Work-Life Boundaries, not Balance 2

You may have noticed over the past month that the number of posts I wrote for Reason for Success has been smaller than in the past.  This was due in part to my struggles with identifying the appropriate work/life balance.

Guess what I found out.  Thinking in terms of balance was wrong.  As a podcast on entrepreneurship recently reminded me, a balance works by putting two things between a sharp edge.  Did I really want to live so close to an edge?  Should there always be tension between work and home?  In short, No!  Instead of balance, it is more helpful to think in terms of boundaries.

work life boundaries not balanace

What does work/life boundaries mean?  That means that when I’m at work, I’m fully at work.  And when I’m at home, I’m fully at home.  Each is an important part of my life.  And by important, I mean extremely critical to my happiness important.  In order to fully maintain both of these values, I need to be focused on each one in turn without interruption.  That means not letting work issues interrupt my home life (a boundary) and conversely, not letting home life interrupt my work life (another boundary).  I can’t be playing with my kids, while thinking about my next project.  My kids will notice that I’m not paying attention to them.  Is that how I want them to remember me, as someone who only half pays attention to their interests?  And when I’m working on a project, I should not be checking personal email, answering phone calls from my financial planner, or thinking about a party this weekend.

That’s not to say I don’t make exceptions to these boundaries.  A few weeks ago, I had to stop work in the middle of my day to pick up my son from a field trip.  My wife, who normally picks up the kids, couldn’t get to field trip location to pick up my son until 30 minutes too late.  Fortunately, his field trip was a 2 minute walk from my office, so I was the go to guy.  I didn’t have a problem with this and helped out happily.  Likewise, one evening recently I had to finish grading student projects that required a quick turn-around.  Normally, I like to spend my evenings relaxing, but I made an exception to my normal boundary due to the extraordinary circumstances.  Boundaries provide a starting point, but they can be adjusted, even if temporarily.

Some jobs allow the flexibility to do some personal stuff on the job, just like some families don’t care if you do work stuff at home.  But in both cases, it’s better to establish when that life and work stuff is being done.  Set time aside to do it and focus on just those things at those times.

How to find boundaries?  First, you need to be honest with yourself.  In the spirit of honesty, I can say that I have screwed this up more times than I want to share in this post (sorry everyone).   But I am honestly trying to be better about this.  Being present in a relationship is essential for positive relationships, an important skill I learned from Ed Locke and Ellen Kenner in their Selfish Path to Romance book.  But don’t kid yourself into thinking you can multi-task work and life at the same time.  Inevitably one or both suffers.  You also shouldn’t kid yourself if the same boundary keeps getting broken over and over again.  It’s not really a boundary then and is likely going to cause tension.

You can define your boundaries in a variety of ways.  Time blocking is the most common method.  Many people work from 9-5 every day and dedicate that time for work.  When they come home at 5 till bedtime, it’s family time.  However, in some households, family time may last until the children go to bed, then it’s back to work for one or both parents.  In others, a parent may get up early in the morning to get some work done before anyone wakes up.  Boundaries may also be locations.  If a parent goes into a home office, that’s assumed to be a work zone and the family should respond accordingly.  Likewise, if the parent leaves the home office, family life kicks into gear.  What’s important is that you are honest with yourself about where your boundaries are and when you break them.

Second, boundaries require effective communication with those impacted by the boundaries – most notably spouses, children, employers, parents, clients, key customers, friends, etc.  I do not advocate a unilateral decision on where the boundaries are, so some negotiation may be necessary.  But be clear where you prefer the boundaries to be and under what conditions those boundaries may be broken or altered.  You don’t have to be uptight about them, but being overly permissive destroys your ability to focus on what’s most important.  If your spouse keeps calling you at work, interrupting your day, set the boundary on how much and for what things phone calls are appropriate.  Ask if the calls could be handled with texts or emails.  See if you can come to an agreement on what types of things deserve phone calls.  Likewise, if co-workers want to socialize at work, but you don’t, set the boundary on how much and for what occasions socializing is appropriate.

By thinking in terms of boundaries, it is much easier to work toward multiple values, from your central purpose in life, to positive family relationships, rewarding hobbies, and beyond.  Be honest with yourself, communicate your desires, and work on your values so that you achieve the success you deserve.

About John Drake

John Drake is an associate professor at East Carolina University. While pursing his PhD in management information technology and innovation, John learned the art of high productivity through setting difficult goals to achieve unending success. John is a student of Objectivism, an advocate of Getting Things Done, a parent of three, a husband, a writer, a business owner, a web master, and an all around cool guy. His professional site is at

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2 thoughts on “Work-Life Boundaries, not Balance

  • Jaana Woiceshyn

    Great insights, John! I agree that it’s very important to be present (I mean mentally) at work and with your family and friends. It’s particularly important with your children; they are young only for so long.

  • John Drake Post author

    Thanks, Jaana. I’ve caught myself too many times not being present in a conversation, with either my kids, my wife, or my friends. It made me realize I was doing things wrong and to this post.