Instead of aiming for unachievable work-life balance, think about guilt management.
“I need help with work-life balance,” a beloved client said, after showing me pictures of her beautiful new baby. “Maybe I need better time management tools.”
I looked at this new mother sitting in front of me. I would have to let her down gently.
“You do know that work-life balance is a crock, don’t you?” I asked. “It’s BS. It’s a myth.”
No, my client said, startled. This was news to her.
She couldn’t figure out how to balance this new baby with a career she loves, or how to fit in her roles as wife and daughter, never mind her friendships or, heaven forbid, exercise, sleep and all the other balls she was dropping.
“Work-life balance is a myth because you simply are not able to fit it all in, day after day, week after week, month after month — no matter how organized you are,” I say. “And if you can’t balance it, then you must be failing, which feels terrible, right?”
“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up,” she said.
“We’re not going to talk about time management,” I say. “We’re going to talk about guilt management.”
“We’re going to start from the assumption that you are going to feel guilty no matter what you do,” I tell her.
“Babies and careers are bottomless pits of demands,” I explain.
I tell her we’re going to set up some guardrails to help her manage the guilt load of not meeting these competing, mutually exclusive demands.
“When do you feel really guilty?” I ask. “Where’s the guilt really strong?”
She tells me it’s really hard to leave her desk at the end of the day. She feels guilty about walking away from unfinished tasks at work. She feels guilty that she wants to stay and finish what she’s working on. She feels guilty that she hasn’t been home with her baby all day.
It’s a hot mess of guilt.
“We’re going to simplify all of this by giving you mental guardrails that you have carefully thought through beforehand,” I tell her. “You can’t be two places at once. So you decide beforehand what’s the next best solution, given that you can’t be with your baby and at work at the same time.”
For example, I say, if you decide beforehand that you leave work every day at, say, 5:30, then you get a pass on the guilt when you do so. That decision is a guardrail, and you can give yourself permission to not feel guilty when you stay within your predetermined guardrails.
“We solve for guilt, not some unachievable, so-called work-life balance,” I add.