The Dilemma Of Balance

work life balance

In the survey I conducted last year, I asked you to share your biggest struggle with family life at the time. Overwhelmingly the most common response was around the dilemma of balance. Here is just a selection of the responses:

  • Balance – juggling work, family and home duties.
  • Balance and being a better mum
  • Balance and having ‘me’ time
  • Balance between work and home
  • Balance of work & family time
  • Balancing demands of breastfeeding with keeping an active toddler engaged and happy.
  • Balancing different needs of each child – naps, school pick ups, homework, sport, meals, housework
  • Balancing everyone’s needs
  • Balancing having a life and having an organised house.
  • Balancing everything and feeling like I’m on top of it all!
  • Balancing kid & parent needs
  • Balancing the different needs of two children
  • Balancing the needs of all family members, including extended family
  • Balancing things to be fair to all parties & dealing with anxiety issues for one child / sensory issues for another

For some of these balance issues I have strategies that I use to make it easier, like:

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do have a question:

Is Work / Life / Family / Balance something we should set as a goal?

Personally I spent a lot of last year thinking, fretting and aiming for balance. Being a planner I liked to think I could divide my time evenly amongst the things that were important to me:

  • My kids
  • My partner
  • My family
  • My friends
  • My work
  • Me

Life doesn’t serve out demands evenly, so there were and are still times when all these areas need my attention, yet I simply couldn’t split it that many ways. Often I would feel like I was failing and very disheartened with “my time management” or “my decision making” skills.

Then in October I read this article by Sarah Wilson, I find what happy women get right and what I read let me breathe a massive sigh of relief:

It’s estimated 1.3 million people have been involved in studies across the first world that confirm the same grim fact: as women’s life circumstances have improved, their happiness has plummeted. The studies conclude the reason for the paradox is not just that “having it all” – career, kids, access to the rowing machine at the gym – has meant “doing it all”. The more important factor is that women have got it into their heads they should be able to do it all. And in perfect balance (I speculate men are, increasingly, feeling the same; it’s just not reflected in the studies yet).

Somewhat in response, UK pop-trend researcher Marcus Buckingham took a different tact and investigated, inversely, what the happier women were doing differently. And his conclusion was this: they strove for imbalance. Messy, all-over-the-shop imbalance.

These happy women, he said, realised that balance was impossible (and therefore stressful) to achieve, but also rather boring. Instead, they “tilted” towards activities and commitments they liked and found meaningful. Scanning the “sad female lawyer” study I found the happier blokes did the same. They were more likely to take breaks at work for personal activities, which I took to mean play golf and eat lunch away from the office, and for simply relaxing. Which I read to mean, not for balancing out an excel sheet of life order.

I didn’t read into to this article that it meant I could just do as I please and put all the things I like to do first and not worry about everything else. It made me think about what was I really trying to achieve with balance. Was I aiming for:

  • balance across a day?
  • balance across a week?
  • balance across a month?

In the end I really just wanted for my family to be happy and satisfied and that I was also happy and satisfied too. I realised that this may sometimes means I leave my family for a week to attend a blogging conference on the other side of the world and other times that I will go offline for weeks at a time to have my family as the sole focus.

For the last couple of months of 2011, I tilted towards key activities at different points in time. And by not hooking myself into the goal of balance, I could do it without the over thinking and the fretting. It wasn’t neat, tidy and even but we were all happy and were able to achieve individual and family goals in this time.

There is much I can do to plan and utilise my time better, so when titled, the other areas of my life are not deprived of my attention. Over the next few months I will be sharing strategies for this.

But for now on the dilemma of balance, I would recommend considering if this is something that you want to set yourself as a goal?

Over to you – I would love to hear what you think!


  1. Rachael says

    For the perfectionists amongst us, it can be very hard indeed to give up this idea of a perfectly clean and organised home, for example – but give it up we must! It’s good to keep perspective on what you want your children to remember of their lives growing up and what would be most important to them. That doesn’t mean 100% indulging them, but moreso letting go of total balance, embrace some chaos if it means spending more joy with one another and enjoying those moments even when things around us are a bit messy or not going to plan.

    I have to remember this each and every day!

  2. says

    I’ve always tried for ‘integration’, rather than balance. The thing I struggle with the most is the when the work side of me needs a larger emotional investment than usual. I find it extremely difficult to put an emotional part of me into work and not have that break me down somewhat. I want to keep all of my emotional self for my family, you see. But it doesn’t work that way all the time so I will keep working on it. x

    • says

      I like that phrase Maxabella- Integration.
      … time management is something I know is my weakness. I tend to think broader over a week and month rather than daily balance. The fact that we evaluate, predict and plan gives us a headstart on doing what we want in life. I have no problem with doing that knowing I can.

  3. says

    Such a great post! I completely agree. I’ve said that I find the idea of balance stressful, and I tend to think of it as juggling instead – giving more attention to certain things while others “coast”, and switching that focus between them as needed/wanted.

  4. Gemma says

    This is a great post – I like the idea of “tiliting” and the flexibility that that allows. What I also thought of while reading this was the concept of being a “good enough” parent that Wendy Mogel writes about in her book. I found this idea quite liberating as it really helps remove the stress and pressure of always trying to be perfect or comparing myself to others while still allowing me to do the things for my home and family that are most important. By trying to keep this concept in mind I’ve found I feel a lot better about myself and my various roles and balancing everyones needs is much easier.

