I find most “work-life balance” conversations challenging. For starters, there’s a distinctly gendered component to them—where women seem to be expected to worry more about balancing it all, and where “life” is code for domestic duties, rather than, you know, life in all its juicy, nourishing, celebratory glory.
But I find we also tend to get caught up in finding a single correct answer that works for everyone. And of course, the answer is different for everyone.
In my experience, the work-life axis just doesn’t work.
On the other hand, we certainly know it when the balance is out of whack. We feel harried, exhausted, and acutely aware of the stuff we wish we were doing instead of whatever it is that’s taking over our life. I’ve had several conversations lately with people whose lives are so full that they aren’t finding time for the stuff that really lights them up—and that’s a tough place to be.
So how do we pull things back into balance? How do we figure out which stuff to prioritize? And how do we figure out what the right balance for us is, anyway?
There’s an idea I’ve been playing with: That there are two axes that make up what I call the Balance Matrix.
The first axis has to do with whose priorities you’re attending to: your own, or other people’s. Let’s call this the impetus axis, since it’s about where the stimulus for the activity comes from.
The second concerns whether the activities you’re engaged in energize or deplete you. I’ll call this the energy axis.
If you plot the activities that fill your day along these two axes, I think you’ll discover where your balance is out of whack.
For the impetus axis, you can ask yourself questions like, “How closely does this activity align with my values, goals, or purpose?” “Does this get me closer to something that matters to me?” or “What intrinsic rewards do I stand to gain from this?”
For the energy axis, try questions like, “After I complete this activity, will I feel more or less energetic?” “If it were up to me, is this something I would do for the fun of it?” or “How often do I feel bored, tired, or drained by this?”
Here’s what the balance matrix looks like:
Let’s start with the lower left quadrant: Drudgery. Here’s the stuff that’s most draining to us: activities that deplete our energy and prioritize others’ needs over our own. Some things that might get slotted here would be attending badly-run meetings, getting up for the fourth time in a single night to feed one’s baby, or going to your spouse’s boss’s house for dinner. (These are different for everyone—I’m just painting in broad brush-strokes.)
The more time and energy you’re dedicating to bottom-left stuff, the more out-of-balance your life is likely to feel. So this is a great quadrant to keep an eye on: If you find you’ve got a lot of things crowding into it, look for ways to off-load some of them, or counter-balance them by dedicating more time and energy to upper-right quadrant stuff.
In the lower-right quadrant, we have the stuff that matters to you but is somewhat draining: I’m calling these Tasks. I’d include things like managing my email inbox, going to the dentist, and doing the dishes. They’re not the highlights of my day, but I certainly appreciate it when they’re done, and I’d be stressed if they didn’t happen.
When you spend more time than you’d like on Tasks, you’ll feel out of balance, too—but I’d argue, less so than with Drudgery. My goal with Tasks is to do them as efficiently as possible, and to pair them whenever possible with stuff that feels fun. So if my inbox is overflowing, I set a timer and turn it into a game: How many emails can I reply to in the given time? And perhaps I’ll set a reward at the end of my email sprint. The lower-right quadrant is all about powering through with speed and a light heart. It must get done, but it needn’t take over your life.
Let’s move to the upper-left quadrant: Rewarding Work. This is where other people’s priorities start to feel more energizing to you—for example, working with great colleagues or clients, learning new skills that your employer has asked you to acquire, or perhaps doing something for your partner that you wouldn’t normally consider fun. (My immediate reference point here is watching football games with my guy.) The reward is more extrinsic than intrinsic—here, it’s about someone else’s needs being met, but there’s something in it for you, too, in the form of an energy boost.
This quadrant is a pretty good place to hang out. You probably won’t feel too miserable if you’re spending most of your time here, but you won’t feel amazing either because you’re spending more energy focused on other people’s priorities than your own. If you find this quadrant is dominating your life, I’d suggest looking for ways to shift your activities a little further to the right. Where can you align this stuff more closely with your own priorities?
