Work-Life Balance Is Possible

work life balanceAs we start a new year, our thoughts naturally go to new beginnings. And if you’re anything like me, pretty much every year you re-commit to goals of achieving better work-life balance. New Year’s resolutions haven’t traditionally lasted long for me. But I have found two concepts very helpful on this quest to obtain more work life balance: the number 168 and the image of an orchestra.

Work-Life Balance Is Constrained By Time

We work by the clock.  Many of us bill clients by the quarter or tenth of an hour.  I remember those days of feeling that even if I billed 24 hours a day, I would never catch up. For most of us, there is no such thing as “catching up” or “being done.”

In order to not have work take over our lives, it helps to literally schedule time for non-work-related activities.  After all, work is a part of our lives.  Many other parts of our lives need to be full for us to feel balanced.

I learned an approach to this concept from Harry Kraemer, a professor at Kellogg School of Management and former CEO of Baxter who wrote From Values to Action: the Four Principles of Values Based Leadership.  In a lecture I attended, Prof. Kraemer took a piece of chalk (Yes, I too was surprised they used chalk still.) and wrote this number in large letters on the chalkboard:  168. He asked the significance of that number.  Most of us responded with the time-worn response of all students who have no clue:  we looked down at our desks.  Finally someone asked, “The number of hours in a week?” And that was right.  Focus there folks, he said.

There are only 168 hours in a week.  That’s 100%.  If your boss tells you to give 110%, you can’t.  You can only give 100%.  And you can only bill something way less than 168 hours per week.  You need to sleep, exercise, eat, and play with family members and friends.

Prof. Kraemer went on to share how he regularly reflects on his life and allocates the hours in an upcoming week to make sure he has made time for what is truly important to him.

bucketsThe concept he came up with is to divide aspects of his life into “buckets” and to assign a percentage of time that should be devoted to each bucket per week.  Kraemer shared his six buckets:

  1. Career
  2. Family/Friends
  3. Spirituality/Reflection
  4. Health/Sleep
  5. Fun
  6. Social Responsibility

He then assigned an amount of time to each bucket, reflecting the relative importance of each area. We have used this bucket activity in various leadership programs.

You may have different buckets and/or different allocations of time per bucket.  The important thing is to reflect on different aspects of your life, go through the exercise, and then revisit after a week (or more) to check how you are doing. Thinking about your life as discrete buckets of time is one way to reorganize the goal of work-life balance.

Work Life Balance Is Not A Seesaw But An Orchestra

Another alternative to balancing work on one side of a seesaw and the rest of life on the other comes from Stewart Friedman, a professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of Total Leadership. Prof. Friedman says forget the misguided metaphor of work-life balance as a zero sum game.  It isn’t helpful to either focus on work or on the rest of life.  You can never stay in equilibrium that way.

I’ve read Freidman’s books (and even took one of his classes on Coursera) and his mantra is: work is part of your life, and your life has other parts as well. Prof. Freidman points us to four different domains we have in our lives: work, home, community, and the private self.  Integrating these four domains can be done.  It calls for self-reflection.  He has devised exercises to guide this activity.

The helpful metaphor Freidman uses is that of an orchestra.  The different sections of orchestral instruments are metaphors for the different domains in your life.

See, in an orchestra when one group of instruments is playing, or playing louder, the other instruments remain on stage, playing in the background or poised to play.  A person’s musical score varies by week, month, or year.  At different times, the conductor (you) decides which section should be playing, how loudly and for how long.

What I like about this metaphor is it is flexible enough to apply throughout a lifetime.  During the time someone is raising small children, for example, the musical composition between the four domains will be different than at the start of a first job or during other phases of a career or life.


It’s a myth that work-life balance is elusive.  We have to remember that work is just part–a very important part if you’re in a rewarding job–of our lives. It is important to achieve a balance among the various domains of our lives.  We need to remind ourselves to take control of how we spend our time so that we remain healthy and able to enjoy all areas of our lives.  May your musical score be balanced and full in 2017!


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