    • says

      Love Wendy Mogel. I know sometimes (quite a lot actually!) my own personal expectations of myself are incredibly high. Something I will need to continue to work with and evaluate.

  5. says

    We balance but Im not sure Im always that content…something is missing – which ultimately means that what I think to be balance is probably not? And while I take on more and more in my life I wonder why Im not prepared to let go just a little? One thing I have learnt though is putting a little bit of time into my children makes a much happier household, instead of running around like a mad woman to get everything done on my days off, just spending even 30 minutes engaging in quality play with my children, makes them so much more happier and not surprisingly leaves me more time during the day to do the chores that I need to get done – rather than battling with them all day to get things done. (I hope that makes sense)

    • says

      Polly you certainly make sense to me and you have discovered a key truth I believe…the more attention you give children the less they will have to demand. They just want to be your priority for a bit, right? And as a mum whose kids are moving into the teenage years I’m almost missing playing trains/Barbies/doctors/house etc!

  6. says

    I spent much of last year trying to stay ‘calm’ and ‘balanced’. I felt guilty and torn when doing things I enjoyed becasue I knew I was already doing too much. I’ve decided this year to embrace occasional chaos and balance it out with calm and connection at other times.

    I don’t think we can do it all – but we can decide how much of ourselves we give to each priority. We have a choice. And thats what I love – that we the freedom to choose how to spend our time. My mum didn’t have that. Nor my grandmother. We are lucky, we just have to learn how to priortise and choose.

    Loved this post thank you Nicole.

  7. says

    Great post Nic. For me I’m starting to see that my life ‘balance’ is going to pan out over my working life rather than in a year or month. I’ve enjoyed being able to be around for my kids and partner with some part-time work thrown in but still watched longingly at times as some of my friends’ careers have taken off. Now I can see the balance will be able to swing the other way as the children need me less and less and I finally work out what I want to do with the rest of my working life!

  8. says

    Oh Nicole I SO needed to hear all of this and it’s given me much food for thought. I am so guilty of thinking I should be able to do it all on my own! My husband works long hours and most of the parenting and most of well, everything are left to me and I’ve been struggling with the mental battle of not achieving as much as I want to, especially with the cat napping baby! It is the grown up time that is really suffering most and I feel that one day is just rolling into another with not much of a chance for me to refuel. I’m going to read this several times! Thanks. Xx

  9. Jo says

    Carolyn Creswell wrote an amazing column (in BRW – 18th Jan 2012) about home and work – I take my hat off to her – CEO/Owner of highly successful Australian company with three little kids – Carolyn’s column was the best practical application of balance – and how to ‘have it all’ – very honest and insightful. Nic – i think you would love it :)

  10. Eva says

    Oh, this is good! I’m about to start working an extra day a week ( from 2. To 3 as a high school teacher), while pregnant with number 4, and I’m struggling to conceptualize how I will manage everything. I’m excited at the possibilities, but scared at what will fail miserably. But now I think it will be ok- I just have to work out what is most important. A cleaner twice a week may be the best option :)

  11. says

    I think I need to just re-define what ‘balance’ actually means. Just like ‘fair’ doesn’t always mean equal, balance doesn’t always mean finding time for everything. To me it means working out what is important right now and learning to let go of the rest… Mind you, I’m still working on the letting go part :)

    • says

      I tend to agree with Kate. I like the word balance but for me it means that myself, my daughter and my husband are put first and are happy. Work comes after that. And everything else falls into line somewhere after that. So if the house is untidy but my daughter has the attention she needs now, that is okay. And if my child and husband are both feeling pretty happy then they are usually content for me to do what I need to do when I need to do it. It does mean we live in an imperfect home and it is definitely easier now my daughter is bigger but it works for us … Most of the time :)

  12. Nicole says

    I read Marcus Buckingham’s book ‘ Your Strongest Life’ a couple of years ago and loved it. I read it cover to cover in a weekend (which is very unusual for me). I cannot recommend it enough. After being able to stay home with my 4 kids for the last 12 years it has helped me to decide ‘what next’? Ironically enough I have just reborrowed it from the library for a refresher as I am starting my own business and thought it was a good opportunity to read it again.

  13. Wendy says

    Hi Nicole, I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now – thanks for all the great tips. This is an excellent post and an interesting article you linked it to. ‘Tilting’ – I love it! I think this is my default position in life anyway and it gets exhausting trying to fight it week after week – spreading my attention so thinly out across all my different priorities that I feel like my impact on each of them is peanuts. I always feel much better when I allow myself to focus obsessively on one thing until it’s finished – whether it be planning a family function, establishing a new bike riding routine with the kids, or working on a project at work – and letting everything else drop down a few gears for a while. Doing one thing at a time and doing it with passion, though sometimes it’s easier said than done.

  14. says

    Worded so well, Nic. I have a girlfriend who is a mum and corporate high flyer. The best advice she gave me was that you should never strive for balance. It was always management. Just managing what was in your life at the time. Never trying to balance it out 50:50 or 25:25:25:25. Just managing what you need to for your sake, the families sake and works sake on that day. Great advice.

  15. says

    Should balance be a goal? Absolutely. If we don’t have goals in our life then we are just wandering around aimlessly. And balance, having a mix of little things to achieve as well as big things, is what makes us well-rounded, interesting people. And if your focus is only on the big things, those goals that take years to achieve, then we would become frustrated and unhappy feeling like we never achieved anything.

    Do we have to be perfect at balance? Not at all. Good enough is sometimes good enough.