The idea of achieving work/life balance is a modern-day knockoff of the American Dream, rooted in the minds of ambitious yet overworked professionals who want to “have it all” — work and play, career and family.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as “work/life balance.” You don’t hear people talking about finding a “family/life balance” or an “eating/life balance.” It’s all life.
Work usually takes priority over the rest, however, because work is what we spend the majority of our day doing, it financially supports our dreams, and it’s a core part of our identities (the first “small talk” question people usually ask is what you do for a living). Add technology to our career-driven lives, and work-related priorities now have the potential to take over our personal lives. When this happens, professionals are putting their relationships, mental and physical health, and overall happiness at risk.
Technology Skews Our Priorities
The reason work seems to be encroaching more and more on our personal time is that every day, we unknowingly hand over precious power to alerts and notifications — distractions ironically set up to ensure we don’t miss a thing.
My notifications come from Google News, business blogs, LinkedIn, Twitter, productivity apps, airfare alerts, my investment firm, and (what should be at the top of my list) my son’s school. When we’re constantly bombarded with these bits of information, priorities and distractions start to run together, and we have a hard time knowing what to focus on.
It’s Not All Technology’s Fault
How do you know when your priorities have truly gone awry? I believe it’s when you’ve reached a point where your urgency to react to something is disproportionate to its relevance (or your priorities). Although technology enables every notification or alert to seem urgent, technology itself isn’t the true culprit. Rather, it’s our relationship with technology that throws us off-balance.
Do you delay a scheduled workout because you feel compelled to reply to an email first? Do your kids ask you to step away from Facebook? Do unread emails cause you stress even after a 12-hour workday? Do you check your phone at dinner? These are all signs that you have an imbalanced relationship with technology.
4 Easy Ways to Balance Your Life
Below are ways to begin building a more balanced life — one where you have room for hobbies, health, relationships, and personal priorities.
1. Take 30 minutes each morning before checking your email or phone.
I used to wake up every morning and immediately look at my phone to see if there was anything urgent in my inbox or something interesting on Facebook. It always started with me telling myself, “I’m just going to check,” but that quick check turned into 30 minutes of working, mentally prioritizing my to-do list, and looking for a problem to react to.
The most defining moment of your day is when you first wake up. You have a choice about the first information you expose to your brain. By meditating, exercising, journaling, or doing something reflective for those first 30 minutes instead of opening the digital floodgates, you allow yourself to start your day recharged and aware of your priorities. Learning to control which information we pay attention to — and when — is crucial to achieving balance.
2. Identify your “critical path” priorities.
Every year, my company holds a meeting for our executive team to discuss our “critical path” for the coming year. What are our most important priorities? Our departments then align their goals along that path. Professionals can benefit from going through this same process with their personal lives.
Can you identify your five most important personal goals and values? Is it better to be connected to your kids, be physically fit, or be on the road to a funded retirement? These priorities are part of your personal “critical path”; if you don’t define them now and give them the necessary attention, something less important is bound to take their place.
3. Find a non-work-related passion.
Without any interests or hobbies outside work, you run the risk of becoming resentful and isolated. While it sounds dedicated and noble to focus on work 24/7, most realize this isn’t a realistic or sustainable lifestyle. Many companies show outward signs of rewarding this behavior, but most people secretly have little respect for individuals with no boundaries.
Learn a language, join a gym, or volunteer at your child’s school. Most importantly, do something that makes you step away from your computer and smartphone. Non-work-related, tech-free passions expand your universe and make you a more interesting person.
4. Build a community of support.
Finding a non-work-related passion also involves building supportive, nurturing relationships outside of work. Money and jobs will come and go, but trusted friends who have your personal interests at heart can help you handle difficult professional decisions with less stress and more confidence.
When we take a look at why it’s so hard to achieve balance between work and our personal lives, technology lies very close to the root of the problem. However, the root itself has to do with our tendency to let our notifications drive our priorities.
Being dedicated and ambitious is admirable, but allowing work to define your self-worth and identity is dangerous. Don’t let yourself wake up one day and realize your kids are out of the house, you never went on that cruise, or you never ran a marathon.
By reevaluating priorities and taking the necessary steps to unplug from work and technology, you can achieve real balance — improving your health, happiness, and life as a whole.
(This post originally appeared in Fast Company in March 2014)