I call this the lost talk because I lost my voice through my preparation to do a live stream about work/life balance. In a bite of delicious irony, I was pursuing my own form of that elusive balance when I lost my voice. This post is longer than usual, as it contains what I would have said in an hour broadcast had I been able to do so.

In this article I will cover the two crucial things you must identify to move toward work/life balance and then how to begin to act on them. These things are simple but not easy. That is, with a little introspection you can probably figure out what they are, but putting them into practice is the stuff that led me to create The EZ Coach – they take work. In short, work will not balance itself; you have to create that balance.

First, a brief story of my own pursuit of work/life balance: On the morning of the scheduled stream, I was chasing what I call a double – a time when I am able to do at least two things I love at once, in order to pack twice the living into the same hours. Some examples of double you may know are good dinners with friends (food + conversation) or a run on the beach (exercise in a warm, beautiful place).

In my case, and by the time you read this there may be a live link to the story and photos, I had planned to try a new kind of coaching, taking three people as a small group on a hike in the Cascade Mountains outside of Seattle, Washington. We met up at 8 AM over breakfast and the day unfolded well. We talked as a group, as pairs, and in rotation all through breakfast and the hike, returning to our cars just after 1 PM. While not everything was perfect, so far, so good.

I had designed this event as my own kind of double, or maybe even a triple, combining my desire to help others grow with some good exercise in the beautiful outdoors. What I didn’t realize is that by choosing a lovely hike along a mountain stream that I would spend hours talking over the noise of the rushing water. The result, five hours of conversation later, was that my voice was wrecked. If you are curious how wrecked you can watch the three minute apology video for the lost talk.

So returning to the topic of work/life balance, what would I have had to say about it if I had been able to say anything?

I would have said that perfect work/life balance is a wrong concept, nearly unachievable, and ever changing. Let me tackle those three in order, and hopefully help you in the process.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is well known for quoting a definition I believe he got from others, which is that he believes in work/life harmony rather than balance. To be honest, when I first heard this many years ago, I mistakenly thought it was clever wording for saying that you should spend 80 percent of your time working and be satisfied with what is left over. I took it to mean that if you loved your work enough you wouldn’t feel bad about the things you were missing in the rest of your life. I was wrong about this. What the saying really means comes more nearly from the cliche, “find a job that you love and you will never work a day in your life.” In short, work/life balance really implies a work/life trade-off. That there is work and there is life, and the two are separate or even opposite. For many people (statistically a majority), this true. They dislike their jobs, feel unfulfilled, and live for Fridays.

It does not have to be this way; it is possible to have work be an integrated, beneficial part of your life. I would argue that everyone has experienced some kind of work where the hours fly by. They do not feel hungry or tired. They have entered the flow state, where everything they are doing is easy, natural, and pleasurable, even if it is mentally or physically demanding. Examples include yard work, gardening, working on our cars, cleaning up a mess, or diving in to a demanding workout. For each of these examples, there are people who love them and people who hate them. I love hiking for hours, something others associate with mosquitoes, sweating, and the indignity of using the bathroom in the woods. Give me a bed of flowers and ask me to pull weeds, and I hear the couch calling.

Work/life harmony comes from finding a way to get the way you earn your money to come from an activity you love in this way. There are many books on this topic, but one great classic is What Color Is Your Parachute? While it may not be easy, most readers have some ability to adapt their jobs, particularly over time.

But wait, can’t I just work a bit less, spend a little more time with family, and take an extra week of vacation to go fishing, lie on the beach, or finally see Paris?

In short, no. Work/life harmony comes from fundamentally matching what you wish to do, and how much you wish to do it, with something you like doing. It also comes from taking the time to really understand your priorities and then choosing to live according to them.

Most professionals spend more hours in the office, working outside the office, and commuting, than in any other single activity in their lives (other than sleep). Family, exercise, chores, recreation, religion, and whatever else is important to you all have to fit in “what is left.” Unless you are lucky enough not to have to work, you will have to make some priority choices. Part, perhaps most, of what leaves people feeling unbalance is that they are making these choices unconsciously, without thought, all while hoping that next week they will catch up and be in balance. I covered this lie we tell ourselves in my set up post about this topic.

To start to achieve harmony, you must therefore identify two key things. First, what kind of work is effortless for you, and second, what your priorities are in life. You must then make changes to get both in alignment.

I’ve already covered what constitutes effortless work above and pointed you towards What Color Is Your Parachute? It is worth noting that no job I have ever seen will be 100% composed of the type of work you love. There will always be meetings to go to, office politics, paperwork, or something else unpleasant in your week. What I am talking about here, however, is having the main part of your work be something you are passionate about, that you love, so that it outweighs and makes pleasant all those hours we spend at work. Next, if you are not doing that kind of work, you need to lay out a plan to migrate to do so. That is too much of a topic to cover here, so someday we’ll do a talk or write an article on changing careers if you need to.

The second thing you will have to do is identify you priorities and act on them. Few people can find a way to have all the money they want, spend quality time with a spouse or partner, raise kids, be fit, keep their house organized, see friends, engage in a spiritual practice, and get enough sleep. I’ve never met one, but like Sasquatch, I leave open the possibility they might exist. Given this, step one is to decide which of these things matter most to you.

The eye opening part of this exercise for most people is finding out how far down the list work appears. This is almost always true if you don’t like your work, but is often true even of the kind of effortless work described above. As the saying goes, no one on his death bed ever wished he has spent more time at work.

Assuming that work doesn’t turn out to be your top priority, the hard part now becomes acting on this change. Modern workplaces will take all that you will give them. If you will answer emails at night, your boss and coworkers will email you and expect replies. If you will work with colleagues around the world, making phone calls on off hours, you’ll be valued as a great team player. If you always send out great meeting minutes, you’ll find this on your plate along with your action items. Workplaces don’t do this intentionally or cruelly. They are simply machines, focused on achieving goals, that willingly consume what they can in that process.

The point is, however, that you have to set boundaries because your corporation almost never will. Do you have a coworker who leaves, even mid-meeting, at 5 PM to get to daycare? Do you have someone who never responds to email at night or on the weekends? Do you know someone who is content that promotion and pay come a bit slower to have something else? Could you stand it if you overheard your boss telling someone else that you did great work, but just didn’t seem completely committed?

The point is that work will never balance itself. It is something you have to do actively and something that will have consequences if you do it. Some of your peers around you are in the trap of allowing work to consume everything they are. Many will admit they are unhappy; I am suspicious of many of the rest who say they are satisfied. But, they are the majority. Whether driven by guilt, desire for money and promotion, or feeling that they must do what the workplace seems to demand, they work at all hours, trading off the unspoken higher priorities. This pattern is a large part of where the concern for work/life balance comes from – the other people around you have made over work the apparent norm.

You can change this for yourself, but not for free. You have to decide if you could take driving an older car or being passed over for a choice assignment in order to spend more time with your partner or to have the energy for a workout every night.

The good news is, these trade-offs are often less than you might believe. If you determine what kind of work you can do naturally, you will likely find that you also do it very well. You can be greatly valued as the willing, exceptional gardener in a world where no one else wants to kneel in the dirt and pull weeds. The result is, when you take off your gardening gloves and go home at 5 PM, you are still valued and thought exceptional because you spent your limited work time on the thing your teammates value most. 40 hours of passionate excellence can easily trump 60 hours of grinding mediocrity. Both the quality of your work and your happy attitude as you do it can shine through.

In the end, getting the great career and life is not a the topic of a single article but a lifelong quest. I hope you have enjoyed this view of the journey and will join us on The EZ Coach live stream and website to continue the trip.