*original article posted in Career developments magazine (Winter, 2018). National Career Development Association, 35(1).
Work / life balance is a particularly timely topic for exploration as we head into another holiday season, and spring semester, which for many, signifies an uptick in personal and professional activity … and workload.


Translation: More work. Less balance.
Career practitioners are adept at enriching our client’s lives by helping them more proactively work towards achieving a greater sense of their version of balance in work and life, yet rarely do we consider how this concept might apply to ourselves. When I researched balance in terms of work / family balance theory, many definitions surfaced. The most recent (which aligned closest to this article’s trajectory) from Greenhaus and Allen (2011) defined balance as a period of time when effectiveness in – and satisfaction with – work and family are consistent with one’s life priorities. Imbalance – or harmonic misalignment – of work and life implies then that individuals have difficulty setting and effecting boundaries between work and nonwork time, often despite well intentions and countless resolutions. These consistent and reoccurring failures cause a host of unhappy outcomes. In fact, researchers who publish the annual World Happiness Report (2018) found that about three-quarters of human happiness is driven by six factors: healthy life expectancy, quality social relationships, generosity, trust, strong economic growth, and freedom to live a life that’s right for you.
As an industry, higher education hasn’t been quick to embrace the flexible schedules and remote work culture that many private companies boast as a work / life balance game changer for their employees. And it seems these private companies are right on target by offering the work / life benefit that employees want. For the fifth year in a row, the Deloitte Millennial Survey (2018) reveals one of the top five things graduates look for in their employers is a strong sense of work / life balance. As a career practitioner, and self-proclaimed efficiency expert, I’ve always been perplexed and somewhat bothered by this resistance. Marks and MacDermid (1996) role balance theory postulates that people have a higher self-efficacy; more meaningful experiences and deeper relationships; perform roles with greater ease; and experience less role strain when they are given the freedom to navigate [the entire system] in a balanced way. Essentially, when we are free to negotiate our own work / life balance, we are more creative, feel a healthier sense of control, are less chronically stressed, and are more attentive to every one of our roles rather than feeling hindered by one priority over another.
Unfortunately, not all employees make use of work / life balance perks – even if offered in abundance. The pressure to be the best employee is at an all-time high, and so too are the costs. Not suprising, the United States placed 18th in terms of happiness rankings, being out-happied by countries such as Finland (#1), Iceland (#4), Israel (#11) and Germany (#16). Working 60-80-hour work weeks doesn’t leave much time for freedom to live a life that’s right for you, per the World Happiness Report, unless living a life that’s right for you means eating and napping at your desk (which is socially acceptable in certain cultures like Japan, but I digress).
Consequently, Americans sleep less than seven hours a night, two hours less than a century ago, according to National Geographic’s ‘Science of Sleep’ Issue (August, 2018) and for many, sleep is seen as an interruption to our overscheduled, demanding, “everything is too important not to get done” lives. Our computer screens inhibit the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our daily biological rhythms. When we work [on our screens] late into the night we are actually contributing to (or causing) our own insomnia. From a productivity standpoint, the cost of sleeplessness significantly impacts our country’s bottom line or Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Last year, the US saw a $411 billion-dollar loss in reduced productivity and absences; work-related and commuting accidents; and health care expenses and medical errors, all due to sleeplessness (Hafner, M., Stepanek, M. Taylor, J., Troxel, W. M, and Van Stolk, C., 2017). And here’s the kicker, the 2017 Nobel Prize winner in medicine was awarded to three scientist who ultimately discovered lack of sleep causes increased risk for illness such as diabetes, heart disease and dementia. Being overworked isn’t just causing us sleeplessness, we could actually be working ourselves to death.
How’s that for work / life balance?
Taking Back Control
Before you read any farther into this article, take a minute to answer this question: What do you want to carve out time for in the upcoming year and how are you going to do it?
Achieving a more satisfying work / life balance means we must fight harder than ever to protect and manage our time. At home, we’ve always had freedom to regulate how we spend our non-work hours, but in the workplace, increasingly, more organizations are allowing employees to manage their work time – and according to research, we do an abysmal job of it (Thomas, 2017). More and more companies offer unlimited time off, which studies show few people take advantage for reasons such as
  • they feel pressured not to;
  • the workload is too great;
  • employees revert to previous practices; or
  • workplace operations remain status quo.
