Time to get real about work/life balance

by Expat Life

by Isabel Valle, Peak Performance Strategist

Are we getting it all wrong?

I believe that for far too long weve been stuck as a society into a particular set of thinking about how we work and live. It is time to get real, to break from those so called work/life” issues, and start creating a different type of integration to live our best lives.

There is no doubt that most of us are time starved and overstretched, and are feeling the pressure of unrealistic expectations as we go about our days by the conflicting demands of our work and life, making us feel overwhelmed, stressed out and stuck. We live under the illusion that committing to insane demands and long working hours will one day save our day, however this strategy to get us to perform and stay on top of it all couldnt be more wrong.

Studies have shown that productivity drops steeply after a 50 hour work week, and drops off a cliff after 55 hours – a far cry from the 70-80 hours week I used to do working in hotels. Exhausted employees are not only unproductive, but also more prone to costly errors, accidents and sickness. It is paramount to bring more awareness to employers to highlight the fact that hours can be reduced without loss of input. We need to realise the fact that longer working hours does not improve productivity – healthy, well restored employees do.

The culture of overwork has well known personal consequences. Working more than 55 hours a week raises the risk of heart attack and stroke. People who work longer hours tend to be more anxious and depressed, and their sleep suffers. According to Schulte at Harvard Business Review, peoples IQ actually drops 13 points when in a state of tunnel vision busyness.

However, if your work culture is organised around effective work, and values employees who have full lives outside of work, you will stand a far better change of attracting and retaining employees who are highly engaged, motivated and willing to give their best at work, which will undoubtedly translate into a healthier, more successful business, and a healthier bottom line. Promoting a healthy work/life balance in your business will also lead to increased productivity, a happier workforce, staff feeling valued and less likely to leave, reducing staff turnover and minimising recruitment costs.

Lets get real: Work/life balance is an unhealthy myth. We all have limited energy, and following Elon Musks working week of 120 hours in simply unrealistic. Instead, we must allocate time wisely, depending on priorities and circumstances. Inevitably, some things will be neglected when important matters demand our attention, and we need to account for those times and be ok with it.

One of the first points that Id like to suggest in how to create a shift in the way we think about work/life balance, is to actually change the language itself. The word balance implies equal”, and balancing work and life matters equally is simply idealistic. Work is in fact a part of life, not something separate, and as such it fits in under the greater umbrella. We must therefore start by using a different type of language to depict this balancing act.

I love how Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, uses the phrase work/life harmony” instead. Bezos believes happiness at work makes him happy at home, and vice versa. Words such as harmony, blend or integration imply that work and life are intertwined. Therefore, we must accept reality and come up with some strategies to prioritise within our blended lifestyle, as well as eliminating the work/life combination from our vocabularies altogether and to recognise that life is whats happening and work is one of the things you do in life.

Everything we do has a cost and consequences. The sooner we make peace with it, the quicker well be able to create a work/life integration plan that work for us. Having it all – at once – may push us down a road of unrealistic expectations where we feel like failures for not being able to attain the impossible. Some of the most successful people that Ive interviewed in the topic have all told me they will only focus on the top 2 or 3 domains of their life at most at any given time.

Time does not discriminate. We all have the same hours in a day, and with some intentional planning you can fit a lot in it. But the truth is that finding the right harmony between work and life is not easy, and it will require commitment and doing the thing that you set out to do. At times, you may not have enough time to hang out or relax, or even have a decent sleep, and that doesnt mean the goal isnt worth it. If you apply a year long calendar view, make sure at times you can afford to, you book time with friends and family gatherings. Life is going to change constantly, and at times giving to work a little more than life is not necessarily unhealthy if it does allow you to work towards your dreams.

In fact, at different ages and stages of our lives, we need different things and have various demands on our time. Sometimes there isnt enough work, while at other points theres too much. In the grand scheme, there is something resembling a balance. But in the short term, less so.

Business people discussing strategy in boardroom meeting

Another aspect in this topic that Id like to highlight is about how everyone should be wary when considering their busyness. I hear it all the time: Im so busy”. Just how busy are we really? Although we love saying were busy, many of us are just distracted. It could be that much of the busyness we flaunt like a status symbol is just a result of wasting time procrastinating and pretending – checking social media and email. I could argue that the more complex your tasks, the more you focus, the more is done in a condensed period. I firmly believe that with the right focus, we can get to work smarter, not harder, and generate better results this way for a richer, more fulfilling life.

When it comes to work/life balance – or however you want to call it, you must define it yourself. What balance looks like differs for everyone. A CEO with twin toddlers might want a different schedule than one with teens. So dont assume that what works for someone else should be your aim. Its not a one-size-fits-all. Think through your own priorities and how time outside work can be attained. Everybody does it differently, so know what would work for you and make it happen. Who says you cant do something that most people dont? Ive had clients come to a coaching session whilst breastfeeding their babies, I had a port-a-cot for my baby in my office, I know of some leaders that will bring their families travelling with them if going longer than a week, etc. Opportunities are endless! Balance doesnt mean equal.” Sometimes, either work or your personal life takes more weight, depending on whats going on at the moment — and thats ok.

Work/life integration is a very personal journey. You teach people how to treat you. If you are responding to email 24 hours a day, then thats going to be the expectation. So take responsibility for creating a work life that works for you.

