Work life balance.

These three words are echoed over and over again as an extremely desirable but unachievable state by most of the leaders I encounter every day.

I, like many of my clients, have chased the elusive “work life balance” horse for years. As time is not an unlimited resource, we try to budget it carefully to “fit” everything in. And I, like many of my clients, have had my share of stress-induced illnesses when I overcommit and try to fit everything I want to do into the finite number of hours in a day.

Sound familiar?

Most of us trained as coaches learn four quadrant approaches to tackle the work-life balance dilemma in our coach training programs.  Many self-help books have offered the same advice for decades:

Break your life into four quadrants—your work, your relationships, your spirituality, and your health, and identify what is most important in each area for you. This way you have a roadmap to refer to remind you what to focus on and to help you prioritize when you have too many things coming at you.

This approach can help us with making better and clearer choices about what to spend time on. It is pretty straightforward, and not that complex. (Think eat less, exercise more—lose weight) Understanding it is easy. As with all these types of dilemmas–actually doing it—not so easy.

While four compartment planning approaches are helpful, they are somewhat like diet or exercise plans. They outline what you need to do so you know what you need to do, do it for awhile, but then fall off the wagon when things get too hard. When you have too many things coming at you—you ditch your plan and best of intentions and react to the moment.

So the work-life balance thing goes out the window.

What I find is that without a significant shift in mindset—no “technique” or “tool” works.

When we think of “going on a diet”—the technique or actual diet plan may work temporarily. But unless we change the way we fundamentally think about food and eating, no diet plan will have a long-term impact. The diet plan is merely the technique we use to lose weight—not the mindset we need to have about how we eat on a long-term basis.

So here are four changes in your own mindset that are essential to help deal with the “work-life” balance dilemma:

1.  Ditch the “work-life balance” phrase and aspiration

The phrase “work-life balance” implies that work and life are two different things.

The last time I checked—we all have one life and some sort of “work” is often part of it. So the delineation just makes it more stressful and adds more pressure.   Reframing our aspiration to “Life satisfaction” or “ overall well-being” doesn’t compartmentalize the parts of our life into separate categories, but implies a more holistic, integrated, overall goal.

2.  Be clear about your overall purpose

So much to do has been made lately about “purpose” and “purpose-driven’ focus that many see “purpose” as yet another buzzword du jour. Pop culture and media overload aside—being clear about your own personal purpose in life is fundamental to help guide your life choices. In the early 1900’s, Napoleon Hill was commissioned by Andrew Carnegie, the famous industrial magnate, to study successful people and their secrets to success and achievement. After 20 years of research and interviews, he published his findings and perhaps fathered the subsequent self-help industry.

“Having a clear and definite purpose” was at the top of the list of the success formula.

Knowing what you are here to do in life and what you want is the foundation from which to make choices about what you do with your time and energy each and every moment.

3.  Manage your energy instead of just your time

Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz, in their classic book, “The Power of Full Engagement”, published in 2003, provide an interesting mindset shift twist.   They purport that the key to full engagement and balance is to stop managing your time and to instead start your managing your energy .

This reframe in mindset from managing time to managing energy had a tremendous impact on my own energy, well-being and “balance” when I discovered this book early in 2006.   The shift in mindset was the key–   It is definitely worth a read.

3.  Expect and embrace “imbalance” as a normal part of life

Expecting to have it all and have it all perfectly balanced all the time is unrealistic and an impossible goal. Mark Zuckerburg created Facebook by spending every waking hour at the expense of everything else working on the prototype. Similar story for Bill Gates and Microsoft and Steve Jobs and Apple. Oprah Winfrey recalls nearly living at the Harpo studios in Chicago in the heyday of the Oprah show. While you may not be Steve jobs or Oprah, it is still unrealistic to think that every area of your life will be perfectly lined up and in order all the time. There will be times when you spend a majority of your time and energy working on a big project and you can’t focus on much else. There will be other times where you spend a bigger portion of your energy on something else at the expense of other things. Give yourself permission to ebb and flow rather than expect yourself to be perfectly balanced in all areas all the time. The critical thing to ask yourself is this:

“Is what I am doing in alignment and in service of my overall purpose as a person in this lifetime?”  If the answer is no too many times—and you can’t make a regular connection–perhaps it is time for some deeper soul searching?

I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts on this topic. As always—send me a note with your own observations. I love hearing them.