5 Strategies In Achieving Work-Life Harmony

This past month, I was asked to present two workshops on work-life balance - one for the Symphony Nova Fellows, the other at Boston Conservatory. At first, I politely chuckled at the request ... what, really, is a work-life balance? But the individual who asked pushed me to understand how and why I make personal time-management decisions, saying "Look, you managed a full-time job, teaching flute lessons on the weekends, and went to grad school part time, and that was in addition to your adventurous cooking, running half marathons, and other things that you enjoy. How did that happen?" It was a fair point - all of those did occur these past two years, so I decided to take the request seriously and try to distill strategies for how everything came together.

In reflecting on how life was managed these past few years, I will in no way argue that I had a reasonable "balance", nor a method that should be replicated by others. Instead, I had decided what was important for me, then found a strategy that worked (again, for me) to achieve those goals. More importantly, however, was the idea of what "work-life balance" means. It's a very personal decision, and one that cannot be compared to or against others. In preparing for this workshop, one thought struck me: stating that one is working towards a work-life balance equates that something is out of balance between a working and living agenda, which in my life creates an unnecessary anxiety that I'm not living in a meaningful or complete way. Instead, for the past few years, I chose to ignore the concept of work-life balance, and instead just live in a way that was personally fulfilling. Thanks to a recent conversation on this topic with a No-Pay-MBA colleague, I was directed to the concept of "work-life harmony" - a concept I will forever continue to use and advocate for. (You can read her blog here, or sign up for her webinar on the same topic here.)

As mentioned earlier, the idea of work-life balance implies that something is out of balance, or that you're striving for unrealistic time expectations that may not be true to how one achieves personal goals. Instead, re-framing the concept as work-life harmony allows for the understanding of the realistic ebb and flow of life, schedules, and demands that exist for each of us. Re-framing in this way helps one to understand that life itself is a living, breathing, changing organism - one that you absolutely can control and manage, but also one that needs the space and freedom to change (vs being strict with a rigid schedule or expectations). Like the harmonies that evolve and change in music, so, too, does life evolve and change throughout our own journeys.

After a beginning discussion of this re-framing concept with both groups of participants, I had each take 10-15 minutes to spend creating two pie charts of his/her time. The first chart was to divide up the pie on how each aspired to spend his/her time. What was most important? How do you enjoy spending your time? What matters most to you in your day, week, month, or year? The second chart was to divide the pie into how each actually spent his/her time. What were the demands on time? Where might time be underutilized? Where might time be put to use more effectively? Is your time spent doing things out of necessity or out of desire? After these two exercises, I asked each to reflect on what the differences were. It is completely unrealistic to imagine that a change in how one's time is spent would transition overnight. Yet this exercise was meant to illuminate the difference in reality vs individual aspirations. Knowledge is power, and the key to making any change happen is to first begin with one's individual understanding of now - this comes only from honest self reflection, and being truthful about goals, desires, and future aspirations.

With these ideas in mind, I offered five strategies for the students to consider as they continued individual journeys towards achieving work-life harmony.

  1. Track your time. I said this before: knowledge is power. Before making any substantial change, I encouraged each participant to make a simple spreadsheet - the columns would be the date for at least two weeks, and the rows would be the 24 hours of each day (midnight through 11PM). I recently did this same exercise for myself, and was yet again surprised - yes, I was accomplishing some goals, yet I had fallen into a routine of letting time pass instead of deliberately making a plan to achieve what is important to me.
  2. Build in space for reflection. After the two week time-tracking is completed, I recommend that the first step towards achieving personal change is by building in time for reflection. This can be as simple as five minutes daily - taking time to write down five things that you want to accomplish the next day. Or, it could be a much longer period of time weekly, monthly, or each year ... or all of the above! Without the scheduled time for some kind of reflection,  it becomes too easy to "forget" or "not have the time" to continually think and evolve personal priorities.
  3. Set goals. Just like musical harmonies, goals evolve, develop, and change - often in ways that are surprising, unpredictable, and better than any one of us might imagine. While we cannot see the future, a key part of achieving work-life harmony is to stay current with the goals that matter to you. I'm not a huge advocate of having a 5-year plan mapped out for one's life - yet knowing what you want to work towards achieving will help map out the next step (or two or three) in achieving what personally matters.
  4. Make habits. Once you have an understanding of where you want to go, it is important to realize that changes won't happen overnight. They will happen, however, will slow, deliberate, and constant change. Committing to making change happen is the most critical piece of achieving work-life harmony. You can have time for assessment, planning, and reflection - yet without committing to making the change you need become routine, the evolution of careers / goals / life will feel like it is out of your control. When committing to making change, it is also important to recognize that start small is best. Make a small change in your daily routine that is kept consistent for a week or more. When that feels routine, then make another change and stick to it, and so on.
  5. Find what matters to you. Above all, it is essential to remember that the goals, decisions, and mindsets that you choose to embody are not comparable to others. Each individual has a different circumstance, different demands, and different values that help guide individual decision-making. Be certain to assess that the goals and desires that you set for yourself are truly the goals that YOU want to make, not that others want for you.

Ultimately, we each must remember that we have the ability to be in control of our lives. If we feel out of control, we need to find time to take a step back to understand why. Have we said yes to too many things? Are we not focused with what matters most in aligning our values and personal goals? Deliberately creating the space to have control over individual actions is what will allow each of us to have the time (or not) to strategize towards accomplishing our own work-life harmony.