It's not uncommon to encounter people these days who question the notion of work-life balance, but few go as far as consultant Matthew Kelly. He calls the introduction of the term one of the great corporate blunders of our time.
While he concedes those introducing the term – and championing balance – had the best intentions, to deal with the mounting pressures surrounding personal and professional life, the impulse never had a chance because the chosen term was fatally flawed.
"When companies started asking employees if they had work-life balance, they separated work from the rest of an employee's life," he writes in his new book, Off Balance: Getting Beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth.
Indeed, they pitted work against life, and implicitly asked people to use as a measuring device the time devoted to each. Since the average person spends more time from Monday to Friday working than on any other specific aspect of life, employees didn't respond too favourably when surveyed and began to demand more balance, which meant working less.
"After 20 years of the work-life balance conversation, people are tired and frustrated. They have tried repeatedly to acquire the illusive work-life balance and have failed. Companies have spent tens of millions of dollars on programs, many employees have made valiant efforts to establish some sense of work-life balance, and we don't seem to have shifted the dial," he notes.
Some events in our lives are purely personal while others are professional. But he points out we don't have two lives, professional and personal, in hermetically sealed compartments. They intertwine. When you have a baby, that's personal, but it affects your professional life. Meeting your quarterly targets is a professional goal, but it affects your personal life.
Nor is balance between those actually our ultimate goal. Instead, he says, we want satisfaction with the way we lead our lives. Over the past years he has asked more than 10,000 respondents if they had to choose between balance and satisfaction, which would they pick? Not a single one chose balance.
"People want to live deeply satisfying lives both personally and professionally. They want to know that both are possible at the same time. They want to be told that they don't have to sacrifice their personal priorities on the altar of corporate America in order to have a satisfying career. People want personal and professional satisfaction," he writes.
To achieve that, Mr. Kelly says you must be strategic and have a plan – rather than hoping satisfaction will arise by happenstance. That involves assessing your current satisfaction, and compensating where you are falling short. His online assessment tool (which requires sharing your name, and e-mail address), helps with this assessment.
Mr. Kelly suggests holding weekly strategy sessions to devise a plan for the coming days, as well as a quarterly performance review, in which somebody you trust, such as your spouse or a friend, holds you to account, as a boss might, on your progress toward your goals.
He urges you to determine your priorities by listing the important parts of your life on paper and then comparing them to each other to determine which are the most vital. He gives an example of someone whose initial list, in no particular order, was: health, children, work/career, social life, extended family, and finance. The first item, health, was then ranked, consecutively, against each of the others, winning five of the matchups, but losing out as less important than the individual's children. So health got six points, and children one.
Then children as a category was ranked against all the others below it on the list, ending up with five more points. In the same manner, each possible priority was compared to all the others. For this individual, children ended up as the most important priority, followed by health, work/career, finance, and social life. Since extended family didn't win any match-up, it doesn't count as a priority. If two priorities had tied, the individual match-up between them would decide where each ranks.
That exercise helps you to understand the priorities in your life, and where to place your energy. If work doesn't come out on top, that doesn't mean you don't treasure it. You have, after all, still listed it as a priority, and recognize satisfaction requires being successful at work. But you understand what role it plays in providing ultimate satisfaction in your life.
Beyond that, he urges you to put in place some core daily habits that keep you healthy, focused and energized. For him, it's a 45-minute workout, 30 minutes of meditation, one deliberate act of love toward his wife, keeping himself to 2,000 calories rather than excessively eating, and drinking a gallon of water. For you, it will be different, but just understanding those elements of yourself and dedicating yourself to enhancing them daily will keep you more satisfied with life, which – rather than balance – is what he insists you are chasing.
Part of our confusion in searching for life satisfaction, Matthew Kelly argues, is that we don't have our philosophical bearings. We are diverted by the three dominant philosophies of our age: individualism, hedonism and minimalism – the desire to exert the minimum effort and receive the maximum reward.
Instead, he suggests we should be focused on three principles. The first is that you are here to become the best version of yourself. The second is that you want to lead a virtuous life. And the third is that the best way to live is with self-control, in particular, the ability to delay gratification.