In the end, nothing changes, even though employees have full opportunity to take the time off they need and regulate their own schedules as they see fit. In actuality, many of us do have control of our time, we just aren’t exercising that control.
This is where I am going to hold up the mirror. It is easy to let the work do the driving, ignoring the internal voices begging us to devote attention to other aspects of our lives even though we know taking time to care for ourselves, family, and community increases our productivity at work and improves our health and happiness. We must live the techniques we want our clients to practice. If work / life balance is about commitment, perhaps adopting commitment strategies will cultivate a desire to become more dedicated to our own work / life balance efforts.
By protecting our nonwork identities we can become our own time regulators. When we aren’t at work, we can make a conscious effort to separate ourselves from work by trying (and maybe adopting) the following (note: I DID NOT say simple) strategies:
  • Leaving your cell phone [in the car] or somewhere that allows the opportunity to be fully present during non-work activities
  • Don’t work during non-work hours (or work less – gradually decreasing work hours – I’ve tried it, it does help!)
  • Schedule white space (an old doctoral school habit) or ‘free space’ on your calendar and don’t cancel on yourself. EVER.
  • Schedule a required vacation for yourself (invite others if you’d like) once or twice a year and keep it. Better still when you’re on vacation, leave your technology at home. I have a colleague who does this and it works wonders for his creativity!
  • Start saying NO (no, really, I mean it, say NO). This is hard to do, especially when you are a new professional and you feel like you cannot pass on opportunities that come your way; however, be mindful of what you spend your time doing and the personal and professional fulfillment it ultimately brings.
  • Check your email twice a day, the same time every day – and let people know your only checking your messages during these specific timeframes. After a couple of weeks, your colleagues will get used to this new workflow routine and adjust accordingly.
  • Spend the first 15-20 minutes of each workday organizing your day in a way that 1) ensures you are prepared to execute the day with a greater sense of confidence and preparation, 2) enables you to begin the day with a more efficient plan of attack, maximizing your work hours, and 3) ensures you build in your white space or needed reflection time.
  • Enlist a ‘balance buddy’ to keep you accountable.
  • Give yourself a break if you fall off the wagon. We all have relapses; every day is a new beginning.
For work / life balance to be attainable, it needs to be connected to one’s authentic higher purpose, intersecting with both the personal and professional interests that help guide decision making. Doing so will enhance our resilience, our creativity, and our workplace satisfaction. By valuing all aspects of our identities, taking pride in our output vs. our time spent on task, and taking steps to protect our personal time, we can begin to unravel the myth that work / life balance cannot be achieved.
Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, providing us with this now [can’t live without] resource because, as he claimed, “sleep is an absurdity, a bad habit” believing himself that someday we would do away with sleep entirely. Ironically, he died of diabetes, which according to the circadian rhythm research could quite possibly have been caused by sleep deprivation. Work / life balance isn’t just a topic we talk about around the water cooler at work or write about in magazines when we need a popular topic to discuss. However YOU define balance, it’s out there – all you have to do is work for it!
You owe it to your life to put some work into achieving balance.
Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu (2018). Deloitte 2018 millennial survey. Retrieved from: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/About-Deloitte/gx-2018-millennial-survey-report.pdf
Greenhaus JH, Powell GN. (2006). When work and family are allies: A theory of work-family enrichment. Academy of Management Review, 31, 72–92.
Hafner, M., Stepanek, M. Taylor, J., Troxel, W. M, & Van Stolk, C. (2017). Why sleep matters – The Economic costs of insufficient sleep. Rand Health Quarterly, 6(4):11
Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2018). World Happiness Report 2018. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
National Geographic (2018, August). Science of sleep. National Geographic.
Project: Time Off. (2018). The State of the American vacation 2018. Retrieved from: https://projecttimeoff.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/StateofAmericanVacation2018.pdf
Thomas, M. N. (2017). Work without walls: An executive’s guide to attention management, productivity, and the future of work. Austin, TX: Burget Ave Press.