Finally, the upper-right quadrant is what people refer to when they tell you to “follow your bliss”: I’m calling it Fun and Purpose. This is the sweet spot where what matters most to you—be it creating art, exploring and adventure, learning and knowledge, connecting with friends and family, or your core desired feelings—intersects with what boosts your engine, lights you up, makes you feel on fire and in love with life.
It’s not just fun nor is it simply purpose. It’s the magical place where the two come together.
And I would argue that most of the time, when our lives feel out of balance, it’s because we don’t have much going on in the Fun and Purpose department. We’re getting distracted by other people’s priorities, and by the chores that simply have to get done. By the time those two things are taken care of, the day is done and we’re spent.
If you’re like many of us, you don’t have a whole ton in that upper-right quadrant. You carve out an hour here to read your favourite books, another hour there to hike through the rainforest and breathe in the fragrance of mossy cedars… a couple of evenings a month to enjoy a meal with your nearest and dearest. These are your sweet rewards for all the work you’ve been doing: that rewarding work, but also the tasks and the drudgery.
We tend to look at the upper-right quadrant as our rewards. When we hear the follow-your-bliss people talking about hanging out there all the time, it sounds divine but unachievable. So we start to believe our balance is profoundly out of whack.
I would argue, though (that “regrets of the dying” piece has my back on this) that your fun, your happiness, your work-that-doesn’t-feel-like work, is precisely the point of your life. It’s your piece of the puzzle, your original medicine, your what-the-world-needs-is-more-people-who-have-come-alive thang.
Maybe you can’t quit your day job or fire your kids to turn that into your full-time vocation. But here’s the thing: A little tweaking can do wonders.
As you plot out the activities that fill your days, I invite you to consider this question: If time and money were no object, what would I put in the upper-right quadrant?
If I could magically give you a few hours a week to dedicate to one project or activity,what would you choose to dedicate that time to?
Now that you have a vision of what would feel marvelous to be dedicating time to, let’s find a way to make room for it.
There are a couple of ways to make room in your schedule.
The first is to quit doing something else. What would you like to give yourself permission to stop doing for the time being?
Take the advice of a friend of mine and commit to caring 20% less about everything in the lower two quadrants of the balance matrix. Maybe even your Rewarding Work, if there’s just too much of it. Care 20% less. Let some stuff go.
Alternately, delegate or otherwise off-load anything you possibly can in the lower two quadrants. Hire a housecleaner. Give yourself permission to eat take-out more often. And so on.
Here’s another way to tackle scheduling challenges: If you had an ultimatum where you absolutely had to carve out one hour a day out for yourself, what would you do?
What would you stop doing if the stakes were high?
(Hint: The stakes are actually pretty high, here. It’s your life. So maybe keeping up with your third-favorite TV show, or replying to every single email you receive, stops feeling quite so important.)
Can you imagine a world where you tackle the project or activity you’re dreaming of in that one hour a day, for however long it would take to complete?
If you’re panicking at the thought of making room in your schedule, remember this: Because your dream activity is something that energizes you, you will likely find that when you start putting time into it, your energy for everything in the other three quadrants will go way up.
And, it doesn’t need to be an hour a day. Maybe it’s a half-day a week. Maybe it’s four days a month. Maybe it’s something you could do for 10 minutes every three days but that would make you feel amazing. Whatever the time commitment is, though, see if you can carve it out.
If all else fails, and you simply can’t figure out a way to move your project forward, consider the “floss one tooth” method: What is the tiniest version of it you could do? Can you write one sentence a day? Walk around the block? Practice the violin for three minutes? Turn your project into such ridiculously small steps that not doing it would feel silly.
Now do it—every day. And notice how that one sentence turns into two, then five, then 750 words. Notice that walk around the block become two laps, then five, then a 30-minute stroll each night after dinner. Notice how your hands start itching to practice your fingering and your bow technique while you’re doing other things. (And you’ll have days when you’ll fall short of your goal, but mostly you’re going to lap this up, because it’s your fun and your purpose.)
That’s balance. That’s the good life: meaningful and rich, with a dash of stuff-other-people-need-you-to-do and good dental hygiene.
A version of this post appeared on Lauren’s blog.