CEO Coaching: Work-Life Balance Is Silly

A recent LinkedIn post from The World Economic Forum extols the cities where the “best” work-life balance exists (Helsinki, Oslo and Zurich). I love the topic but detest the phrase “work-life balance.” Isn’t work a subset of life?

I discuss the topic of happiness with every executive I coach. Sometimes they bring it up, and sometimes I do. The word balance is usually part of the discussion, used to refer to family time (or “fun” time) vis-à-vis work time.

Many executives are quite happy, but there’s a wide distribution of how they spend their time. Some “work” long hours, and some more equally divide their time between work and nonwork. 

The topic is so universal that the last chapter of my book (“Never Kick a Cow Chip On a Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be”) is titled “Balancing for Big Shots.” Since my book was published a few years ago, I’ve had many more conversations around balance and have observed a few “truths” (i.e., things about which I’m confident but not certain.) My comments focus on the executive suite, but I believe they apply universally.

First, there’s no perfect balance, and I believe you might be better served by focusing on happiness and engagement. Happiness shouldn’t be a ratio of work to nonwork time. It isn’t on a calendar like Presidents’ Day, though effectively managing your calendar can help. 

Second, happiness and balance are much more internal than external. Several places in the world are magical for me, like the Grand Tetons, the Miracle Mile, Copper Mountain, and my favorite Mexican restaurant. I can’t help but smile when I go there or even think about them. However, we can choose to frame our experiences in positive or negative terms, and this skill can be learned. Think like a Helsinkian!

Third, your perspective on happiness or balance likely isn’t the same as that of your partner, family or co-workers. They should respect your perspective, and you should respect theirs within reason (some work must get done!). This is also where some negotiation and compromise are necessary.

Fourth, if your work makes you unhappy, move! You aren’t a tree! However, are you sure it’s the work that’s making you unhappy?

Fifth, some of my clients can merge their work and nonwork activities and find more happiness. Some who aren’t as happy at work can compartmentalize and find that the average combined happiness score of work and nonwork goes up. Choose your tactic. I don’t have a work life and a personal life; I just have a life — and I’m generally darn happy!

Finally, nothing lasts forever. I’ve had periods in my career that were less fun than others just like we all have personal challenges. Take the long view. Don’t, however, think you can be miserable until your 65th birthday and then have all the fun in retirement. It doesn’t work that way! Live a good life, find happiness, and quit thinking about the “best” level of balance; it will drive you nuts! Aim for success, not perfection.

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