Boundaries are better than ‘balance’
Through my work I have the privilege of hearing other women’s aspirations, concerns and insights into the minutiae of what it takes to be at their best. One thing that comes up time and again is boundaries. Not the leylandii/neighbour dispute type, but the demarcations we use to ensure we spread our energy around a range of pursuits. In this post I’m offering boundaries as an alternative to pursuing ‘work-life balance’ – a phrase I detest.
‘Work-life balance’ implies work is separate from ‘life.’ This is clearly nonsense; a rich life involves gratifying work. The dichotomy ‘work-home balance’ is little better as it suggests ‘both in equal measure’ and ‘experienced separately’ is preferable. I don’t buy this and neither do the women I work with who find they flourish because they can and do fit professional tasks in at home in exchange for being able to leave early/come in late or work from home. My final point is that for some people, their paid work will always take a back seat compared to their home life and vice versa. Life isn’t equal and it isn’t fair. Didn’t we all learn that as children?
So if I’m trashing ‘work-life balance,’ what do I give you instead? I give you not one but three tools – 1) appreciative inquiry (AI), 2) intuition and 3) boundaries.
A tool that started out in the 80s from organizational behaviour studies, AI is about noticing what processes are working. In this context AI is about you noticing what you are doing when life feels good and doing it more of the time. It’s a tool I use with clients to generate concrete actions that are likely to improve a given situation. For example, a client who is returning from maternity leave has a challenge of winning over a couple of people in the business who have a dotted line into her. In our coaching time she talked about suspicion on their part and not buying into her tried and trusted methodology on a given project. Through appreciative inquiry type questioning we ascertained that the relationships with these people are at their best when she is in ‘listening mode.’ The focus for her first week back after mat leave is going to be to get alongside these people and listen to what’s been going on, what’s been working whilst she’s been away and what needs tuning up. She is confident this will get her off to a strong start and signal her desire to build a trusted partnership with them.
You can take an AI approach to deducing how you can be at your best more of the time by reflecting each day on what went well and why. By writing it down you take the first step in making it happen more of the time.
I’d put money on people who work a clearly demarked 50 hour week Monday to Friday and focus fully on family, rest and play out of those hours being far more energized, happy and well than those who work less hours but do them in a blurring, always-half-a-mind-on-it type way. For this reason I re-emphasise that I don’t think it’s so much about a ‘balanced life’ (all things in equal measure) as it is clear boundaries around different parts of life to avoid the feeling of being worn out through distraction and dilution of effort. Quite simply, boundaries help us bring our whole selves to bear on one thing. For instance, when in work-mode, don’t be in charge of children however ‘nicely’ they’re playing; when in family-mode, put your mobile away and work papers out of sight; when in rest-mode, take yourself out of sight of anything you’re going to feel the need to action. I’ve found that a few well-chosen boundaries can make all the difference to how good life feels. I have five notable ones: 1) no business activities before the children are at school unless another adult is here, 2) a 9pm cut-off for business activities, 3) a boundary around mealtimes – we all eat together when we’re in and electronic devices remain outside it, 4) ring-fenced time to run 3-4 times a week and 5) time every weekend for the four us to be just the four of us. Outside these things pretty much anything can happen and every week is different. These time boundaries are the bare minimum I’ve learned I need to feel good. Goodness knows I’m not perfect though and have work to do on not blurring the boundaries between work and home at tea-time (where I have a pesky habit of interweaving rustling up dinner with doing simple business tasks. Yet I know I feel better when I simply focus on domestic stuff at this point in the day. Hmmmm….).
So how can we get better at sticking to boundaries? Before I hit a boundary there’s usually a little voice that let’s me know I’m approaching it. I call it intuition. I believe our minds are incredibly good at monitoring, keeping track and signaling to us when we’re about to divert from making a good decision. Take this by way of example: I am a time maximiser and I get a thrill from getting a lot done in a short space of time. What I’ve noticed is, when I see there is a small window between finishing one thing and needing to be somewhere else, I very rarely pause and use those few minutes to metaphorically inhale/exhale (unless I’m with a client, in which case it would be mighty unprofessional to run back to back without time to ‘centre’ myself before the next). Instead I immediately think ‘what can I quickly ram I here?’ What’s interesting is, my intuitive, self-regulating voice will say: “Is that really a good idea?” to get me to stop. Rarely is the voice not there at these points and when I listen to it I generally fare better than when I ignore it. Alas I often do ignore it but I’m working on it.
As an aside, I’ve recently had some great conversations with freelance journalist, Elle Tucker, on the thoughts described here and will update this post when they go to print.