The ever-elusive work-life balance: The idea that you can find complete equilibrium in your personal and professional life. A balance so coveted that, in a 2016 global survey, nearly 20% of Millennials were found to prioritize work-life balance when deciding upon a new career opportunity.
From a young age, you’re told to “be happy” and “follow your dreams”—all while maintaining a viable income. Stories of characters and heroes “having it all” filled your childhood. So how exactly do you become the quintessential sleep-for-8-hours-and-meal-plan-and-always-impress-your-boss superhero adult you’re “supposed” to be?
Well, first things first, realize that you can’t. That’s right—letting go of the idea that you’ll ever achieve the perfect balance is important.
A perfect work-life balance? No.
An improved work-life balance? Definitely.
No matter your career, there are always ways to inch towards social and professional harmony. And since this idea started in childhood, why not go to the source?
Let’s revisit the life morals espoused in popular children’s fables, and apply some of our earliest life lessons to the modern day scourge that is “trying to have it all.”
The Tortoise And The Hare
The most famous fable of them all has two starring characters: the Tortoise and the Hare. The Hare mocks the Tortoise for its slow speed, “Do you even get anywhere going that slow?”
The Tortoise retorts, “Why yes I do, in fact, I’m quicker than you think! Let’s race, you’ll see.”
Thoroughly amused, the Hare agrees. They settle upon a starting and end point and the race is on!
The Hare quickly dashes away from sight as the turtle begins to take his first few steps. To further humiliate the Tortoise, the Hare decides to take a break right near the finish line. In doing so, the Hare ends up falling asleep and is ultimately awoken by his nemesis, the Tortoise, slowly but surely crossing the finish line—defeating the Hare.
Work-life Balance Lesson:
The Tortoise and the Hare were competing in a race to prove to one another that one of them was faster than the other. Competition in the workplace isn’t very different: When you’re surrounded by coworkers who are consistently staying late or working on the weekends, the “race” becomes more of a rat race.
A key tenet of work-life balance is creating a schedule that gives you more freedom and time to pursue what you want outside of work. Whether it’s spending an extra hour at the park with your family, or training for an actual race.
Like the Hare, it’s easy to fall into the trap of sprinting as fast as you can, as often as you can. What you don’t see is how constantly doing work sprints is resulting in your life becoming absorbed by work.
Late nights. Saturday afternoon emails. Working through your lunch break.
…Have any time left when you’re not working?
While there’s nothing wrong with hard work, achieving some work-life balance and managing your time in order to complete your workload efficiently is key. Putting in longer hours and making yourself accessible at all times of day (or in other words, overworking) not only harms your health, it doesn’t make a difference in terms of overall output. In fact, overworking is linked to fatigue, lower work quality, and rising health costs for employers.
If only the Hare had paced himself, there would have been no need for a break!
Incorporating changes to maximize your time should start small, and then work their way up. Would you like to leave work by 5pm each day? Start by leaving at 5pm twice a week, rather than committing yourself to five days per week immediately.
According to Robert Brooks, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, “If you’re trying to change a certain script in your life, start small and experience some success. Build from there.”
Like the Tortoise, you may want to start out slow and remain steady in order to achieve work-life harmony.
The Gnat And The Bull
A Gnat buzzes around the meadows when he spots a Bull standing quietly in the long grass. Observing that the Bull is quite at peace, the Gnat decides to rest upon his horn.
After resting for a short time, the Gnat decides it was ready to again take flight.
Before leaving, the Gnat suddenly apologizes to the Bull. “I’m sorry for bothering you today, you must be glad I’m about to leave,” says the Gnat.
“It didn’t matter,” replies the Bull. “I didn’t even realize you were there.”
Work-life Balance Lesson:
It might seem rude on the surface, but the Bull’s zen attitude has merit: It’s not always a bad thing to ignore distractions.
The Gnat’s apology backfires because the Gnat’s small imposition wasn’t worthy of attention in the first place; the Bull had better things to focus on. We humans could fare better by approaching our work-life balance like the Bull.
More than 50% of American workers check their work messages on the weekend and during vacations. During your time off, you should be ignoring the gnats.
While it might feel necessary to email your client immediately on a Saturday or respond to your boss while you’re on a beach, work-life balance means setting boundaries on messages and responding within an agreed-upon time frame.
So, do you delete your email accounts and run away to the Galapagos? No, but creating “batch work” times during the day dedicated to responding to messages, as well as cutoff times for when you’re no longer “allowed” to check email, can significantly reduce your stress.
Giving yourself permission to ignore the gnats in your life brings you one step closer to a true work-life harmony.
The Ants And The Grasshopper
During the summer, a group of worker Ants is dragging some wheat past the local grasshopper.
Their grasshopper friend, looking curious, asks the Ants, “What’s that you’ve got there?”
“It’s wheat,” reply the Ants. “We’re saving up food for the autumn. What are you doing to prepare?”
The grasshopper scoffs, “Prepare? No need to worry about that right now, I’m enjoying my summer by making music and playing my mandolin.”
As the Ants continue dragging their wheat, the grasshopper continues playing his instruments, soaking in the summer sun.
Once the summer ends and autumn arrives, the worker Ants excitedly take out the wheat they had harvested and begin cooking a meal. While doing so, the Grasshopper suddenly appears, looking glum.
“Ants, will you help me? I have no food to eat,” he says.
The Ants couldn’t help but ask, “What happened to your food stock?”
“I didn’t have time to store up any food,” whined the Grasshopper; “I was so busy making music that, before I knew it, the summer was gone.”
The Ants shrugged their shoulders in disgust.
“Making music, were you?” they cried. “Very well; now dance!” And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.
Work-life Balance Lesson:
Once again, yes, it’s bleak— children really got a reality check at an early age back in the day.
While it’s a lesson you’ve been learning since grade school, simply planning ahead doesn’t seem like a hard hitter when it comes to work-life balance. Whether you’ve been the Grasshopper or the Ants, the tough part isn’t thinking ahead—it’s figuring out which tasks to prioritize. What’s your daily frog?
Pinpointing which tasks you tend to dread during your week is a great first step towards prioritizing your to-do list. Piles of laundry? That expense report at work? Definitely all dreadful, but keep the Grasshopper in mind and knock out the “work” before you play.
We get it, finishing off the easy and sometimes “pleasant” tasks like buying a gift or calling a friend is very tempting. However, prioritizing the easier tasks of your day over the more crucial or important tasks can hurt your overall productivity over time.
This is how the Ants became more successful during their harvest. By focusing on the most important task at hand there was ample time and no stress later on in order for them to complete their other to-dos.
Work-life balance is exactly that: A delicate to-do list that fosters balance by feeling like you’re on top of your tasks. Never fear, now is not too late to begin.
Indulge Your Inner Child
It can be Aesop’s fables or Harry Potter, whatever inspires you to inch towards work-life harmony is worth pursuing in order to not only stay productive and organized, but to stay happy.
Walking like a tortoise, swatting away gnats, or staying away from the devil-may-care rockstar lifestyle of the grasshopper—a balanced life is but a few inspiring stories away.