What does ‘work-life balance’ really mean?
Thought leaders in HR, employee advocacy, and the Future of Work debate this topic heavily, but rarely pause to define it. Ultimately, work-life balance aims at creating and maintaining an equilibrium between two key aspects of your existence, but this means different things for different people. While it is not a contentious idea that the manifestation of work-life balance will vary between individuals, those of us who would like to promote work-life balance or advise on ways to create it need to define a collective understanding of what it ultimately means.
What Is Work-Life Balance?
Depending on your priorities and life experiences, work-life balance may mean something very different to you than the next person. A C-Suite executive may have a different definition than a junior investment banker, who may have a dramatically different conception than a travel agent or stylist. If you have children, ailing parents, a side hustle, a passion project, a chronic illness, dietary restrictions, or just a long commute, these attributes of your life can all affect what is required to feel you’ve created a good balance.
Some aspects that are contenders for being core to work-life balance include the choice to work from anywhere, work at any time, work an overall reduced scheduled/workload, or work interrupted by family and live uninterrupted by work.
A portion of the population prioritizes fluidity between activities and the ability to take life as it happens, even if this means that one sometimes gets in the way of the other. Others value rigidly guaranteed non-working hours, even if this means that their work does not flex in the other direction.
In the ‘future of work’, freelancing is often talked about as a prime avenue to work-life balance. While there are many benefits to freelancing that could potentially contribute to balance, the central criterion underpinning many of these attributes is that freelancers do not report to a single entity.
Independent professionals have clients to which they are accountable — and who likely have less forgiveness for ‘life’ coming up than the average boss — but by nature of running their own business, a freelancer’s reportable entity is a collective of projects and their ability to win more projects rather than a single company that is central to their livelihood. Freelancers do not have to go into an office each day and can make their own hours, both of which are often considered ideal elements of work-life balance, but all of these aspects are the result of not reporting to a sole entity full-time.
At face value, reporting to yourself on behalf of your collective clients may not appear to be meaningfully distinguishable in terms of work-life balance versus traditional employment. You may believe the opposite: that those who are part of a work family are at less risk than freelancers, who must create their own support networks.
The downside of working for a single company and the reason that it so often throws a wrench in work-life balance is the common requirement that you be ‘always on.’ Always on as a term has been coined to describe the implicit requirement that you are consistently available should an emergency arise (whatever constitutes an emergency for your particular company). This mentality has been shown to be detrimental to workers’ mental health and even their ability to do their best work. And yet, many of us are ‘addicted’ to the feeling of being busy and the moral superiority that seems to accompany it, succumbing to this new job requirement.
Humans require the option to ‘log off’, giving the part of their brains that they use for the majority of the day in the office, coffee shop, or home desk a much-needed break.
The ability to log off isn’t unique to freelancing, of course. Some companies are great at maintaining work-life separation and protected hours (although full-time employees at these companies still miss on some of the other arrangements and career control that come along with freelancing). Yet, when you work for yourself, you can set the boundaries and have complete control over how you sign off and when — regardless of who your current clients are.
As a freelancer, you may have to interrupt the part of your life that you keep separate from work to deal with an ‘emergency’, but it is up to you to define the threshold and if it is worth disrupting your flow to deal with a given situation. After all, as a freelancer, you are only accountable to yourself.
Get Some Work-Life Balance
Work-life balance is in reach if you work for yourself or if you are part of a company that respects your time. It shouldn’t be a difficult task, but for those of us that live in a culture of perpetual engagement, it does require a conscious effort.
Here are some tips to maintain work-life balance to get you started:
1. Actually Sign Off
Sometimes, this is the most difficult part of attaining work-life balance. If you’re fortunate enough to work for yourself or for an employer who encourages signing off, then actually disconnect from the working world.
This means no checking email, no smartphone alerts, no Slack messages, and certainly no green-light indicator that you’re online. You have this option as a freelancer but sometimes it is most difficult to do when working for yourself, since the only one who will do the work is you. You have newfound freedom that requires you to exert true self-control.
2. Embrace No-Fly Zones
Carve out time that is for working, and when you can potentially be reached in an emergency, but when you are blocked from meetings, emails, and other time-sucks. Many high-achievers cite their use of no-fly zones (meeting-free time) as necessary to create a climate of productivity. Depending on the type of work you do and your schedule, this may mean a few hours every day, 1-2 days per week, or another cadence. Regardless of what you choose: select no-fly time and stick to it.
3. Keep Your Home a Home
Just because you work from home doesn’t mean your home has to become full of work. It’s nigh impossible to fully relax if you see stacks of documents awaiting your review, so make sure to keep work separate from your living spaces.
If your situation allows for it, consider creating a home office or joining a coworking space. If you must use the kitchen table as your makeshift cubicle, put the documents away at the end of the day. Just because you’re not reportable to a boss in an office doesn’t mean you can keep your papers scattered everywhere!
4. Divide That Money
Whether you freelance or manage business expenses, you’re bound to have money coming in and out that isn’t immediately your own. Even if that cash will end up in your coffer, for the sake of your mental well-being (and perhaps that of your spouse), keep your finances separate.
This means having an independent bank account and credit card. Depending on your business, you may want to establish a more formal designation than independent contracting; consult with your lawyer to determine if an LLC would be appropriate for your needs.
5. Forgive Yourself
Finally: cut yourself some slack. Some days, you will become absorbed in perfecting a PowerPoint deck and will miss gym class or need to postpone date night. Other days, you’ll have to take unexpected time to see your in-laws and will need to rearrange your no-fly work time. You’re reportable to yourself; don’t treat yourself more harshly than you would an employee. We’re all learning as we go, so remember that your success doesn’t hinge on adhering to preset tips — it’s about making it work for your own work and your own life.
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