To Massachusetts life coach Val Nelson, the notion of work-life balance suggests a battle. It's work versus life, slugging it out to determine the champion, which wins our time. But such either/or thinking can be limiting. "When we say 'work-life,' it's as if they are separate. But work should be a meaningful, fun part of life. So we are separating work from fun and life," she said in an interview.
Indeed, for many of us, fun is the important element that underlies work-life balance discussions. Fun and work seem to be competing against each other as we evaluate balance. Work, not fun. Life, fun. It's like a seesaw.
"Work gets equated with the 'have-to' feeling instead of the fun feeling, and we think we have to push, push, push or it isn't really 'work.' We even say things like 'It feels like work 'when we really mean 'It feels like drudgery.' This flawed thinking is embedded in our language," she writes on her blog.
Instead of a seesaw, she believes a better image is of three overlapping circles. And instead of balance, we should aim for harmony.
The first circle represents what the world values. It's usually the income part of our life, money flowing in. But it also represents providing something that others value, which applies to our volunteer activities. "You won't be happy in a volunteer role if nobody wants it," she pointed out in the interview.
The second circle is what you value – where your heart and passion lies. "If your heart is not in your work and you are just doing it because it's in demand, you'll be operating at low energy. Everything will be harder to do. So it's important to listen to your heart," she said in the interview.
The third circle is your natural flow – when you are happy, which will come from employing your skills to the fullest. Sometimes those skills will be soft ones, like working well with others. It can involve doing things that fit with your natural tendency to extroversion or introversion, and being able to work at the best time of the day for your body.
Harmony is where those three needs come together – your golden sweet spot, as she puts it. It's a place where you find fulfilment, success and a relaxed feeling. Your work is in harmony with your heart and in harmony with what feels natural and fun. Diagrammatically, it's three circles which overlap each other at a central point, your sweet spot.
"You can't have it all if you think of it in the traditional way. It's a recipe for burnout if we are doing something we are not aligned with that's drudgery. But you can have it all if your work and fun and heart are aligned," she said.
Work without heart and flow sets us up for Monday morning heart attacks, she said. We feel tight in our chest and shoulders if we are doing something we don't love. On the other hand, if we have passion and flow without money, it hits us in the gut. Fear is a constant presence.
Finding the sweet spot doesn't come in a jiffy. It takes time, and after locating it we can fall out of sync. "It's a journey we are always going towards," she said.
She suggests taking time to ponder each circle and how it applies to your situation. What do you want your life to be like? What do you value? When do you feel best? What gets your heart pumping excitedly?
One client, feeling terribly burned out, wanted to switch jobs. But as the client considered each of the circles, she found that much of what seemed missing from work was attainable if she paid more attention to her friends. She is closer to the sweet spot when she devotes herself more to that aspect of life. "So the burnout is drastically reduced and fulfilment is up by readjusting her existing life," Ms. Nelson said.
As well as pondering your sweet spot, Ms. Nelson feels you should think about black swans – or, at least, the black swan that can be you. The swans we see in the Northern Hemisphere are white, and so black swans are considered rare. "I saw a pair of black swans one day, and I was so struck by the unexpected colour. They had such an impact on me, even though they were doing nothing but sitting there quietly," she wrote.
Black swans are bold and unusual. To be successful and happy, instead of conforming and being like all the white swans around you, she suggests you stand out and be different – be yourself.
Start by evaluating where you are just trying to fit in, hiding your uniqueness. Are you towing the line at work? Do you routinely hide your emotions? Are you often saying yes when you wish you could say no? You can't change that immediately. It's not wise to tell your boss to take a flying leap. But work at it, trying to let your black swan emerge.
"You need to learn how to show up more and more as yourself instead of hiding yourself," she said in the interview. "Understanding heart and flow is about understanding the unique person and what you can bring to the world."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter