I was triggered by a post on LinkedIn a few weeks ago. This post said that it was a myth that “you can achieve significant things whilst having a balanced life”. First of all, I fundamentally disagree with this way of thinking and would argue that not only is it untrue but it is also incredibly damaging. The second reason for my strong reaction, however, was its implication: that I am resigning myself to an ordinary, mediocre life and I will never achieve any great success because I refuse to sacrifice the things that really matter. And so it raises the question: can you have work-life balance as a high achiever?
Is it possible to have work-life balance as a high achiever?
Elon Musk, of course, is the poster child of poor work-life balance. This man who doesn’t sleep and doesn’t believe in working from home has, undoubtedly, achieved great success with his businesses. Certainly in the entrepreneurial space, there is a hustle culture where working long hours at the expense of everything else is a badge of honour and deemed both necessary and admirable as a founder.
I have heard colleagues in traditional corporate careers moan about those ‘lazy millennials’ who care about their wellbeing and refuse to compromise on their values. “I had to work my butt off, and so should they.”
Others will unashamedly put family and their own wellbeing first but, as a result, assume that they must make compromises when it comes to their career. Working part-time or taking a less pressured role inevitably means taking a pay cut. And it’s here that we resign ourselves to that life of mediocrity, unable to achieve the great outlier success that this influencer on LinkedIn spoke of.
It’s that classic question: can you “have it all”? (And, perhaps more importantly, do you want to?)
As a high achiever, there is a definite stigma attached to the idea of slowing down, having a rest, and prioritising home life over your work objectives and achievements. On the other hand, if you do believe you can have it all, as a high achiever, the danger is that you apply that same achiever mentality to other areas of your life. You train for ultra-marathons, set yourself targets to read 50+ books a year, take on volunteering roles when you already have a crazy schedule… On the surface, it looks like you are living a ‘balanced life’ and yet you’re exhausted, you struggle to be present and in the moment, and you never pause to reflect on what really matters.
To me, true ‘balance’ – and, in fact, ‘success’ – means feeling I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, here and now. I’m doing fulfilling work that I enjoy and where I feel that I’m making a difference. I’m working towards ambitious goals of publishing my next book, reaching more people with my message and, yes, earning more money. I’m prioritising my health and wellbeing in a real and holistic sense. And, above all, I have time and energy for the things, and people, that matter most in my life.
The four burners theory
There is a theory, with an accompanying visual, floating around on the internet (it seems to have originated in an anonymous management seminar), that depicts four burners. Of these four burners, one represents your family, the second your friends, the third your health, and the fourth your work. The message? In order to be successful – I assume they mean in business – then you have to cut off one of your other burners; to be really successful, you’ll have to cut off two. So if you’re going to be successful at work, that means that you will have to neglect your family, or your friends; or you will have to accept the inevitability of ill health.
The problem with this metaphor – as with the whole construct of ‘work-life balance’ in my opinion – is that it creates a zero-sum game. The assumption is that more focus on family means less focus on work, and vice versa. In fact, this is not the case. They are mutually reinforcing. The truth is that you need to nurture your wellbeing in order to be successful in your work; you need to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of others. Having a fulfilling and rewarding work life will have a positive effect on your wellbeing, while growing your professional network and relationships. Having healthy relationships with family and friends will give you the support you need to excel at work.
This, by the way, is why I prefer the term work-life integration, where you strive for harmony and look for synergies rather than pitting the different areas of your life against each other.
How to have work-life balance as a high achiever
Okay, so how do you begin to address the assumptions, so deeply ingrained in your psyche, around the sacrifices and compromises needed to succeed? How do you strive for that balance without denying your high achiever identity?
1. Examine your drivers
The first thing you can do is to explore why that ‘high achiever’ identity, and this idea of ‘achievement’ is so important to you.
In my case, I have a ‘good girl’ mentality reinforced by school, parents, and then a corporate system that ranked and rated us based on our results, and I have learned behaviours around striving for that gold star, being top of the class, and, by extension, getting the external validation and admiration of others based on what I have done.
