The work-life balance formula that actually works

Written by: Jeff Haden
Published on: Oct 24, 2018

work life balance

Movie star and racing enthusiast Michael Fassbender was almost bouncing as walked by me on his way to the driver's meeting before the Ferrari Challenge Series at Daytona International Speedway. Spring in his step, smile on his face, fist bumping people he knew – Fassbender looked psyched.

But he wasn't acting. This joy was real: Fassbender was going racing.

Hold that thought.

Work-life balance: Everyone talks about it. And everyone struggles to achieve it.

Partly that's due to faulty math. Many people assume the only way to achieve work-life balance is to spend the same number of hours on work as they do on "life." Spend 8 hours at work? Then you must need 8 hours of "me" time.

But for most people that seems impossible. Many work more than 8 hours a day. Many sleep at least 7 hours a day (or at least should.) Add in doing chores, and eating, and showering, and commuting, and getting a little exercise, and all the other things you need to do every day.

What's left? For many, maybe an hour or two. Which means work and life will never balance.

But what if you did a different kind of math?

Take Fassbender. I don't know him. I probably could have spoken to him at Daytona but chose not to. He was clearly immersed in the moment, and the last thing I wanted to do was interrupt that.

But I do know a number of actors. I know that when they shoot a movie – and when they're at the top of the call list, like Fassbender – they typically work 12- to 14-hour days.

For weeks on end they don't have time for "life." Achieving anything resembling a reasonable work-life balance is nearly impossible (although Clive Standen gives it a very, very good go).

What can you do if that's the case? Focus not on the number of hours you spend on "life," but on the quality of those hours. That's how you balance the scales.

Imagine you're Fassbender. You love racing, so much so that you're willing to spend a ton of money to pursue it at a reasonably high level. You love driving. You love competing. You love the camaraderie and the shared sense of purpose and the atmosphere. You just love it.

In much the same way that planning a vacation makes people nearly as happy as actually taking that vacation, looking forward to race weekends keeps you going during the darker days of work-life imbalance.

And then, when you do get to go racing?

The quality of the experience far outweighs the quantity of hours involved in that experience. One race weekend is like spending dozens of evenings on the couch passively enjoying "me time."

(Of course, Fassbender may not think the way I just described. But I'm willing to bet a hundie I'm right.)

And you can do the same: If you feel your work-life balance is out of whack, focus less on the number of "life" hours and more of the quality of "life" hours.

Start with everyday things. Don't watch your kids play; play with them. That will leave you feeling much more balanced – because the time spend will matter.

Don't go to the gym and slog through a treadmill workout. Knock out a difficult workout designed to help you achieve a fitness goal. That will leave you feeling much more balanced – because the time you spend will matter.

Shoot, if you just want to veg out, don't watch whatever happens to be on TV. Don't settle for whatever seems to be the best option. That's a total waste of "life" time. Watch something you really want to watch. Have a list handy, ahead of time, of what to watch if you get the chance. You'll enjoy the experience a lot more – and you'll feel like the time you spent watching TV actually mattered.

Then, in a larger sense, pick something you want to do, you want to achieve, that you want to be, and actively work towards it. Not only will you enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes with progressing towards a goal – even if that "goal" is doing something purely for fun – but you'll also feel better about yourself and your life.

In short, stop trying to balance the hours you spend on work and "life." That math will always leave you feeling discouraged and unfulfilled. Instead, focus on making the most of every "life" hour you have – in whatever ways leave you feeling the most fulfilled.

That's the only way to balance the scales. And is the best way to truly live.

Jeff Haden is an Inc. Magazine contributing editor and author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on LinkedIn Pulse.