Forget balance

Editor's note: This piece was written by May Busch, senior adviser and executive in residence in ASU’s Office of the President. She is also a professor of practice in the W. P. Carey School of Business and chairs the Idea Enterprise. Find her at maybusch.com/asuthrive

I know it sounds sacrilegious, but I don’t believe in work-life balance. I agree that it’s important to have a life, and that it’s hard, because most of us have too many competing priorities and too little time.

May Busch

But I don’t believe in work-life balance because it’s an outdated and overrated concept that’s impossible to achieve for most of us. Instead, I focus on a feeling of well-being and of being “in sync” with yourself. This involves five aspects:

1. Being conscious

This is about knowing what you want, exercising your free will and making conscious decisions about how to spend your time and energy.

When we make conscious choices, we have an excellent chance for our actions to be in alignment with what truly matters to us.

For example, my family is hugely important to me, yet I used to keep my head down and work until the task was done, no matter how late I had to stay. Without realizing it, I got myself in a situation where I hadn’t had dinner with my family for months. And I only noticed when my husband got angry with me about it.

Then my boss sat me down and told me he was concerned about my working too much. He pretty much ordered me to leave the office in time to be home for dinner twice a week, and to come in late after taking the kids to school twice a month. I’m lucky to have had a great boss to help me become more conscious about my choices. If you don’t have a boss like I did, you must learn to do this for yourself.

You’ll be in alignment, which leaves no room for debilitating and draining emotions like worry and regret.

2. Oscillating through time

Recognize that you’re going to be going through different wave patterns during your day, your week, your year. In fact, that’s optimal rather than targeting a static level of balance and staying at that.

The former allows you to have the whole range of highs and lows, where the latter focuses on staying at a moderate level. And as Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

For me, that meant being able to go all out on my business during a big three-week project, but then being able to take a break or a few days off to be with my family later in the month.

It’s about achieving your optimal mix of activities over a longer time horizon, rather than insisting on “balancing the books” every day or every week, which can drive you crazy.

3. Getting a dose of joy every day

When I was getting stressed out at work, my mother used to tell me to take a minivacation every day; just closing my eyes for two to five minutes and imagining myself in my favorite vacation spot. It really did make me feel better!

This is the same idea, only it’s about joy rather than peace.

Start by identifying those small simple things that make your heart sing and make sure you get some of it each day.

For me, it can be as simple as playing a favorite song at full blast, or dancing. These days, you can plug in your iPod equivalent and rock out for the length of a song pretty much anywhere. I was usually able to duck into a conference room, but if you can’t, then worst case, there’s always the facilities!

4. Reframing

This is about shifting your mindset to a more positive way of looking at whatever situation you’re in.

This is a variation on being conscious. You want to be in charge of the way you frame things so that issues become opportunities, and problems can have solutions.

This “inner game” can either drag us down or pull us up, depending on how well we can reframe things in an energizing way.

As an example, one thing that used to bother me was not being able to be at a performance or sports event for my three children, and not being home to send them to school or welcome them home after school.

Then my mother (who is a pediatrician) told me that this made our children independent. Not only was she right about that, it also made me feel more positive about my choices.

5. Stop over-optimizing

Sometimes we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves by setting up too many constraints. Then it becomes stressful to try to optimize it all, and you end up feeling drained.

I remember trying to keep everyone happy simultaneously — my boss, team, husband, three kids and even the dog. Plus, living up to standards of home decoration, housekeeping and other social pressures. My own well-being wasn’t even on the list.

Some of the things I did in the name of satisfying people didn’t even matter to them, like folding the kids’ laundry or personally sewing their Halloween costumes when I had million-dollar deals going on at work. Or feeling like I had to attend every client meeting, even if it meant taking two red-eye flights back to back.

Over the years, my husband and I have been reducing the number of constraints by getting clear on what really matters to each of us, and culling the rest.

For example, we’ve called a “truce” on celebrating Valentine’s Day since neither of us cared that much about what is essentially a fabricated holiday. And we live with a messier house than either of us was brought up in.

So stop torturing yourself about work-life balance, and start focusing on having a feeling of well-being and living your life “in sync” with who you are and what really matters to you.

If that involves a big commitment in one area and less in another for now, go with it. You will keep oscillating and adjusting, because life isn’t static. It’s progressive.

This story originally appeared in the spring 2019 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. Also visit Busch's blog at maybusch.com/blog for more ideas and inspiration.