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Finding your work life balance

March 27, 2014

Yesterday I had a conversation with an MBA student who is interning with a major bank in New York City this summer – a coveted position for which this smart, personable, talented young woman will work 100+ hours a week. She’s anticipating a grueling schedule, missing a friends wedding (she doesn’t think she’ll get a weekend off), and an inside look at a worklife with little “life” outside work.

Later in the day I read this Atlantic article: America’s Workers: Stressed Out, Overwhelmed, Totally Exhausted, with the subtitle: Why do so many people—particularly women—seem to have so much on their plates?

In the article, a writer who has researched and written a book about feeling overwhelmed posits that this issue of work-life balance is a societal problem, rooted in cultural pressures formed in the industrial age and exacerbated by societal pressures forming in today’s “always-on” age.

I agree, and she makes many good points about the pressures to succeed, and the constant stress men and women are under as they work, raise children, and worry whether they are doing enough. I have certainly felt these pressures in many years of working, raising a family, and balancing ambition with the needs of my family.

I’ve worked hard on defining balance as something other than a number of hours worked (and I hope my MBA friend can discover her path even while working 100+ hours a week). To me, having a balanced perspective on work and life is about having good definitions of success, a flexible attitude, and a clear sense of what keeps me feeling creative and happy.

  • Defining success. Definitions of success are often in conflict, because they come from so many sources: personal ambition, corporate career paths, family roles, faith traditions. Rather than fight the conflicts, I try to use these structures as guidelines from which I can forge definitions of excellence that work for me, and can shift with time. I can, and have, redefined success at various times in my life as a promotion, as a successful fund-raiser at school, as a remodeling project at home. An expansive and long-term definition of success helps me keep a balanced perspective on success.
  • Staying flexible. Balance doesn’t mean equal. We all have day-to-day fluctuations in intensity, where work is all-consuming or sudden events at home take precedence. But the flexibility applies long-term, too. I may not move to a new assignment as quickly I’d hoped. I may take my Girl Scout troop camping in the Fall instead of the Spring. We may postpone a project at home. I’m not flexible about what my priorities are; I’m flexible about my perspective on achieving my goals.
  • Fostering creativity. I have learned to listen to the voice inside that tells me I’m not functioning on all cylinders, and it has been the most important thing I’ve done to maintain perspective and balance. I’ve come to understand that my balance comes from restoring the creativity that gets zapped by stress of all kinds – physical, emotional, and mental. The restoration can be as basic as a long run to release tension or a date with my husband to reconnect. But it can be as complex as realizing my work assignment is no longer challenging me, or that lack of volunteer work is making me feel spiritually empty. I am most productive at work and at home when I am feeling creative and strong. Fostering creativity in all parts of my life is the best way for me to keep a balanced perspective.

It isn’t always easy to have perspective, especially amid deadlines, distractions, or disappointment. I am not perfect (or perfectly accomplished), nor do I represent all working women, all mothers, all professional and personal situations. And so I share my story as a work-in-progress, and as one that works for me.

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