Work-Life Balance is More of An Ebb and Flow: Here’s Why

Despite the resounding evidence that working long hours can be harmful to both employees and employers, many professionals still struggle to overcome their assumptions — and their deeply-ingrained habits — around work hours. What does it take to free yourself from these unhealthy patterns and reach a more sustainable, rewarding work-life balance?

To explore this question, the Harvard Business Review conducted almost 200 in-depth interviews with 78 professionals from the London offices of a global law firm and an accounting firm. They spoke with an equal number of men and women, and most of the interviewees were between 30 and 50 years old, with at least one dependent child, and in either middle or senior management roles.

According to their study, the majority of the interviewees described their jobs as highly demanding, exhausting, and chaotic, and they seemed to take for granted that working long hours was necessary for their professional success. However, about 30% of the men and 50% of women in our sample appeared to consciously resist working long hours, describing a variety of strategies they developed for maintaining a healthier work-life balance. While the details of every individual case differed, their study suggested a common mental process that consistently helped this group of professionals to change the way they worked — and lived — for the better.

At a high level, their research showed that achieving better balance between professional and personal priorities boils down to a combination of reflexivity — or questioning assumptions to increase self-awareness — and intentional role redefinition. Importantly, their research suggests that this is not a one-time fix, but rather, a cycle that we must engage in continuously as circumstances and priorities evolve. This work-life balance ebb and flow is made up of five distinct steps:

1. Focus On Your Emotions

Once you’ve increased your awareness of your current situation, examine how that situation makes you feel. Ask yourself, do I feel energized, fulfilled, satisfied? Or do I feel angry, resentful, sad? For example, one respondent described his realization that his current work-life balance (or lack thereof) was engendering some pretty negative emotions.

A rational understanding of the decisions and priorities driving your life is important, but equally important is emotional reflexivity — that is, the capacity to recognize how a situation is making you feel. Awareness of your emotional state is essential in order to determine the changes you want to make in your work and in your life.

2. Do You Have Alternatives?

Before jumping into solutions, first reflect on the aspects of your work and life that could be different in order to better align with your priorities. Are there components of your job that you would like to see changed? How much time would you like to spend with your family, or on hobbies?

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