The problem with balance.

We all know that work-life balance is the holy grail. The popularity of the presentations I do on the subject and its ubiquity as a talking point in society show that the idea of balance is something that resonates deeply with many. We crave both successful careers and fulfilling home lives – and what’s wrong with that? For lots of us it’s the ultimate goal;  if we can just achieve balance, we have a chance of being truly happy. At least – that’s what we think.

But here’s the problem. What does balance actually mean? Does it mean more time, or more quality time. More time to do what? More time to be with your children, or just enough time to be fully engaged with them for a bit? Does it mean being able to ‘switch off’ completely from work for a certain amount of time, or to just be away from the workplace? Does the ability to work flexibly mean you have real balance between your work and home lives, or does it just mean you have the right to work your 80 billable hours from a more convenient location? And how do you ever know if you’ve actually achieved the ‘right’ balance?

The more you think about it, the more it seems that balance is almost impossible to define. Balance can never be a tangible thing, a defined objective, a concrete goal. The mistake people make is in thinking that they can HAVE, or aspire to this vague concept of balance – when in fact, balance is something that they can actively DO.

This is the game-changer. Once you realise that balance is an activity rather than a nondescript goal, you can start doing it. You can learn it and you can practise it, you can improve it and you can refine it. In other words – you can master it. This is the Art of Balance!

The key to the Art of Balance is to shift your objective away from what you want about your work or your boss or your clients to change to achieve your goal.  Instead, focus on ‘doing’ – proactively shifting, leaning, adapting, adjusting, testing and tweaking your routine, your approach, your strategies and tools to whatever circumstances and challenges you find yourself facing at any given moment. Balance is not a destination to strive for or a mission to accomplish. It’s an act of doing, of building, of constant motion. And you are in control.

The great thing about seeing balance in this evolving way is that the more you do it, the better you get at it and the easier it becomes. You will reach the point where your skill at the Art of Balance matches the difficulty of the challenge. This is the state of ‘flow’ recognised and named by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and identified as the state at which people find the highest level of happiness. I highly recommend his book, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness  if you’d like to learn more.

So the only problem with balance is in fact our perception of it. Once we can open our minds to a different way of thinking about it, we are liberated. It means that we no longer need to keep chasing the elusive dream of some ideal that is difficult to define and feels impossible to achieve. The real goal, in the end, is to feel happy. And this doesn’t depend on getting home at a certain hour, or on an ideal flexible working arrangement; on whether or not you work on holiday; or on how many hours of quality time you have with your kids. These may be contributing factors, but they are not the deciding ones. Your happiness depends on one thing and one thing only – your ability to become so good at the ‘Art’ of Balance, of balanc-ING – that your skill level matches the difficulty of the challenges that lie ahead.

Your mission then this week is to start practising the Art of Balance. Be proactive and reflective, adaptive and creative. And don’t forget, you can tune into my podcasts for help with some of the strategies and tools that will help you achieve this ‘flow’.