Jim Bird owns the domain worklifebalance.com. After the Atlanta consultant bought it 20 years ago for his new company, it didn't seem such a hot idea. Even human resources officials weren't all that aware of the issue. "You had to explain the term then," he recalls. "But now you don't. You only need to clarify."
We are all overwhelmed these days, and talking about work-life balance. But what exactly is it? He argues that when you ask people to define work-life balance, the descriptions can be all over the map.
He starts by defining what it's not. Work-life balance does not mean equal balance. "Trying to schedule an equal number of hours for each of your various work and personal activities is usually unrewarding and unrealistic. Life is and should be more fluid than that," he writes on his website.
Your best work-life balance will vary over time – often on a daily basis. The right balance today may not be the right balance for tomorrow. "For me, sometimes 70 hours of work is a good work-life balance. If I tried it for a few years, it wouldn't be," he said in an interview. And there is no perfect, one-size-fits-all version of balance we can all adopt.
He emphasizes that at the core of work-life balance are two concepts, achievement and enjoyment. They give meaning to our work, as well as the time we spend in other dimensions of our lives, with family, friends, and ourselves.
Achievement tends to be clear but enjoyment is harder to pin down. He stresses it's not just "ha-ha" happiness. It involves pride in a good job, a sense of satisfaction, security, celebration, love and well-being. After our late-afternoon telephone interview, for example, he's planning to head off fishing, and expecting it to provide enjoyment.
We need to balance achievement and enjoyment in our lives, aiming for both, every day. "If you try to get all the value from one side, all the value disappears," he insists. "When you strive for both every day, you will get work-life balance."
But most of us don't have enjoyment goals for each day – just achievement goals – let alone the intention to provide enjoyment to others. We don't take the time to pat others on the back or stop at a bookstore on the way home to pick up something enjoyable to read. We assume that if we seek achievement, enjoyment will follow automatically. But it doesn't.
Obviously, there can be enjoyment from achievement. At the end of the day, recognizing what went well can be comforting. But a bad day at work might therefore bring no enjoyment, unless your goals for enjoyment are not merely tied to work.
His clients who adopt this twin approach pull more enjoyment from their lives. They can turn a few minutes with a child or spouse into an energy boost for their achievement wars. They also learn that just being with a child, spouse, or friend doesn't mean the time will be enjoyable. You have to seek enjoyment. You have to plan for enjoyment.
He urges them – and you – to consider the difference between a meeting and a date. A meeting is intended for action, with major topics slated for discussion and decision. A date is play time. How much of your time with your loved ones is devoted to dates, and how much to meetings? You need to distinguish, and ensure more dates are intended purely for enjoyment.
Each week, you will want to manage some achievement and enjoyment in each of the four quadrants of your world – work, family, friends, and self. Ideally, you would want to accomplish that each and every day, but realistically it will be difficult. However, you still want some achievement and some enjoyment every day.
Avoid the "as soon as" trap. "As soon as I get caught up on this project, I'll spend more time with you, honey," you might say. "As soon as I get the promotion, we'll have more money and be able to enjoy life better." That's dangerous, because life can – and will likely – pass you by. It's better to achieve and enjoy every day.
As you grapple with his formula, he recommends getting rid of your to-do list. The typical to-do list has too much on it for achievement and enjoyment. "To-do lists are out-of-date time-management tools. They are not useful for effective time management because they create inefficiencies and add to your frustration and stress in life," he writes on his site.
Instead, you need to know the few priorities that must be tackled on a given day. That means taking the many things on your current to-do list – and any other items that come up today and in future – and placing them on your calendar, for the appropriate day to handle them. You may have to prep today for tomorrow's meeting. But you don't also have to register for the software course you plan to take in the New Year – mark that down for some time in December. If today is jammed with other priorities, call your mother next Monday.
And as you sort through those priorities, think not just about achievement but also about enjoyment.
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