,” he says. “This weekly ritual helps me feel like I’m doing everything in my power to address my needs and the needs of those around me.”
Whether it’s in a journal or with a template in Evernote, track how you’re feeling in regards to work-life blend on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. If it doesn’t feel like the right mix, come up with some tactics to adjust.
5. Understand it’s a process.
As with any kind of new habit or change, this is not something that’s one and done. You can’t just check work-life blend off your to-do list. “It’s tempting to think, okay, tomorrow I’m going to have work-life blend,” Joshua says, “but of course, it doesn’t work that way.”
It’s important to be okay with adapting and evolving; after all, work-life blend means that there aren’t specific ratios or quotas you have to hit. “These are steps in an ongoing process that doesn’t end until you die — or get lots of assistants to help you manage it all,” Joshua wryly observes.
You’ll always be tweaking and adjusting, and you’ll probably constantly feel like you’re not getting the ratios right, but as with any good recipe, it tends to work out when it all comes together.
How do you feel about work-life balance? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Check out these other reads on work and life:
Why a Lack of Sleep is a Productivity Nightmare
Staying up late to work may feel productive, but is it?