When we think of work-life balance, we usually picture something like the Scales of Justice, balancing truth and fairness, or the metal arm of the scale at a physician's office. This sort of balance is seemingly easy to attain with some minor tweaks – at least it is when the nurse determines our weight.
But, of course, it's not as effortless to reach work-life balance. The scale model seduces us into thinking it's easy, whereas for most of us, it's unattainable.
Mental models can influence us profoundly. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "We become what we think about all day long." So it's worth examining your own thinking, and to consider what might be an improved mental model to adapt.
Perhaps for you, work-life balance involves triangles. It may be an equilateral triangle, with all sides the same, or some unequal combination of lines.
In a recent interview in The Mail, Madonna defined in her life a triangle of work, children, and her lover. She was asked if you can have it all. "You can – but what you can't then expect is a good night's sleep," she said with a smile. "I have all three; love, children and work. Lucky me."
For most of us, the triangle constantly feels like it's pulling apart. Sometimes the depiction is not a triangle but a rectangle, usually a lopsided one, with work, immediate family, ourselves, and our parents. Add in your commitments to various boards, community groups, hobbies – or sleep – and it can become a many-sided figure, depressing to contemplate.
Maybe you picture work-life balance as juggling balls. How many balls do you have in the air at one time, every day? Does it change on weekends? When do you drop them most frequently? Why? Lack of focus, slow reaction, too many in the air, or some other reason?
Toronto consultant Alex Lowy and his Silicon Valley colleague Phil Hood wrote a book in 2004 on the 2x2 matrix, another common way to explain dilemmas, with one important issue on the Y-axis and another on the X-axis. "2x2 thinking recognizes the power in exploring competing forces," they wrote. "Although dilemmas rarely feel good, they often contain the seeds of deeper understanding and a superior solution than we are otherwise capable of finding."
A 2x2 matrix of your situation might show the number of things you need to do on the Y-axis, and the amount of balance you feel on the X-axis. How much of your life is spent in the lots to do and out of balance quadrant? If you're often in the not much to do and feeling out of balance quadrant, why?
Even better might be a matrix displaying the amounts of things we have to do, again from low to high, on the Y–axis, and the amount of pressure in our life on the X-axis. How much of your life is in the many things to do/many pressures quadrant? How can you shift to other, more pleasant quadrants? Is not much pressure and not much to do an appealing quadrant or a place to avoid?
The ancient Chinese yin-yang symbol is probably not what we think of when contemplating work-life balance. But perhaps it's the ideal we should contemplate, harmonious, balanced, with life and work complementary, and each having the seeds of the other within.
What models drive you every day in the work-life equation? It's an illuminating question to ponder.
UBC economist John Helliwell in a recent interview shared two graphs that are offer another way to capture the issues around work-life balance. The first, U-shaped, is a graph of life satisfaction, which dips to its lowest – the bottom of the U – when people are in their mid-40s, according to research he and other colleagues have conducted in 140 countries for the Canadian Institute For Advanced Research.
The other graph he mentioned displays the extent to which people feel pressures between work and home. It is camel shaped, with the top of the hump for people in their mid-40s.
"It's not surprising. That's a time of life when you are confronted by many things whose timing you can't control. It's a time when people are at peak career involvement, and have children requiring care and attention," he says. "And on average, people who feel themselves under a conflict between work and home are less happy."