Instead of Work-Life Balance, Cultivate Work-Life Alignment
The Myth of Work-Life Balance
While advice imploring women to strive for work-life balance is ubiquitous, the idea that our work and the rest of our lives should or even can be in balance is an unattainable ideal.
Striving for balance between our work and everything else that falls into the “life” bucket—our family time and commitments, our hobbies, our well-being practices, our religious or spiritual practices, time with friends, creative pursuits, and all the myriad activities required to sustain ourselves—sets us up for failure.
Additionally, for many of us, complete separation between our work and the rest of our lives is often neither possible nor desirable. This has never been the case more than in the age of hybrid, remote, and flexible work, where “work” and “life” activities are often interspersed throughout our days rather than work taking place solely in one long, unbroken stretch with life taking place in the windows before and after.
Further, we all have periods in our careers and lives where balance is neither desirable nor appropriate. For example, a short-term, intensified focus on our career while we are pursuing a career transition or promotion may make a disproportionate investment of time and energy in our career appropriate, as may a short-term, intensified focus on starting or expanding a family, caring for an ill loved one, pursuing a personal passion project or community service commitment, or other major life moments or priorities. Balance is not always appropriate, even in the rare instances when it is even possible.
Most importantly, even if an equitable balance of time and energy devoted to work versus everything else that falls into the “life” bucket were possible, achieving that balance would not necessarily result in well-being, fulfillment, or satisfaction with our careers or our lives because feeling dissatisfied, overwhelmed, unfulfilled, or burned out in our work, or even in our broader lives, is often not simply about working too much.
Instead, research on workplace well-being and burnout shows that a lack of autonomy, a misalignment between our own values and the values of our employer, feelings of isolation, feeling that our contributions go unrecognized or unrewarded, and feeling that our workplace environments lack fairness all lead to decreased well-being, put us at increased risk of burnout and make achieving work-life alignment more challenging.
In short, flourishing in both our work and the rest of our lives is not simply about balancing the time and energy we devote to each, but about pursuing values-aligned projects and commitments that allow us to leverage our strengths, show up as our authentic selves, and cultivate lives where our careers and the other priorities, people, and commitments that matter to us work in alignment rather than in conflict with one another.
Moving Toward Work-Life Alignment
Rather than aspiring to an unattainable ideal of work-life “balance,” we are better served by pursuing work-life alignment.
“Work-life alignment” refers to a state in which our work and the rest of our lives work together in harmony rather than competing for our time, energy, and attention. Instead of work pulling us in one direction and family, our own well-being, community service, etc. pulling us in other directions, when we cultivate work-life alignment, the different parts of our lives work together in the same direction.
Pursuing work-life alignment does not mean that there are never tough decisions or moments of tension when we must prioritize work over another part of our lives or vice-versa, but it does mean that at baseline, we have built a work-life alignment where our various commitments and priorities routinely work together rather than in competition.
For many of us, simply trying to keep on top of everything we have to juggle in our personal and professional lives is already taking most or all of our available energy, but making the time to intentionally reflect on and evaluate our current state of work-life alignment is an important first step in strengthening or course-correcting in ways that can better support our overall flourishing and well-being. You can use this short work-life alignment audit to assess your own current state of alignment.
Strategies for Work-Life Alignment
Fortunately, whether you’re currently at a baseline of little to no alignment or starting from already relatively strong alignment, there are several strategies that can help increase and sustain strong work-life alignment.
Practice values-based decision-making.
Central to work-life alignment is gaining clarity on our core values and making decisions in work and in the rest of our lives that align with our core values. When we are acting in ways that do not align with our values—whether at work or in other areas of our lives—alignment is out of reach.
When we use our core values to make decisions about where and how to invest our time and energy in both our work and other areas of our lives, that underlying values alignment supports alignment between our life and work. The simple act of being intentional about acting from our core values in our day-to-day work can also help us experience a stronger sense of alignment.
Cultivate opportunities to show up as your authentic self.
At work, as in all other areas of our lives, we experience the greatest alignment and flourishing when we can be true to ourselves and show up as our real selves, rather than feeling like we have to hide important parts of who we are or pretend to be someone we’re not. The more we’re able to show up and act in ways that align with who we really are, the greater alignment between who we are at work and who we are in the rest of our lives.
Asking: “Where are the places where I am most seen, valued, and respected for who I really am and how can I prioritize the energy and time I devote to those projects and spaces?” can help increase opportunities to interact as our authentic self.
Working to make the spaces in which we regularly interact more inclusive, welcoming spaces where everyone is supported in showing up authentically is also well worth the effort.
Identify and actively work to resolve conflict and tension between work and other areas of life.
Many of us experience strong, frequent conflicts between the time and energy demands of our work and other important parts of our lives. Yet, while we often feel that these conflicts are beyond our control, being intentional about our priorities, time, boundaries, and commitments can help us significantly scale back the frequency and intensity of conflicts between work and other important parts of our lives.
While this can often be accomplished by making intentional, strategic decisions about our calendars and priorities to proactively minimize conflict, in some cases, larger scale changes are appropriate. For example, if regular mealtime with loved ones is an important priority, but your current role requires you to be away from your loved ones most of the time, considering transitioning to a role that does not regularly prevent you from doing other things that matter to you might be appropriate.
Notice if what you value and find meaningful aligns with or conflicts with what your organization or the organizations you work with values or rewards.
While being aware of and making values-aligned decisions is an important foundation for cultivating work-life alignment, that practice is challenging to impossible when we are working in an organizational context where what the organization values or rewards directly conflicts with our own personal values.
For example, if collegiality and kindness are core values for you, but your organization or the organization you’re working with values and rewards competitiveness, you are likely to experience strong, consistent challenges in leading and working from your own values.
This doesn’t mean that any time you perceive a difference between what you value and what your organization values that it’s impossible for you to cultivate work-life alignment, but it is useful to evaluate whether what your current organization or organizational clients reward and value supports or challenges your own values and the work-life alignment practices you are working to cultivate.
Because cultivating work-life alignment is an intentional, ongoing practice, rather than a one-time accomplishment, pursuing these strategies can help you build or enhance your current state of work-life alignment.
Reflection and Realignment
Work-life alignment is an ongoing process that requires intention, regular reflection, and realignment as we cultivate alignment across the many shifts in our lives and careers.
Importantly, work-life alignment looks different for everyone and looks different for each of us at different chapters in our lives and careers. This means that work-life alignment is not a to-do item on our checklist that we accomplish once and then cross off our to-do list and never have to think about again.
Instead, work-life alignment is something that we should regularly reflect on and iterate toward as we take on and step away from different commitments, passions, and priorities in work and in the rest of our lives. A quarterly check-in with ourselves to evaluate and assess our current state of alignment and develop action strategies to build stronger alignment, when necessary, can help ensure that we sustain work-life alignment across changing chapters of our lives and careers.