“How do I achieve a better work-life balance?”

People ask me this all the time, and I feel like it’s the wrong question. Because balance seems elusive and something we will never achieve. It’s always a weighing-up exercise, as we work to balance the scales.

Shall I put work first, or family first? That project or my self-care? This deadline or the opportunity to play with the kids? These seem like impossible choices and choices that leave us feeling full of guilt. And that’s not great for work or life.

I was hugely inspired by Grace Marshall’s blog on this subject and then I discovered the term Work-Life Harmony had gained some following. It felt like the world was agreeing with me that balance was an unhelpful goal.

Because how can we separate the two concepts of life and work in our current context? With the comic sketch making the rounds, “do I work from home or do I live at work?” and the sense that all previous boundaries have been further blurred, it seems odd to imagine we can so clearly compartmentalise our lives, as to find balance between those boxes.

And fundamental to life satisfaction is our sense of purpose, achievement and enjoyment of work. If we can tap into these energy-giving thoughts about our work – why we do it, who benefits and the difference we make – then we will feel good about putting our time into work. That makes a huge difference, as often the desire for a greater work/life balance is stemming from our unhappiness with work.

Work-Life Harmony is an internal calm: feeling good about what you’re doing, no matter how busy you are or whether that thing you’re doing is work or personal. There is no judgment or guilt, and this tends to make switching from work mode to a personal mode effortless. In short, it’s about integrating all of life: family, friends, the things we love, work, self-care, all together. What this looks like will differ for everyone, because we all have different needs, responsibilities, values and priorities.

So what can you do to achieve greater harmony in your life – and for your team?

Manage by objectives, not time

This concept of focusing more on results than clock-watching has been around for decades, but still we tend to micro-manage, checking on how many hours someone is working. This needs challenging when we are people managers, but also in how we manage ourselves. How do you measure success in your day?

Yes of course, ticks on the to-do list are great, but were they the right things? The value-add items? And when you take time to go for a run, play with the kids or move away from your computer to eat lunch, do you feel guilty? Are you making sure you’re still working over the hours expected?

Focus on values

When it comes to prioritising, how do we have harmony across our work and personal lives? Consider what your priorities are across all of life, in line with your values. For me that would be health, family, learning, sales and customer service. For my colleague the list is finance, marketing, motorbikes, family, fitness, home.

Could you list just 5 or 6 things that are always priorities for you? And then have a final box for “the other stuff?” In his book 18 Minutes, Peter Bregman suggests a framework of having five priorities and a sixth box for “the other 5%,” as that final box should not rule our lives. By making sure that over the course of a year we are looking after all boxes, we can ensure our actions are in line with our priorities.

Then we can check we’re getting that harmony over the course of a week or even a day. Notice you’ve not done anything in box 3 for four days – take a moment to question that. Is it no longer a priority? Or have I taken on too much other stuff and need to re-consider?

Get present

Yep, we can’t get away from it, mindfulness is key. Whether you already practice some form of mindfulness or meditation, or think it sounds like a fad or mumbo jumbo, there is no doubt that being present contributes to a better work-life harmony. Brain scans and research projects show that people who meditate have more focus, less stress and there are often reports of greater productivity.

If we’re going to do our best work on that report, give full attention to our loved ones over dinner and manage to give a great bedtime story performance, we need a clarity of focus. Being distracted by the other tasks on the list or our guilt about certain responsibilities, will only hamper our ability to do anything well.

This all starts with giving ourselves the time to work out what is important to us, so that we can actively manage the life we want.