The Real Secret to Work-Life Balance

“I’m home!”

When I was growing up in Iowa, my dad, an engineer at John Deere, came home every night, like clockwork, at 5:00 pm. We’d all sit down as a family to (a home-cooked) meal and talk about what we did that day. In the summer time, we’d go to the park after dinner and play tennis until dark. There was no sitting down to the computer after dinner to do a little more work or checking email on the phone.

Since then, the lines between work and personal life have become considerably more blurred, so I was excited to participate last night in a panel discussion at Common Bond on the truth about life-work balance in a high-performance environment. Early on, we agreed there wasn’t some perfect ratio or formula, but that it was important to be intentional about the choices you make, to think about what’s important — whether you’re single and focused on building your career, for example, or married and wanting to spend more time with family — and to prioritize accordingly.

I recommended that people come up with three goals for the week: work, relationships and self care. When someone in the audience asked, “What if you set goals but you’re not meeting them?” I said, “Then you need to set more realistic goals!” What’s the point of setting ambitious goals if you’re consistently not achieving them? Why not set yourself up for success instead?

Imagine two scenarios:

Scenario 1:

You set a goal to write three client presentations. You finish the first one on Tuesday and plan on doing the second one on Wednesday. First thing in the morning, an unexpected client emergency crops up and you spend all of Wednesday and Thursday feeling stressed and overwhelmed putting out the fire. You manage to finish the second presentation on Friday but head into the weekend — which you’ve already committed to spending at a buddy’s wedding — feeling disappointed and frustrated that the week got away from you.

Scenario 2:

You set a goal to write one client presentation. You finish it on Tuesday and feel a burst of energy: it’s only Tuesday and you’ve knocked off your goal! You decide to go to the gym and hit a PR on one of your lifts. You get a great night’s sleep. On Wednesday, there’s a client emergency but you’re feeling grounded and in control as you take care of it (and the client is impressed). Friday, you finish a second presentation and head into the weekend, feeling satisfied, looking forward to hanging out with your buddies and bubbling with ideas for the third presentation.

Same output in both scenarios, but psychologically, totally different. Repeat the pattern of Scenario One week after week, and you’ll develop a nagging sense of always being behind and overwhelmed. Make Scenario Two a habit, and you’ll feel a growing sense of control and confidence in your ability to take on bigger challenges, one realistic goal at a time.

Which would you prefer?