Why Work Life Alignment, Not Balance, Is The Key to Happiness

My article "Why Work Life Alignment, Not Balance, Is The Key to Happiness" originally appeared in Forbes.

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It’s time to call out what has become one of the most harmful myths that has been told in modern society: the importance of work-life balance. The concept has been drilled into our heads by so-called experts for years now. Yes, balance sounds good. Making sure that your work doesn’t take over your life (or vice versa) also makes sense.

What do you picture when you think about balance? Probably one of those old-school balance scales where “work” is on one side and “life” is on the other. Work-life balance then becomes an exercise in ensuring that one side doesn’t outweigh the other. Something is wrong with this picture though: It pits work and life against one another in a sort of never-ending power struggle.

We’ve all felt it: work too much and you feel bad. You’re not investing enough in “life,” so you head to the gym or take a vacation to try and get that balance back. Then once you come back from that vacation, you’ve got a hundred emails waiting for you. Time to put some energy in the “work” side.

 

Work-life balance becomes nothing more than tug-of-war for your time and energy.

Over time, the struggle leads to one of two places, neither of which are fun to experience:

  1. Your work takes over your sense of identity completely and becomes the only source of meaning in your life.
  2. You grow to resent your work for overshadowing other things in life that matter to you.

There is a better way.

Enter Work-Life Alignment

Work-life alignment is straightforward, even, dare I say, simple. Become clear on what you want in your life and then use your work as a catalyst for creating your desired future. The effort is about harmony, integration and alignment to direct all of your energy toward creating a meaningful life. Sound too good to be true?

Here’s how:

Step 1: Get Crystal Clear On What’s Important

Whether you acknowledge it or not, your life is precious. No one knows just how much time they have before it runs out. Yet we never take the time to be clear on what matters most to us -- those few but vital must-haves for your life.

These might be things like family, community, contribution, being outdoors, personal growth, friends, stability, eating healthfully, positivity, reading, impact, creativity, hobbies and/or laughter. You get the idea. You can see your values more clearly by exploring these questions:

  • What were the most memorable experiences in your life? Why were they special?
  • What people, places, things, or activities are vital sources of energy for you?
  • What do you choose to do when you go on vacation?
  • Who are the people you most admire? What makes them admirable?

 

As you explore, jot down everything that is real to you -- no need to filter or censor.

Step 2: Assess Your Current Work Situation

Once you’re clear on what you value for your life, your gut feelings are a powerful guide on how in (or out of) alignment your current work is. When your alignment is totally out of whack, you’ll know. You’ll dread going into work. You’ll find yourself overreacting to situations. You might be putting in crazy long hours at the office. All are telltale signs that your work and life are far from aligned. You’re going to need to make significant changes to reclaim the life you want. Don’t worry though; it’ll be worth it.

On the other hand, if you’re relatively content at your current workplace then likely a number of things are already aligned with the lifestyle that you want. Two questions to help you assess how well your current work situation is aligned with your life are:

  • In what aspects of my work do I experience excitement?
  • What am I wanting more of that I’m not getting?

You can't change your current situation in an instant, but it’s easy to start when you know what you want more of (and what is lacking).

Step 3: Start To Realign

You’ll need some patience here. Making the changes necessary to align your work with your life is not a quick fix process, but you can see progress quickly. Start by treating your current work situation as a practice field; a place where you can try new things on for size to learn.

Lean into things you identified you want more of. If creativity is something you value, you might volunteer at work to develop a new initiative that excites you. If community is core to who you are, you may lean into getting to know people at work better or perhaps you could attend networking events with a new mindset: eager to meet new people. When you find things that don’t serve you, let them go.

For important tasks that aren’t serving you, find a way to delegate the work. Do whatever it takes to get it off your plate so you can unleash your energy on the things that do matter to you. You’ll be amazed at how much more effective you will be homing your effort into what gives you energy.

If your current role or company doesn’t serve you, then you may need to explore more significant changes to find the alignment you want -- perhaps a different position within the same organization. It may take a role in a different organization to find it. We're seeing more and more people striking out on their own as entrepreneurs and using that experience as a catalyst for creating the lifestyle they want.

No matter what your work or life situation, we all have 24 hours in a day. You get to choose how you spend them. Either live with the tension of a never-ending quest for balance, or align yourself and create a life filled with meaning, purpose and happiness.

Todd Emaus