Just coming back from the holiday season? Got those back-to-work blues and wishing you had better work-life balance?

Well, today I’m asking you to forget the concept of work-life balance. Here’s a better concept for you: the wobble.

Juggling Balls

“The Wobble” idea was taught to me by the wonderful John Humphrey when I was just a young consultant, and it stayed with me all these years.

The idea in brief

At any time, the many dimensions of your life are all pulling at you, demanding your time and attention:

  • Intellectual (vocation, continued education, career development, mental stimulation)
  • Relational (family, friends, colleagues, community)
  • Physical (well-being, exercise, nutrition)
  • Spiritual (life force, belief system, personal center)
  • Emotional (play, relaxation, avocation)

Now here are the two critical things to remember:

  1. You can never satisfy all these dimensions at once. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Thus, you will always be unbalanced in some aspects. Accept this. Don’t beat yourself up.

  2. Don’t ignore any dimension for too long or you’ll lose it. Neglect your health for too long, and it will fail. Neglect your spouse or kids for too long, and they won’t stick around. Thus, you always need to keep “wobbling” between all the dimensions.

Why this matters

The Wobble metaphor highlights a few anti-patterns we often fall into.

Some of us chase the mirage of perfect work-life balance, but get frustrated when we can’t find it.

Some of us give up on certain dimensions altogether. Startup founders who neglect everything else, even sleep, for work. Spouses who forget to nurture themselves and their relationship when they become parents. Folks who forget to call their parents, or stay in touch with friends, because “I’m so busy right now!” By the time they come around to the things they’ve neglected, it’s often too late.

Some of us try to maintain a balance, but can’t commit 100%. Ever stayed up playing XBox while you should be sleeping? Or constantly checking your phone at the family dinner table? Or been on vacation but feeling too guilty to relax, thinking “I could be using this time for something useful!”

All of these are symptoms of a deeper problem.

A passage from Ben Horowitz’s excellent book The Hard Thing About Hard Things highlights the moment this realization came to him:

Ben Horowitz

What to do about it

First, be in the moment. Pay attention. At dinner with the family? Put everything else away and focus on the people in front of you. Spending time with your kids? Focus on them instead of mentally making to-do lists for work.

Second, make intelligent tradeoffs. Let the kids go to a babysitter, or watch TV a little longer, while you enjoy some alone time with the spouse or go give yourself a break.

Third, plan for what is coming in the near future. Tough project coming up at work? Plan your vacations in advance, get your house chores in order, and know which parts of the day/week you’ll use to “catch up.” Got a kid on the way? Make time with your spouse now, catch up on sleep and exercise now.

Finally, keep track of what you’ve been ignoring for a while. If something is near your top-of-mind, chances are higher that you’ll act on it. Make plans to get back to them.

And one last thing. Even if you fail at all this; you’re still an amazing human being. Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to do it all. You’re not alone.

Welcome back, and hope you have an amazing 2018!