The Real Secret to Better Work-Life Balance Isn't 'Balance' At All

2015-07-22-1437593235-2770240-JustinGray.pngAuthor Justin Gray is the CEO and chief marketing evangelist of LeadMD. He founded the company in 2009 with the vision of transforming traditional grassroots marketing efforts through the use of cloud-based marketing solutions.

Ask a group of job hunters for their employment wish list these days and you'll probably hear something about work-life balance. It's treated like yet another job perk, along with juicing stations, gym memberships and dog-friendly offices -- and it's now so embedded in the concept of a "dream job" that people are repeating it without defining what work-life balance even means.

Talk to currently employed people, and the story changes. You'll find a lot of these benefits don't really have much of an impact on their satisfaction - it's not perks that make a job fulfilling, but the job itself. Millennials especially care not only about making enough money but also finding meaning in their jobs. And that gets to the heart of why most people pursue and stay at specific positions. All the massage chairs in the world aren't going to keep an employee who dislikes performing her daily responsibilities or feels like her work is benign.

Which brings us back to work-life balance. When this first became a common topic in the business world, it meant something any sensible person could agree with: professionals could excel at work while still enjoying free time to spend on the things that mattered to them. Lately, though, the concept has been twisted into a division between two completely separate spheres, one of drudgery and one of leisure.

Here are two problems with this mentality:
  1. Regarding eight hours of your day as devoid of meaning seems downright nightmarish.
  2. That division isn't really possible or even practical in our digital era. Even if you aren't glued to email, Slack or chat at night, you likely do want to check in from time to time, take a dinner meeting, peruse some content or sign a contract digitally. We think of this as efficiency, not intrusion.
The point is, the boundaries between our personal and professional lives are disintegrating, which means we've got to conceptualize work-life balance in a fresh and more effective way.

Practicality and Passion

The most common misconception about work-life balance is that it's about time. It's not; it's about satisfaction. I truly believe the root of satisfaction is self actualization. At the core of that pinnacle element of Maslov's hierarchy is self-awareness, and therefore work-life balance becomes more about the understanding of your own purpose. Why do you get up every morning? Not everyone can make a living from their dream career, of course. The trick is finding something that truly utilizes your gifts and interests. So, what is it about your profession that you can't live without? If the list is long, when your job inevitably mixes with your personal time -- you won't resent it.

I once had an employee tell me that they would do anything for money. It was at that point I knew they weren't a good fit for our culture. In 60 days, the employee was let go. Income and satisfaction aren't separate pursuits; in fact, chasing your passion often leads to a greater income because the quality of your output is so much higher. However, chasing money devoid of passion is a path to disaster. Without passion, even a 40-hour week at a job you dislike will feel exhausting, and you won't be motivated to do it well. Furthermore, by the time you get home, you'll be too exhausted to spend time on your actual interests.

If you do despise going to work every day, then you're in the wrong culture, wrong role or wrong purpose. Don't bother trying to create a wall between your personal and professional life; it's just not possible to completely unplug, and you'll resent every phone call or weekend project that encroaches on your free time. The best action in that case is to move on.

Cultivating the Right Fit

That said, some of this is about effort. Yes, great jobs are partly about finding the right culture and position. But they also require putting in effort and shaping your role into something you enjoy. Be proactive in your job. Engage. If you'd like to grow into a certain area, speak up and find out what you need to do to make that happen. Open the lines of communication with your manager. Find out what areas the company is struggling with and apply your talents to solving those issues. Today's corporate environments encourage proactivity and are largely casting out hierarchy structures that limit creativity and communication.

To explore the other side of the coin, managers should also hire with these guidelines in mind. Competence is just the baseline; you want to see passion too. One red flag is a candidate who says, "I always wanted to learn more about that" when discussing job duties. If they weren't passionate enough to learn it on their own, you're not looking at someone who's naturally enthusiastic about the role.

Our parents lived in a professional world where they came home for dinner and never thought about work until the following morning. Those days are gone, and that's not a bad thing. What is a bad thing, however, is letting our companies and ourselves as managers get lazy about the standards we hold for the level of innovation and value in our work. With most conversation between professionals taking place over chat and email, the work day starts to feel more like a checklist than an actual creative collaboration. We spend more time saying "yes, I saw this note" or "not yet, but I'll get to this soon" than actually doing the work at hand.

The true secret of work-life balance is that spending more time checking more emails does not make you more important or more valuable as an asset to your company and clients. To borrow the old saying, it's not the amount of days in your work, it's the amount of work in your days.