As lawyers who spend much of our time thinking about making the strongest argument or drafting the best contract, we are very attuned to the ideas that 1) words have meaning and 2) how we use those words matters. And there’s scientific support behind the amount of time we spend finding the right words—psychological, sociological, and linguistic studies that support the notion that our language impacts how we think about and experience reality.
To me, saying “work-life balance” suggests a false dichotomy in which “work” and “life” exist on separate ends of a spectrum. Meanwhile, we are left walking the tightrope between them, and losing our balance could send us spiraling to the ground.
Work is a part of life. And as a first-year associate at a law firm, it can be a large part, actually. Does that mean that I’m off-balance? I don’t think so. Of course, work can be a little like water. If we’re not careful, if we don’t channel it to where we want it to go, it spills all over the place.
So how do I know that the amount of time I spend working now has been properly channeled? The concept of “work-life balance” is too limiting to answer that question for me. It’s not about putting together some calculation that says “if I spend x amount of time at work, I need to spend y amount at home with family and I need z amount of alone time.” I’ve found it more helpful to think less about “work-life balance,” and more about “work-life alignment.”
According to Jean-Paul Sartre, we are “condemned to be free.” We are “thrown into a world that has no rules or structure other than those which we choose to give it.” Where and when I spend my time working is a choice that I make, it’s a structure that I chose for my life. But why?
In a recent commencement speech, Chief Justice John Roberts warned graduates:
People say “be yourself” because they want you to resist the impulse to conform to what others want you to be. But you can’t be yourself if you don’t learn who you are, and you can’t learn who you are unless you think about it. . . . And while “just do it” might be a good motto for some things, it’s not a good motto when it’s trying to figure out how to live your life that is before you. And one important clue to living a good life, is to not to try to live THE good life. The best way to lose the values that are central to who you are is frankly not to think about them at all.
Have you thought about why you make the decision to go into work every day? Or why you decided that you’re taking next Friday off for a long weekend and a mini-vacation? The reasons are probably different for everyone. As the Chief Justice pointed out, you can’t try to live THE good life, only YOUR good life, guided by YOUR values and the things that are important to YOU. But you can’t know if your choices are out of alignment with what you need and care about if you haven’t identified what you need and care about in the first place.
My Gallup Strengthsfinder test tells me that I am an “achiever.” I like to set goals and accomplish them. I keep myself occupied with tasks on a to-do list, sometimes without necessarily pausing to question “with all this activity, am I actually getting closer to something bigger?” I often have to consciously remind myself to pause, reflect, and make sure my work-life choices are aligned with what I value.
It is only once you have cultivated the self-awareness necessary to recognize when your work-life choices are aligned that you can recognize and celebrate the meaningful moments that result from and inform your choices moving forward. It is only once you’ve cultivated that self-awareness that you are able to own those decisions with supervisors, co-workers, family members, and friends. It is only then that you can give yourself the grace you need to get back on track when you inevitably fall out of alignment from time to time. We are all human, after all.
The hardest part? Theories of evolution argue that humans have survived and evolved not because we are particularly successful in any certain environment, but because we are so well-equipped to change. We adapt to, accept, and even seek out change. So even when you’ve done the work to make sure your work-life choices are in alignment, there’s a constant need for re-evaluation.
Jocelyn K. Glei thinks of making decisions like turning on a flashlight in a dark room—"the act itself sheds mores light on what’s happening around you.” Different seasons of life bring with them different meaningful moments. When our work-life choices are in alignment, however, we are able to remain clearheaded enough to recognize change and to realign.