New Year's Resolution: Stop waiting for the Work-Life Balance. It Ain't Comin'!

"Mindfulness" as defined by Webster's is the inclination to be aware.

Of any time I can think of in my personal and professional life where this is important, it's now.

Mindfulness is synonymous with reflection. And it's only in reflection that we can realize progress on something or lack thereof. Most of us know the value of stepping back and reflecting on something. In the spiritual realm (did he actually use that word in a business article?), it's called meditation.

But in the "real world", there's no time for this airy-fairy stuff. We've got jobs to do and a limited amount of time to get that work done. The dilemma of this "time poverty", a term used in a recent Boston Globe article, is the view that spending more time in the office is our only option to be successful at work.

As described by Juliet B. Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and author of "Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure", she writes:

"At the end of World War II, the US had the shortest working hours among other industrialized countries. We now have the longest. We have surpassed Japan. The average American worker is putting in 200 more hours per year than he or she was in 1973."

But at what cost?

Two Lives

I believe many of us feel we are living two lives — the one we wear to work and the other, the life we spend waiting; for vacations, days off and whatever "free time" we fantasize about for the weekend. It's not the work-life balance that we're living; it's really the work-waiting balance.

It's like that Dr. Seuss book: "Oh The Places You'll Go"

"…and grind on for miles, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place… for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring… you get the point. Everyone is just waiting!!

It's simply that you've either got a life to live or you've got work, but not both. The suggestion is that you don't live your life at work and shouldn't even consider it. How resigned is that? No wonder we're unsatisfied with our jobs. We're teaching ourselves to think that way.

Consider this question: Are we mindlessly setting up our work lives to be unsatisfying to motivate ourselves only to work less hours? Is that really the goal we should be working toward? Given how much time we spend at work, the answer is no!

Assuming an average of 17 hours a day of conscious wakefulness (after coffee), not working on weekends, and a conservative 40 hour work week, we spend a third of our adult lives "at work". (I calculated this in an Excel spreadsheet) One third! For those of us who occasionally work over the weekend and evenings, it easily reaches half of our wakeful lives.

Here's the rub. The work-life balance isn't coming, doesn't exist and will never happen. The best it will ever get is an ever constant imbalance of recognizing when priorities go astray, being able to step back and reprioritize how we're spending our time. That's the nature of balance — it's constantly out of balance.

The Challenge of Being Mindful At Work

I imagine one of the reasons we're running around like chickens with our heads cut off at work is if we were to stop and reflect on what we're spending our time doing, it might reveal how disconnected we really are from half of our life. Not a comfortable thing to think about.

I walked into a new bakery the other day and began chatting with the owner. It ends up after years of being a software engineer, he decided to become a baker. Very inspiring and a great lesson of pursuing your dream. But for most of us, we're not going to jump that far, at least not yet.

So in lieu of completely turning your work life around, maybe the key is to make the time to step back and find satisfaction in the things you care about at work. Maybe we forgot that everything isn't equally important and it's not about how much you get done, but getting done what really matters. What "really matters" is up to you.

As we approach December 31st and our yearly ritual of resolutions about weight, diet, exercise and other bad habits to overcome, let's resolve to live it up at work. Not to spend more time there, but find ways to derive satisfaction from the people and things we care about in that 8,760 hours we spend at the office. This is close to half our life, and at the risk of overusing an overused cliché, "life's too short".

So I'll take the first step. I resolve in 2007 to have a satisfying life balance, at work and at home. I resolve to not leave my life at home but bring what I care about to others and what I do for work.

If we all do this, I believe we can truly proclaim, "Oh the places you'll go!"

Best wishes to you and your family (at home and at work).

On Waiting

"A slave is one who waits for someone to come and free him."

— Ezra Pound, expatriate, poet, musician, and critic