As a husband, dad and small-business owner, I frequently find myself asking hard questions about work-life balance, what it means and how to get it. Over the last year, I talked to a lot of other dads and husbands who were at different points in their careers with kids of all ages about their perspectives around work-life balance.
Unfortunately, from many men who held “big” jobs, I heard stories about missing a lot of things with their kids because of their jobs and how much they genuinely lamented that.
That combined with my own desire to figure out how to pay the bills and while still being an integral and active part of my family, I completely rethought my own approach to work-life balance. I learned some really important things. Not the least of those things was that there are a lot of men out there like me who do care quite a bit about work-life balance — even if many of us aren’t great at talking about it.
Here are five other important things about work-life balance that I learned in my yearlong journey:
1. You won’t kill your career by setting firm boundaries between work and life
Technology has all but eliminated natural boundaries between work and life. Many of us feel the pressure to be accessible all the time, thus blurring the lines between work and life. The collateral damage of that situation is often felt on the “life” side of the equation.
But what if you actually compartmentalized? Would there be collateral damage to our careers?
I decided to implement strict boundaries between work and life and did that for an entire year. I initially feared that it could have significant negative impacts on my business. What I found was that it didn’t. I haven’t lost one client. Revenue has not suffered.
2. You can put family first
Similarly, putting the family first is something many of us fear as simply not possible, especially if we are the sole financial provider. I tried it anyway, even as the sole financial provider.
What I learned was that putting family first actually helped me “guiltlessly” dive more into work. Family came first, so the guilt of being an absentee husband or dad went away.
With no guilt, I was able to set better boundaries around work, which ultimately made me more focused, efficient and effective. At the same time, with a more limited and focused time allocated for work, putting my family first actually forced me to ruthlessly prioritize at work. All of this in combination allowed me to actually enjoy my work more.
3. “Work-life blend/integration” is not the only viable solution (despite what many say)
There is a lot of talk about work-life balance being a myth and that we should just embrace work-life blend. What I learned is that you can indeed do a compartmentalized work-life balance approach. It does require a willingness to accept the implications of that compartmentalization.
For me, I strictly compartmentalized key times and days where I was going to separate work and life. Interestingly, it helped me “be in the moment” more for both work and life and actually enjoy both more.
4. Work-life balance is not a 50:50 proposition
Time in life and priorities about what is most important dictate an appropriate ratio. One dad reframed work-life balance into “work-life satisfaction.” The concept of exact balance is misleading. Your ratio is simply the result of what you really want to be focusing on.
Given my family situation, my ratio is 65:35 right now skewed towards the life side of the equation. It will inevitably be different five, 10 and 15 years from now.
5. Work-life balance comes down to hard choices we haven’t forced ourselves to make before
At the end of it all, the hardest and simultaneously most straightforward thing I learned is that it simply comes down to priorities. And every priority has up and down side implications — just like it does in our jobs.
For me, one of the implications of my 65:35 split and focus on my family is that I’ve had to accept that my small business needs to move from growth mode to sustain mode. For others I’ve talked to, it’s about whether you pursue or don’t pursue greater responsibilities at work. Or whether travel for work fits with what you want or don’t want at home.
The decisions are hard. Living with the implications can be even harder at first, especially if you are like me and had never forced yourself to do that before. I found that once I was willing to do this, work-life balance was indeed very attainable.
James Sudakow is the author of “Out of the Blur: A Delirious Dad’s Search for The Holy Grail of Work-Life Balance,” a humorous and practical guide for busy parents. He serves as the principal of CH Consulting, a boutique consulting practice that helps companies manage organizational transformation, maximize employee capabilities and improve business performance. Readers can visit his website and take the Work-Life Index, an assessment to find out if they are in control of their work-life balance or if their work and life are controlling them.