Let’s try blending work and life, not balancing it.

Let’s try blending work and life, not balancing it. Let’s stop viewing work life balance as ingredient to be measured up and start seeing it as a smoothie where it all blends together, each day in its own unique way.

More and more we hear the conversation about work life balance, about how to fit it all in equally. But can we really balance work and life? Should we even try?

Being a working parent is a wonderful, challenging and complex thing and the current language of defining the challenges it presents as a balancing act between work and life is somewhat shortsighted and over simplified.

Work and life, especially life with children, are not defined units with boundaries; they are not ingredients that can be carefully measured on a scale to ensure an equal balance is achieved between the two. The challenge is the fact that there are two competing interests, both unbounded, both of value, both important, and both incredibly demanding. There isn’t an end to parenthood, or work, so herein lies the inherent moral dilemma. How do we make the correct choices, how do we decide how to prioritise between the two? When really we are not choosing between right and wrong, but rather between right and right.

Like a morning smoothie, we have a choice of good things we can add into the mix. Some days it might be more spinach, other days we might add more mangoes. It all depends on what is happening that day, how we feel and what our priorities are. The thing is, we can mix it up differently every day and that’s ok. The important part is that it all gets mixed together, and so too with work/life, it is the blending that often makes it great.

But how do we decide what to add into the mix?

Steven Rhinesmith, leadership guru and author of, Heart and Guts: How the World’s Best Companies Develop Complete Leaders, and mentor of mine, says that leaders at the top of organisations are faced with the hard decisions because others make the easier ones on the way up. They too are often choosing between right and right. Do we take a risk and expand to a new market or hold back and maximise shareholder returns?   In organisations CEO’s have teams of experts with advice and data to support their decision-making.

In the world of parenting, you don’t get a team of experts to guide you or in fact any training at all but you still have to make the tough calls. Do I stay late and try to finish that presentation tonight, or leave now and be home for a family dinner? Both are right, but a decision has to be made on which one to choose.

When I hear in the media about “super women” who somehow do “it all”, I wonder if they have been given extra hours each day, because if not, they are really operating in the same space as the rest of us. Each day we all have the same 24 hours. We must then make a choice how we spend that time; usually about 6-8 of them are spent sleeping, with 8 being better for our health. The remaining 16 hours, have at least 4 hours taken up with basic things like showers, eating, the day-to-day chores of feeding people and cleaning up, family admin, paying bills, completing forms for school etc. So that leaves about 12 hours a day that we need to make decisions about, for many people who work in a corporate environment their time includes 1-2 hours of commuting to and from work and they are committed to an 8 hour work day, or more. Reducing the discretionary time to only 1-2 hours a day. This time needs to be shared between kids, partner, friends, family, such as aging parents, community and hopefully some personal time as well.

So when one says work life balance, the issue really is that there isn’t a lot of scope to create balance in this model. The corporate world puts constraints in place that make choosing between right and right very challenging.  The trouble is that life is messy, things happen and you can’t always plan ahead. Where I see most people struggle is with the small decisions, I want to see my kid get that award at school today, but I will have to move a meeting to do it. That may not look too good for me. Both of these are valuable and important and therefore they create a sense of inner conflict and stress. We need to work in ways that allows more nuances, more blending between work and life, not in 8-hour blocks but throughout the day. This is a challenge to the way many Corporate’s operate, in spite of flexible work policies; it is still a struggle for many working people to make the best choices on a daily basis. Their smoothies are all spinach and no mango.

This might be why so many people, especially women, are moving from Corporate roles to freelancing, and setting up their own businesses. In spite of sometimes working even longer hours, many people find this model gives them the flexibility to be where they need to be throughout their day, blending work and life making each incremental decision about how to best spend their time.   To make this sort of shift in the thinking of the Corporate world, will require a move away from the outdated thinking of paying people to work a certain number of hours, to agreeing with people on a set of outcomes in a timeframe and hold them accountable to those. Then it doesn’t matter when you come into the office, if at all. What matters is achieving a set of mutually agreed outcomes.

Our current frame still equates time as money, and as the measure of performance, when in fact it should be the outcomes achieved. This is a radical new way to think about work, but we are starting to see these changes happening in the freelance economy. Many people are very happy to trade some of their potential money for more time, or even the choice as to how they spend their time.

We need to start to think about how to better support the blending of work and life for everyone, but especially for working mother’s who are trying to mix a lot into each day.

Perhaps the diversity conversation should shift its focus from how many women are on ASX boards as a measure of success, to how many women are building their own businesses and careers in a way that allows them to get the mix right for them, their family and those working with them. That would be a real sign of progress.

What do you think?

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