Quitting my corporate marketing role back in 2013 was the first step in trying to find my way back to who I was and what I truly cared about. The years that followed were some of my happiest as I headed off on adventures, spent quality time with family and friends, and started building my own business. Since those early carefree days – what I jokingly like to call my ‘hippie phase’ – I’ve found it easy to slip back into comparisons and temptations to focus on more traditional success metrics. In my weaker moments, I might look at those of my colleagues who stayed on the corporate path and are now in senior roles in big-name companies. Or I might feel I *should* have written more books, grown my email list more, made more money….
And this despite my whole personal and professional mission being about redefining success to something meaningful to you, and the fact that that is exactly what I am doing for myself.
Where is the ‘achiever’ mentality coming from for you? What does it actually bring you? And is it still serving you?
2. Understand what you’re trying to achieve and why
Beyond the overall mindset of achieving things in general, you want to examine the specific goals and ambitions that you’re focusing on right now. What are these goals, and how will they bring meaning and happiness to your life?
As a junior marketing manager in my first corporate role, I was working long hours and ploughing through a heavy workload, ‘executing’ as much as I possibly could. By the time I was in my final corporate role, when I had been promoted was heading up the digital organisation for the department, I had learned and recognised that it wasn’t about the hours and the physical exertion that I put in. I developed a clear vision for the department, identified the big priorities, and focused on making those priorities happen. As a result, I was able to fulfil my role within standard working hours and pushing myself to the point of burnout.
Today in my business, it’s easy to get caught up in the superficial metrics of success that come with being an entrepreneur and content creator. I need to remind myself what my priorities are from that big picture perspective as well as my specific goals (such as launching a particular programme, or writing my book) so that I can ignore those vanity metrics and focus on what matters to me.
If you’re in a corporate role, ask yourself, what is your role in the organisation? What are your objectives as an individual and as a broader team? If you’re working towards that next promotion, what will this bring you and how will it affect your personal and family life? Where do you fit in the big picture of the company’s vision, and where does what you’re doing at work fit into your broader vision as a human being?
If you’re working in your own business, what is that you’re working towards? If you find yourself dazzled by the metrics of ‘making 7 figures’, being ‘a best-selling author’, or reaching 10,000 followers on Instagram… Why is that important to you?
3. Be intentional about where you spend your time and energy
If you’re to have any chance of achieving your professional ambitions without sacrificing other areas of your life, then you’re going to have to be ruthless about prioritising what matters. It’s true that you can’t have *everything* – but you can certainly have the things that really matter to you, if you’re intentional about how you spend your time.
In my study, I have piles of notebooks filled with ideas and action steps, along with notes and lists in various apps and software on my computer. Endless to-do lists leave me feeling overwhelmed, always behind on my projects and never achieving what I set out to do; I’ve never done ‘enough’.
During this season of my life, I have three days of childcare and therefore three full days of focusing on my business. Having this limited time has compelled me to get crystal clear on my vision for the business, the projects I’m going to pursue, and, most importantly, the ones I’m going to put to one side. If I can do one thing each day that moves the needle on my most important priorities, then I know that I am making progress and will get there over time.
Have a look at your lists and your work plan and be ruthless about where you want to focus your limited time (because, let’s face it, our time is always limited). Use your calendar to block time in your schedule to take action. Set yourself boundaries and make sure you uphold those boundaries.
Importantly, it’s not just about the time you’re putting in but the results that you’re getting. As the cliché says, “work smarter not harder”. Find ways to make things easier – outsource tasks where possible to someone who can do them better, faster, or cheaper; or, where possible, delete them from your list altogether!
Above all, work on shifting your language. Rather than “I should be…” or “I don’t have time to…” reframe this and recognise, that “that’s not a priority for me” or “I choose (not) to…” This simple shift is hugely empowering and will help you feel at peace with where you’re choosing to spend your time.
Ultimately, of course, there will be ‘seasons’, with a degree of ebb and flow in the different areas of your life. Some moments will see you focusing on a big project or launch at work, while others will see you taking a step back to take care of a newborn. Some will see you knuckling down to get your book draft finished for publication, while others will see you take on more of the responsibilities at home while your partner has a big moment in their career.
Perhaps you can have it all – but not all at the same time?
So, are we resigned to a life of mediocrity (and is that so bad??) if we choose not to work ourselves into the ground, become estranged from our children, and accept the inevitability of divorce and loneliness??? What are the challenges that you face when it comes to achieving (I note the ironic choice of word!) work-life balance as a high achiever?
I look forward to your thoughts.