1.3 What? What is life balance and how do we achieve it?

The truth about work-life balance

“The challenge of work-life balance is without question one of the significant struggles faced by modern

Stephen Covey

Do you feel you have a good work-life balance?

Very few people answer this question with a confident yes. But then, what do people actually mean when they talk about work-life balance?

Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People says: “The challenge of work-life balance is without question one of the significant struggles faced by modern man”

And by modern man, we certainly mean modern woman too! Arguably, the expectations on the modern women – having the perfect career and perfect family – are even more extreme than the expectations on men, as women as still generally expected to be the primary carer in the home.

But when we talk of work-life balance it is not actually a binary problem. We don’t have a set of scales with ‘work’ at one end and ‘life’ at the other. As Sheryl Sandberg notes:

“Framing the issue of work-life balance – as if the two were dramatically opposed – practically ensures work will lose out. Who would ever choose work over life?” 

Sheryl Sandberg

So when people talk about work-life balance, what they actually mean is balance across all the areas of life, work being just one of those segments.

When we are looking to set goals, make resolutions or instil new habits, it is worth considering which objectives will bring greater balance and fulfilment in our lives. Striving to maintain balance allows our personal development and growth to be sustainable.

Story: Burnout, balance and boundaries

“Don’t confuse having a career with having a life.”

Hillary Clinton

Have you experienced burnout? 

You may not think you know what it is to be in balance but you will certainly know when you are out of balance. When you are out of balance things start to fall and crash.

I have experienced this falling and, in the process, discovered that you can burn out even doing something you are passionate about, alongside people you love.

I experienced burnout when I was part of a leadership team of a fast-growing church. Working for a faith-based organisation was one of the most rewarding and challenging things I have ever done and it taught me a lot about the importance of understanding balance and boundaries.

One of the things that made the work particularly challenging was the lack of boundaries between different aspects of life. The people I worked with were also the people I socialised with. Church, after all, is a community, not a building. My wife was also a member of the church and serving on the team so it affected home life too.

The working week was also not a normal working week. Sunday was invariably a working day and evenings were often busy too. Therefore there was no ‘Friday feeling’ on any given day.  It was hard to really have downtime unless you were fully away on vacation. Getting vacation could be difficult too as holidays are invariably just those: holy-days; busy times for the church community.

The lack of boundaries in my working pattern had a cumulative effect over time and I ended up crashing. The result was that I ended bed-ridden for several weeks.

I was ill and unable to function but the hardest part was the psychology of the thing. I prided myself on being a fit and energetic leader. I was not afraid of hardship and stress, I had served in war zones after all, why on earth was I crashing now?

One of the key lessons from the experience is that I am an introvert in terms of how I get my energy. That means I need time away from other people and work contexts in order to recharge. I had to build effective recovery time into my work-life pattern, especially when so much of my job required more typically social interactions, usually associated with extroverted behaviour.

It took a significant time to recover and as I did, I was much more cognizant of the need to have proper balance across my whole life and protect this balance with sensible boundaries. Recovery time being just one such area I needed to ring-fence.

“Balance is not better time management, but better boundary management. Balance means making choices and enjoying those choices.”     

Betsy Jacobson

So, to avoid burnout, make sure you understand the boundaries and balance across the various aspects of your life. Think of it like the dashboard on a car or a control panel in a plane. You need to watch your dials and maintain the right levels if you don’t want to crash. You have to keep monitoring and asking: what is pushing me into the red? Where am I starting to run low? When do I next need a break?

That balance will look different for everyone but there are common themes, roles and areas of life that we can examine to identify a good balance. One tool that is effective in helping to do this is the Wheel of Life Coaching Tool.

Exercise: The Wheel of Life Coaching Tool

The Wheel of Life is a useful coaching tool that is used to examine how balanced we are across different spheres or roles in life. It is a great way to get an overall feel for how content we are and identify key areas for growth. 

The ‘wheel’ is a circle, usually broken down into eight segments (but can be up to 12), where each segment or spoke represents an aspect of life. In each segment, you score yourself 0-10, with 0 being at the centre of the wheel and 10 being at the outside of the circle. Reaching the outer edge of the circle or wheel represents being completely content in that zone.

Once you have scored each section you can quickly see where you believe you are falling short of your own ideal situation. This gives focus and helps to prioritise where a change is going to have the greatest positive impact. The biggest gaps in scores indicate the greatest discontent and prompt the question: how can I increase my score in that area of life? By answering that question one can set goals to improve that aspect of life. 

Here is an example template you can use:

Wheel of Life Segment Headings

For the different segments, you can choose to use roles or aspects of life. Here are some example headings you can use:

Example Roles:

  • Spouse/Partner
  • Parent/Child/Home-maker
  • Leader/Manager
  • Team Member
  • Community Member
  • Employee/Employer
  • Creative/Artist/Musician
  • Student/Learner
  • Sports Person/Games Player
  • Steward of Finance/Environment/Resources

Example life segments:

  1. Family/Relationship/Romance
  2. Community/Social/Friends
  3. Health/Wellbeing/Fitness
  4. Life Planning/Management/Financial Security/Money
  5. Career/Work/Vocation
  6. Spirituality/Morality
  7. Fun/Recreation/Leisure
  8. Personal Growth/Development/Learning

You can access further questions and detail to help you using the Wheel of Life in my post ‘What is the Wheel of Life and how can it help me achieve life balance?’

Next Step: Identify which segment of life or role that you feel most out of balance and then set a goal to improve that area. For example, if you scored that aspect of life as 4 out of 10, what could you do to make it a 5 or 6 out of 10?

Reflection Question: Are there any boundaries that you need to put in place to maintain your balance?

“You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at once.”

Oprah Winfrey.

Further resources

Read this article/post:

The Wheel of Life

Watch this video:

Nigel Marsh: How to make work-life balance work

Read this book:

Making it all work – David Allen