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Real Work-Life Balance is a Thriving Personal Life

This is a very silly story. Yesterday, I received a random four hours of vacation. I checked to see if it couldn’t be transferred to another day or if I could take it at another time, and I couldn’t. Further, I wouldn’t get “credit” for any work I did during this time. The vacation vanished if I didn’t take it. Initially, I thought I would work through it to catch up. But then I thought, how silly. I’m being given the gift of time and I’m just going to throw it away? It made me realize how screwed up my ideas about work-life balance had become.

Real Work Life Balance

When we talk about work-life balance in the U.S., we’re talking about maintaining some semblance of a life while we have a job.

According to the top Google search hit on the topic: work-life balance is

 the state of equilibrium where a person equally prioritizes the demands of one’s career and the demands of one’s personal life.

So you balance the “demands.” This means we get our errands done, take care of our children, and don’t physically or mentally break down outside our job. Work-life balance is giving it all in your work and having enough scraps at the end that you don’t fall apart. Not having work-life balance means actually falling apart. Work-life balance should be our bare minimum, and yet we always talk about work-balance as if it is something we should all be striving for.

We don’t talk about work-life balance where you’re putting the same amount of effort and energy into making your life awesome as you do at your job. When we think about leisure time, we think about watching TV or eating out – passive activities. We don’t talk about pursuing our dreams, learning new skills, expanding our minds and connecting with bigger forces in our community through friends or social change.

What Would Happen if We Really Balanced Work and Life

It’s no wonder to me that people want to retire early. With so many people working remotely, the lines between work and life have significantly blurred and most people never decided to set boundaries. Instead, work creeped into every moment of personal life.

The FIRE movement really resonates with people who want a real work-life balance. They don’t want to spend the best hours/days/years of one’s life working for someone else or working at all while giving nothing to ourselves. When do we get to put our personal lives first or even sixth?

Is it selfish? No. Because why should we have loyalty to our companies? They don’t have loyalty for us. Why shouldn’t we get to enjoy our own lives? As my favorite Mad Men quote says, that’s what the money is for.

I don’t want to work so hard at my job that the only energy I have left is for sleeping. I want to have a full vibrant life where I’m learning and creating at my best level. In a real work-life balance, I want to bring at least as much energy into my personal life as I bring into my work life. I want to have great physical, mental, and emotional health, great relationships and purpose. I shouldn’t have to wait until I’m retired to build that life for myself. I should be building that life while I work.

Work-Life Identity

It makes a lot of sense that we define ourselves by our jobs, because we spend most of our time and energy there. Further, many of us don’t have other identities.

And that might not matter, but eventually we retire, or at least reach retirement age. And many people die shortly after retiring, because they’ve lost all meaning and all identity in their lives. We spend so much of our lives saving for retirement, but we don’t spend time thinking about what we want to do with this free time. This is what the four hours seemed like to me. I had no clear idea what to do when gifted with the most precious gift of all – time. I had a clear vision of the work things I could work on, but I had no personal vision. And that’s not balance.

How to Achieve Real Work Life Balance

I admit that my story represents the easiest part of work-life balance – figuring out what to do with time I already have. But it’s an important component. If we don’t plan for free time, it can get frittered away. If we don’t put strict boundaries on the time that is ours, it can easily be subsumed by something else. It’s kind of like we need a budget for our time. If I have this much time I will do this list of 5 things that I’ve been putting off.

Just like we have clear priorities for our jobs, we need clear priorities for our personal lives. What would really improve your life right now? If your goal is having more meaningful relationships, then use your found time to reconnect with a friend. For those who want better health, prioritize stretching or exercise with spare minutes. You don’t necessarily need four free hours on a random Monday to do these things. Keep a running tab so it’s top of mind when you have a few extra minutes at the grocery store or while waiting in line. Block that time for yourself. Then block more time for yourself. And never feel guilty about it. This is your time. Your job only gets to take so much of it.

Conclusion – What Real Work Life Balance Would Look Like

If I had real work-life balance, I would have treated the four free vacation hours as a gift. So what did I eventually do with my free four hours? I went rock climbing, because I’ve been meaning to go for awhile, and my excuse was always that I didn’t have time! I went on a bike ride, I read books, and I did do some errands that were bothering me. What I learned from my career break and from this offer of free time, is that time is precious. I need to seize it and use it to the best of my ability.

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