The work-life balance myth: how you really can be happier

I was describing my morning to a friend when it hit me. “I wake up at 5am to shower and dress, make breakfasts and lunches, clean the house, check emails, and shake sleepy children awake so I can get out the door by 7am to drop them at childcare. Then I start the two-hour, traffic jam-filled commute and hopefully get to the office by 9am...” He looked at me incredulously and said, “That sounds like my worst nightmare.” I blinked: “Mine too.”

I went to work and resigned the next day, feeling guilty and terrified to be abandoning my career in the most senior role I’d held so far, to launch into the unknown – juggling self-employment and parenting. All I knew for certain was that something had to give. And by then, I was so tired of never being present enough anywhere I was, that I knew the thing that had to give was me.

Since I was 19, I’ve been striving to achieve – always – at work and progressing steadily (and if I’m being honest) impressively up the ladder. I managed the juggle of work and family OK when I had my son but once my daughter came into the mix, two kids, a husband and a dog that didn’t get walked nearly enough swung the precarious seesaw of balance right up in their favour. I was past caring about career status. I just wanted to feel happy.

The pressure to be productive and achieve more in our careers can be consuming

The status quo for many has always been to seek more. Strive for success in business while running a smooth and functional household. And don't forget to squeeze in regular gym sessions and a trip to the organic food market once a week. So what happens when burnout hits, when the juggle becomes too exhausting and so-called success leaves a bitter taste in your mouth? For many, self-employment is the answer.

“Contrary to popular belief, you don’t start a business in pursuit of money; you become a merchant banker for the money,” said Peter Strong, CEO of the Council of Small Business of Australia, to Smart Company. “Most people start a business for the lifestyle and the flexibility it allows – they want to be in charge of what they’re doing.”

But being in charge isn’t enough. It isn’t just big business that’s to blame. Most small business owners will attest that you work harder than ever when it’s your company. The illusion of work-life balance has been exposed as a myth, as technology transcends workplaces and ensures that people can be reached anywhere, anyhow, anytime. Being able to ‘switch off’ isn’t always the answer (or reality) but being 'fluid' might be.

A more fluid way to reposition your time – and energy

Introducing 'tilting' – a way to redefine 'having it all'. The concept essentially means you don’t need to ‘pick a side’ or make any huge decisions between work and home. You just need to lean in when and where you’re needed, for how long you need to, before readjusting your tilt.

This notion was explored by author Brooke McAlary from Sydney’s Blue Mountains in her book 'Destination: Simple'. “Essentially it’s denying the idea that everything needs to be perfectly balanced,” McAlary explains. “That we need to perfectly manage the needs of everyone and everything in our life, every day. And that anything less is a failure.”

“If you look at balance as something you need to achieve every day – keeping the scales evenly weighted between your partner, your kids, your family, friends, yourself, your spirituality, health, keeping the home, your work – you simply won’t be able to do it. Because each day brings different challenges, different tasks and different needs from your life,” she continues. “I am here to tell you that this balancing act is a complete myth. And you should forget about achieving it, because you won’t. Instead, you need to learn to tilt. To willingly throw things out of balance. And, importantly, to be OK with that. Actually, you need to embrace it.”

The idea is liberating. Not having to feel guilty that I’ve ‘abandoned’ my career, that instead I’ve chosen to tilt more towards my children for now, and maybe that tilt will change in the future, feels not just empowering, but obvious. Trying to maintain “balance” is a precarious notion, which expends a huge amount of energy and a constant threat of things tipping too far in either direction, with a losing side as a result. But an ever-moving approach challenges the status quo.

Enabling true flexibility in the workplace

Lija Wilson, co-founder of job-share startup Puffling, says the myth of ‘having it all’ is problematic in its very existence. “What does 'having it all' actually mean anyway?” she questions. “We are all in some way on the quest for finding contentment and happiness in life. To me, it's that simple. … We are all facing different challenges and choices and quite frankly, we need to do more back-patting and less hand-slapping.”

