Work-life balance myth?

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When our three kids were babies and toddlers and I stayed home with them full-time, I often felt guilty about doing one thing instead of the other.

When I was pushing them on the swings in the backyard, I felt guilty about how long it had been since I’d mopped our sticky kitchen floors. When I was mopping floors, I felt bad about the kids being parked in front of the television, (which, by the way, was the only way to keep toddlers off a wet floor). Even as a stay-at-home mom, I felt like I was failing in my quest to balance work and life. There was never enough of my time to go around.

unicornToday, after 10 years of running my own small company with a business partner, I still dislike the term “work-life balance.” I’ve never met a single person who feels like he or she is doing it well. Work-life balance is the unicorn of the business world. It sounds wonderful, but it doesn’t really exist.

Barbara Corcoran, one of the investors on the TV show Shark Tank, confirmed the work-life balance myth on her podcast recently. When she became a first-time mother at the age of 46, she dealt with the issue by dividing her time up into two distinct chunks – work life and personal life – and she does everything in her power to make sure the two chunks never co-mingle. She is completely focused on family when she’s at home and equally focused on work at the office.

I’d never criticize a plan that works for a busy parent, but I know that, for many of us, Barbara’s plan wouldn’t be doable. The phone I use for business is the same one my family uses to reach me in case of emergency. The same phone that emails clients is the one that stores my recipe for roasted brussels sprouts. If my kid gets sick at school in the middle of the workday, I can’t delegate that responsibility to someone else. For most people, work and life happen simultaneously. And the reason so many people keep a smartphone within arm’s reach is because it has become our electronic assistant – both for work and for play.

As much as I might like to separate work and family life into two separate buckets, the reality is that each bucket sloshes over the rim and into the other. The strategy that makes more sense to me is one that Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, discussed recently at an awards event. Like Barbara, he doesn’t care for the “work-life balance” concept either. For him, it’s not a trade-off but rather a circle, with each part of life feeding into the other.

“I get asked about work-life balance all the time. And my view is, that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off,” Bezos said. “If I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy. And if I’m happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. You never want to be that guy – and we all have a coworker who’s that person – who, as soon as they come into a meeting, they drain all the energy out of the room… You want to come into the office and give everyone a kick in their step.”

It’s true that, for most of us, a great day at work makes us more likely to have a great evening at home and vice versa. And ask the spouse of anyone who hates his job if it’s always possible to drop that misery at the door when he gets home. (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

The article I read about Bezos’ approach to integrating work and personal life said that he does a few specific things that help him keep both areas of his life in harmony. He gets eight hours of sleep at night. He eats breakfast with his family every day. He schedules as few meetings as possible and tries not to include too many people in any one meeting – a method he calls the “two pizza rule” (meaning two pizzas should be enough to feed everyone at the meeting.)

Finally, he says he washes his own dishes after dinner each night. (I’m guessing this lovely habit may be one of the reasons he is still happily married to his wife of 25 years.)

In short, it sounds like the richest person in the world, who has one of the most complex jobs in the world, does everything he can to keep things simple – and grounded. It might not be the kind of advice that rides in on a mythical unicorn, but it sounds like real-life wisdom to me.

Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com.

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