For the last few weeks, I have been running into the concept of work/life balance on a regular basis. I see it mentioned in articles, on the internet, in conversations. Wherever I turn people seem to be looking for the perfect blend of time spent between work and personal life that will leave them fulfilled and happy. But if this is what so many people are looking for, why is it so hard to find?
In theory, dividing our time should be pretty simple. In reality, it is anything but. Part of the problem stems from our concept of time. As children and young adults we believe we are immortal–we have all the time in the world. Life consists of an endless supply of opportunities. When I was about ten years old I told someone that nineteen must be middle-aged, so the entire idea of being fifty was incomprehensible. Now that I am on the other side of fifty, my perspective has changed just a bit. Fifty is not so old, but I also realize that time is not infinite. We do not have all the time in the world. I don’t believe I am unique in this experience. I think we all realize as we age our time is a limited resource and should be treasured and treated as such.
So why is it still so hard to balance our work-life with our home-life? It seems like no matter what we do, one area of our lives always seems to take precedence, and one seems to get neglected. Coming from an accounting background, I decided to look at this concept of dividing our time as though it were a financial report.
Looking at the big picture, there are three main categories where we spend our time. In no particular order they consist of work, sleep, and personal time. If life were truly balanced, each area would get an equal share of our attention. In reality, nothing is further from the truth.
From an accounting perspective, there are 168 hours in a week. At that rate, finding balance should be simple. Using an average work week of forty hours, that leaves us 128 hours for sleep and personal time. That’s great except for the fact that few people really work 40 hours. Most people work 9 hours a day including lunch and breaks. Since many people work through lunch, that moves more hours into the work column. Getting to and from work also increase hours in the work column. The average commute is thirty minutes each way. In California and other urban areas that would be a dream commute. I used to spend an average of two hours a day to make a roundtrip commute of sixty miles. With that we are edging closer to an 11 hour work day.
That leaves us very close to the 56 hour per week mark. Now add in the hidden costs. It is a very subtle shift, and it happens over time. How much time to we spend checking email when we get home? What about working on that report that is due on Monday? At first, we think it is to our benefit to keep on top of those emails at night so we aren’t swamped the next morning. Showing the boss that we are capable and dedicated by working after hours ensures our place in the company is secure and paves the way for advancement. Even spending time planning the upcoming week or month on a Sunday leaves us more time free for the work week. However, all the extra time spent has to come from somewhere, and that is where most of us lose that feeling of balance.
Now, some people live for their work. Spending 60 or 80 hours is just normal for them and they love it. It fulfills them and gives them everything they need.
Most people I talk to don’t feel that way. They spend many years establishing a career and a lifestyle. But at some point, they look at what they have achieved and realize giving endless hours to the job no longer reflects what is personally important and has not fulfilled them. There is a disconnect and an imbalance and with that comes dissatisfaction.
Once you look at the idea of your time as finite, it may become a little easier to establish your priorities. Just as you have a certain amount of money to budget, you really only have a certain amount of hours in the week that are at your discretion. Some people give those over to work, pulling them from the personal and sleep columns. Some chose to focus more on personal and family development, pulling those extra hours out of the work column. The key is that how you allot your time is a choice, but once you accept that we do not have an endless supply of hours at our disposal, the choice may become clearer.
Ultimately, the definition of work/life balance is a personal one. We can try to break down the different components into separate categories, but they are all parts of the whole and those parts are seldom equal. The key to finding the balance that works for you is to decide what is truly important to you. What fulfills you and makes you glad that you have experienced a day and look forward to another. That should give you a clue as to how to budget the hours given to you.
Just remember, time is not really like money. You can always make more money. Once you have spent time, there is no way to get it back. Be sure to make it count.
Have you found a comfortable work/life balance? I would love to hear how you did it.
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