Wilson started Puffling with partners Sarah Parker and Mike Hill in 2016, based primarily on personal experience. All three were looking to return to work in a more flexible situation after having children. “We all felt there was just this crazy lack of flexibility and ability to go back to businesses and contribute at a senior level without being on call for extended hours, five days a week," she says.

"We have all enjoyed great careers, have strong networks and achieved a lot. When we talked to our friends and colleagues, we were clearly not alone. Senior part-time roles just rarely come up unless you're already in a business on leave and can negotiate a return. We started joking that maybe we needed to team up and pitch ourselves together and compete on the open market for full-time roles and share the load. Enter Puffling!”

The business pairs complementary workplace partners together to enable true flexibility and there are clear advantages to having a partner who can tilt in when you need to tilt out. “The response has been fantastic,” says Wilson. “Businesses are embracing the concept and seeing the immediate benefit," confirms Wilson. She explains the concept works for retention with both male and female workers, carers, those facing health challenges or entrepreneurs who still need a steady income but also want to focus on individual goals.

Startup Puffling team Sarah Parker, Mike Hill and Lija Wilson

The power of a tribe

Tilting can come to life in a variety of ways, not just through embracing a flexible work environment. A highly successful colleague once told me she couldn’t get through the week without her ‘tribe’. She had learned long ago that by enlisting a few solid people she could count on when things ramped up in any of her areas of focus – home, work, personal life – she was better equipped to tilt towards what was requiring her attention. A reliable babysitter, a meal delivery service, a great cleaner, a trusted neighbour, a like-minded business contact you can outsource to: building up a network will allow you to tilt more seamlessly.

 

The real power of tilting is that you’re in control of where you choose to lean. You're the one who has the power to define what achievement and fulfilment means. “Success can mean big pay packets and a quick succession of important titles in a career … It can also mean having the guts to go out and start a small business or change careers at 40 and do something you really love,” says Wilson. “Success is about determination and conviction in your choices.”

Sometimes you may tilt more towards work, other times your family and home life will need your time and attention

With a glut of deadlines, new business meetings and tedious admin to consume me, this week my tilt has certainly been focused towards work. The kids have picked up casual days at kindy, the freezer stockpile has taken a belting and the dog is giving me sad eyes. But next week, we’re going to the beach for two days and we’ll make sandcastles and eat iceblocks and apples and try to encourage my daughter to take her first steps. The dog might even get a run. That feels like success to me.

How to embrace the ‘tilt’

Grow a ‘tilt tribe’
Build up a network of reliable contacts in all facets of your life that you can call on when you need to change focus.

Outsource when busy
Outsource as many home duties as you feel comfortable: get a cleaner in, groceries delivered, pre-made healthy meals or simple dinners, scale up on temporary childcare and ask your support services for help.

Make home-life less hectic

Set and stick to a finish time, outsource work overflow and delegate where you can, work from home or simply take a long weekend or short break if possible. 

Put yourself first

Tilt towards self-care and say no to calendar commitments that don’t matter. Take time out to recharge and restore. 

Consider your priorities

Make a list of what you care about most and then assess honestly where you’re tilting and if you need to shift that to feel happier. 

Maintain perspective

Sometimes you’ll skip the gym all week, sometimes you’ll get four sessions in. Occasionally the kids won’t eat a veggie-rich meal but more often than not, they will. Life tilts – move gently with it.
Lulu Wilkinson

It's lucky that Lulu Wilkinson doesn't play favourites because she has carved out a career that bounces seamlessly between creating video/TV content, magazine features, social media campaigns, content strategies and there's even been some merch and licensing deals in there too. She has an obsession with Netflix and is a great trivia night asset when it comes to the category of "celebrity junk no brain should retain." Her husband and "two peas" Paddy and Piper keep her busy – and very happy.

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