How do we define work-life balance now?

See how to navigate changing roles and routines.

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Key takeaways

  • Be intentional about how you rebalance work and life in your "new normal."
  • Reflect on how change is impacting the "intimacy dance" in your relationships.
  • Reestablish concrete structures and boundaries as a way to manage change.
  • Talk about your mental models and follow an alignment process to help you live in the "new normal."
  • Use process questions to create open feedback loops.

Striving for balance is an ongoing effort for all of us. We often describe the challenge by the many hats people wear: leader, team member, partner, spouse, parent, grandparent, friend, sibling, child—and so many more.

The functional health of our relationships relies on a level of predictability and structure around these different roles and routines. So it's no surprise we all feel destabilized and stressed when circumstances change the "normal" ways we work and live.

Trying to just push through in hopes that we will all get back to normal sooner rather than later is not a good relationship strategy. That will likely cause the stresses to go underground, only to surface again at harder, and potentially inopportune, moments.

The goal is to rebalance your work and life to promote the health of your relationships in the new normal. To that end, here are 5 practice hints for navigating your changing roles and routines.

1. Review and reset your "intimacy dances"

Families, couples, and in reality, all relationships have patterns of engagement that regulate their level of intimacy. We call this the "intimacy dance." Whether conscious or unconscious, this dance determines the type of intimacy experience we will have.

Routines as simple as how we acknowledge or greet people when they walk into a room are part of our dance. Are we a handshaker, hugger, or cheek kisser? In our homes, how we leave in the morning and reenter in the evening is a dance for everyone in the space. For couples, how they go to bed at night, how often they communicate when they are apart, and even how they watch movies together are choreographed parts of an intricate dance.

What happens when these normal structures change? Any alteration in routine—from a vacation to a stay-at-home isolation mandate—can alter our dances and disrupt our comfort patterns around intimacy. Some of us may like the new dance and use it to create greater intimacy. Others may be uncomfortable with the new dance and build structures that attempt to find the old equilibrium.

In this time of disruption, be deliberate about the patterns of your intimacy dances. See this as an opportunity to review and reset the dance. Ask reflective questions like, "Am I happy with our past levels of intimacy? Are there new routines and patterns we should consider? What do I need to know about other people's needs and desires for intimacy?"

2. Expand your mental models about what work-life balance means

When you hear the phrase "work-life balance," what comes to mind? This question is critical to your ability to unlock your relationships from contentious conversations you may be having about work-life balance.

Surfacing your mental models—the thoughts, beliefs, stories, and assumptions you have constructed through time about how work and life should coexist—allows you to talk about the reasons you do what you do. It gives you the foundation you need to adjust your behaviors and establish new routines.

For example, if you have a mental model that working from home means you get eight hours of uninterrupted time, that leads to one set of actions and reactions. Whereas a mental model that working from home means you are free to work anywhere in the house at any time of the day will generate an entirely different set.

When your normal routines are disrupted, you need to start at the mental model level. Begin by asking reflective questions like, "What does my work require? What creates stress for me in this situation? How separate should work and life be? How can we share life responsibilities? What does balance look like? What creates work-life balance intimacy for me?"

These questions give you an opportunity to expand your mental models and co-create a new normal around work, life, and the delicate balance we all seek.

3. Establish concrete boundaries around time

Boundaries are clear parameters about how you and your family spend time in the different areas of your lives. They play a critical role in determining how "balance" looks and feels.

When your normal time structures are turned upside down, you need an intentional process for setting, articulating, and clarifying new boundaries around how people use their time.

To be beneficial, a boundary needs to be concrete. Saying, "You know, this afternoon, I think I'm going to…" is not a real boundary that can be managed or planned against. Concrete boundaries are structured and explicit. And they are specifically tied to different roles in relation to time.

For example, you might agree that, from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., both partners will be involved in getting the kids' day started. Or you might decide that one partner will work out at 6 a.m., while the other makes time for that at 5 p.m. Or you might agree that one of your time slots for uninterrupted work calls is from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.

By setting clear and concrete boundaries, you accomplish 3 key objectives. First, you protect time for what matters to people. Second, you level set everyone's expectations about how time will be spent. Third, you have clear touchstones for talking about expectations and outcomes.

4. Find alignment around your new reality

When we use the word "alignment," we have a very specific relationship process in mind—one that elevates the conversation above debate and above a drive for agreement around specific outcomes, such as how long you are going to work today.

The process starts with envisioning an end state together. This allows everyone to express their wishes, rather than having people rush to defend their point of view. "What is your wish for how we spend this month?" is an envisioning question. From there, ask follow-up questions to fully understand each person's wish. And never discount or debate someone's expression of a wish, or they will never share one again.

Once you have a shared vision, you can ask, "What principles can we put in place to guide us toward our vision?" These guiding principles are high-level and focused on supporting decision-making and monitoring progress. They might include statements like, "We won't make a major change to the schedule without everyone having a voice" or "We want to intentionally look for opportunities in every situation rather than starting with grumbling."

A critical third step in alignment is sharing your vulnerabilities—the concerns, worries, and fears you may have about the topic or process. This sharing makes the alignment process more authentic and intimate while opening the door for a return to those vulnerabilities in the future. Sharing vulnerabilities also intentionally builds emotional engagement into the process.

"Trust the process" is a coaching phrase we use when helping people evaluate their ongoing success. Your vision isn't going to be seamlessly realized. There will be obstacles, challenges, and disappointments. "Trust the process" is a reminder that people are not perfect, that we must give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and that we are committed to talking about the process and how we are feeling.

Having an intentional alignment process gives you a framework for discussing and establishing what a new "balance" might look like in your work and life.

5. Use process questions to navigate the new normal

When everything is novel to everyone, there is a unique opportunity to define and navigate our new normal together in a way that creates deeper connection and intimacy.

Process questions are a key skill to use. They explore how people are thinking, feeling, and engaging in a process. They create immediate feedback loops that are highly personal to everyone involved.

Imagine engaging with your family or team by asking questions like, "What is stressing you today? Have we explored this topic fully? How are you feeling about my communication? How is our schedule working?" Or, if you are feeling really courageous, you could ask, "How am I doing as a... boss, partner, parent?"

Process questions are naturally empathy questions. They help you step into someone else's experience, rather than assuming you know how something is impacting them.

An opportunity to be more mindful

Change and disruption require us to be more mindful about how new roles and routines are impacting our relationships. We define mindfulness as "being in the game and watching the game." You live life and intentionally watch the impact and outcomes of your actions.

When you are mindful, you are better prepared to evaluate what a balance between work and life might look and feel like. By applying these 5 practice hints and building your capacity for mindfulness, you can nurture your relationships at a time when changes in roles and routines have the potential to undermine them.

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