Written by Dr. Michele Vancour, Interim Associate Dean of the College of Health and Human Services
Work-life balance is as intangible as the Holy Grail.
The idea that the work and non-work parts of our lives can be balanced as static, constant ideals is completely unrealistic, because in reality life is messy, unpredictable, and often overwhelming. As oxymoronic as this perfect storm may be, it’s 100% ours and we need to embrace it rather than spend an exorbitant amount of time and energy trying to compartmentalize and balance.
As a named “work-life expert,” some may be surprised by that opening. I didn’t always buy into this chaotic utopia (and most days, I still struggle with the lack of fair division, uncategorized and unorganized reality that is my life); however, seeing something personal in print a few years ago pushed me into this different way of thinking and being.
An award-winning, New York Times best-selling author and acquaintance asked if she could interview me for an article on the elusiveness of work-life balance from the perspective of work-life experts. As luck would have it, the day of the interview started as one of those mornings. I had to scramble to get my two sons and myself out of the house on time. My youngest son forgot his drums for band practice at home, so I had to run back home and back to school—navigating the bus-lined, impatient-parent-filled parking lot, the school’s new security protocol, and arctic morning temperatures twice—then rushed to the office in time for the reporters’ phone call. It seemed fortunate at the time that her schedule also was off-track, as she made the call while still on the train commuting to her office. The phone connection was terrible, especially for her recording device, so she asked to call again in the afternoon. I agreed. While more relaxed when the second call came in at 4pm, I was, however, now in transit to my older son’s ice hockey game an hour away and was relying on my car’s navigation support to get me there. Before the official interview began, we shared a moment as I was somewhat joking with her about the day’s unplanned episodes, and how they are so commonplace in many working parents’ lives.
Fast forward now to the date her article hit the Internet. Imagine my surprise as I read the headline: “Even Work-Life Balance Experts Are Awful [emphasis added] at Balancing Work and Life.” I was taken further aback in reading further to find my name and the following:
Consider Michele Vancour, for instance, a professor of public health at Southern Connecticut State University whose area of expertise is how the stress and guilt of work-life conflict can make us sick. Yet she herself gets stressed out by work-life conflict. I spoke with her on a morning when all had gone smoothly until she went to drop her son off at school on her way to work and realized she’d forgotten to put the drums he needed for the day into the car. Her head started to pound. She sighed. “Every time I have to go give a talk, I always say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do’” (Schulte, 2017).
I think those who know me would say that I am authentic, and while I embrace this term as germane to my identity, the paragraph above left me feeling exposed and vulnerable. My initial reaction was embarrassment. But, as a tough self-critic, I pondered this statement and my feelings until I realized that this was one of life’s amazing signs or more poignantly a personal call-to-action.
Over the following few months, I invested considerable time in reflection before I was able to pinpoint the lesson I was meant to learn and how I could make changes that would prevent this from reoccurring. I quickly realized that I wasn’t bothered by the fact that balance was elusive after over 15 years of practice as a work-life expert. I also wasn’t upset that I shared my personal story of the day with a reporter. The thing that hit me to my core was the message about life I was sharing with everyone who listened. I am not sure when I adopted the phrase, ”do as I say, not as I do,” but I knew I said it often. I further surmised that it originated from an internal feeling of inadequacy. My research focused on the ideal mother and ideal worker, and as many other parents, internally I felt like I was failing when in my heart I knew differently. Once I was able to get my heart and head in sync, I reframed my story, so that the one I believed in, lived and shared were the same.
Here are five actions that were critical to my progress and feeling of greater work-life balance.
Reflect: Reflection can move us from chaos to action even when we have those days when things don’t meet our expectations. Maybe you spill coffee on your shirt, get stuck in traffic, can’t find a parking space, miss an appointment (or all of above and more). It’s not the sum of things that do not go as planned as much as it is the way in which we react to them. Ask yourself these questions next time this happens to you: How do you feel? What’s wrong? What’s going right? What needs to change? How can you do something different to minimize the impact and add protections so that these emotions and events happen differently next time?
Debunk Perfection: Perfection is an unrealistic ideal; don’t perpetuate it. Move your thoughts from not-good-enough to self-acceptance. Shift your focus. Instead of focusing on your weaknesses and making comparisons to others to focus on your strengths. Reframe your ideal realizing that we need to utilize other people’s strengths and to collaborate to fully achieve goals. No burden should fall only on one person at work or at home. Move away from unrealistic ideations of perfection and pressures to succeed. Focus on life being a journey rather than a destination.
Align Values and Purpose: If we do not prioritize our values (the people and activities that matter most in our lives), we likely will run out of time before tending to them. But, how do we identify our value priorities? Consider these questions:
What do you love (not love) to do? Does time fly by when you are doing that thing or spending time with that person? What drives you? What energizes you? What are you willing to sacrifice to have the thing(s) you love and enjoy the most? Who do you want to help? How do you want to help? You need to try it out and be willing to reflect, revise and try again.
Rebrand: You are the author of your story. Try asking yourself, how can you change your narrative? What is your message? What do you want people to remember about you from your story? You can revise your story as many times as you need to. Be self-accepting and focus on small successes that have shaped you along your journey.
Control: Small wins equal BIG change, especially when we have prioritized ourselves in the process. If we are not able to function at full capacity, the risks are greater to finding success in all of our relationships, activities and goals. If you feel like you do not have enough time in your schedule, then you may need to add boundary setting to your time management plans. Schedule uninterrupted time for dinner, fitness, meditation, reflection, and sleep. Setting boundaries allows us to be present in activities that help recharge us physically, mentally, emotionally, and intellectually. By setting priorities around values, it makes it easier to achieve goals. If you’re like me, you may need to be selective with the things you say yes to, schedule specific time to ”work” on tasks, and avoid emailing colleagues after 6pm and on the weekends to stay on track.
Finally, start a gratitude practice. According to Psychologytoday.com, being grateful has been connected to improved sleep and self-esteem, greater empathy, reduced aggression, increased connectedness, and better overall health. A great way to start is to let someone know you’re thankful for them. By the way, I am really grateful that you let me share this with you today. If you’re interested in learning more, please feel free to reach out to me.