A word of caution though – you need to remember that you are not an emergency room doctor. Be careful how much urgency you allow every email and action. Because employees are now so accessible all the time, there becomes this false sense of importance over everything, because everybody has constant access to you and to each other all the time, and everything is urgent. Is it really? Part of it is being able to have a healthy filter. Let emails slide until the morning. Your time is precious, so make it a priority to remove any non-essential items.

Work/life integration tips for people who want to have it all

Step up your self-care routine: 

Activities that increase your health and happiness will help you be more effective and productive in every aspect of your life. Prioritise sleep by trying to get 7-8 hrs of sleep a night. Make time for nutritious meals. Exercise whenever you can to combat disease. Treat yourself to a spa and unwind. Spend time with people who make you laugh and leave you feeling energised. Make time for hobbies that relive stress and fill you with passion and joy. I am not reinventing the wheel here. You know what needs to be done, so go ahead and commit to applying some of these in your own life.

Plan your top 3 daily

Become a productivity pro by planning ahead of time (the night before or early in the morning) the top 3 things that you must accomplish that day. Be realistic and ensure that no matter what gets in the way, you get those 3 things crossed from your list. Before you know it, youll be working smarter, not harder, and accomplishing much more.


If youre so involved in your business that you feel you really cant be gone, even for a day, its time to learn to delegate. Contrary to what you might believe, you arent the only one who can handle many of the tasks you currently spend time on. Your team members will feel empowered if you shuffle additional responsibilities to them, and youll finally get to relax.

Silhouettes of young beautiful sportive girls dancing zumba near sea at sunrise.

Minimise distractions

If you are serious about doing work that matters, you are going to have to get real about your distractions of choice (social media, Netflix, drinking, greasy food, late nights, procrastination, etc). Take responsibility for owning what keeps you away from being and doing your best, and work on reducing the amount of time you spend on it. We all get the same amount of time in a day. High achievers focus better on what they want to achieve, rather than giving into their distraction of choice.

Organise yourself by decluttering

A messy external space often overloads the brain and leads to burnout. Become more focused and productive by cleaning up and creating an environment that allows you to work smarter, not harder. Overcome personal disorganisation by decluttering information and paperwork as well as time and tasks.

Think consciously about how to spend your time, decide which tasks matter most to you and your organisation, and then drop or outsource the rest. By doing this, you can reduce your involvement in low value tasks. You can actually cut your desk work by an average of six hours a week, shave meeting time by an average of two hours a week, and free up nearly a fifth of your time (an average of one full day a week). By doing this, youll make more time for what matters in your life. Imagine you had one full day a week to fill as you seem fit, giving time and energy for all parts of your life so nothing is left behind – perhaps balance does stand a chance after all!

Use calendar blocks for laser focus

You have a calendar, so use it. Schedule specific blocks of uninterrupted time for your most important tasks. When you are working, work hard and focusYou scheduled this work time, so give it your all. You wouldnt want one of your employees or one of your suppliers to do a half done job on your assignment, so dont do it to your clients. Block out distractions and keep on task. Focus and avoid sabotaging yourself and your most precious commodity – your time.

Also schedule important personal activities, such as special dinners, school events, sporting events, fun events with friends, your kids or your spouse or just exercise time. Scheduling this time may sound like overkill, but trust me, it works. It removes the guilt over being with your family instead of working in your business. Its on your schedule after all – so you are being productive and not ignoring your family. Its a win-win! And remember, you are in charge of your own schedule. You dont have to be tied to the 9-5 time limitations. If you need two hours in the middle of the day to attend your childs talent show – you have that freedom. Just remember to replace those two hours somewhere else on your schedule.

Set boundaries

If customers or colleagues think its ok to call you at 11pm if they need something, they will. Set firm boundaries around when you are, and arent, available. Doing so will help you relax when youre off the clock and avoid burnout, while also helping others avoid unmet expectations. Limit your work hours. Work never ends, and if youre looking to finish everything, youll never stop. Working long hours isnt good for anyone — you, your family or your colleagues. Sheryl Sandberg spent years leaving work at 5:30pm to have dinner with her children. If she can do it, why cant you? Do not overextend yourself. Learn to say thank you, but no for both personal and professional requests. If it doesnt fit into your schedule, then the answer is No.” The time you spend on your work or business needs to produce income, and the time with your family or personal time needs to be quality time.

The bottom line is, we all want to enjoy life and to find that ever elusive balance. Some days are better than others, but if your goal is to enjoy your career, your clients, your family, and your time, then remember, you have the power to make that happen. You dont have to take yourself too seriously – just use your time more effectively to accomplish both goals.

Work/life integration is not a system of having your work and life take exactly the same amount of hours or focus. Its a way of making sure that both your work priorities and your personal priorities are being met. Sometimes that means more work hours, and other times it means less.

Newer times demand new thinking. Now its up to all of us to get real, to think bigger, and begin to make the real changes we all need in order to live our best life.


Isabel is an experienced Peak Performance Strategist with over 20 years of international work experience holding senior positions within the hospitality industry in countries around the world, as well as Executive and Leadership coaching, mentoring and training.
She specialises in high performance strategy, leadership development and building organisational culture to help leaders and their teams learn, grow and succeed.
Isabel is passionate about helping empower business leaders with the mindset, performance, skills and strategies that they need to get ahead.
More available on www.isabelvalle.com

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