MR Round Table: That Elusive Work/Life Balance

The Writers | December 4, 2015

Is it real? And if so, how the hell does anyone achieve it?

Today’s Round Table includes two guests: Taryn Toomey of NYC’s The Class (which you can try at home with a series of GIFS ), and Lev Eldemir, an MBA student at Columbia University, former Wall Street Analyst and Amelia’s old roommate.

Leandra Medine: Something that keeps coming up at the Man Repeller office is the concept of work/life balance and whether or not it actually exists, how to achieve it, what work/life balance looks like if you have achieved it and whether or not you can have it all.

Lev Eldemir: When Amelia first texted me about this, my immediate answer was “There’s no such thing as balance.” But I do think that there’s a choice that you can make. There will always be an unlimited amount of work you can do, but you can choose to take the time to do something you enjoy, to take a break. I have trouble doing that.

Taryn Toomey: It sounds so easy, but there are so many other variables, like the pace that the city moves and the way things come at us. Doing something you enjoy seems like an exciting opportunity at the time but the next thing you know you’re in over your head. The whole reason you did it in the first place kind of vanishes because you’re so overwhelmed, you’re taxed, you’re exhausted, then you have to hold back and you feel like you’re doing yourself a disservice.

When the balance or scale starts to tip, there’s a choice to rein it back in or continue to push. That’s where it gets a little murky.

Amelia Diamond: My friend Gabby once told me that you have to schedule in your balance. You have to schedule your workout the same you would a non-negotiable meeting and that if your workout class is at 7 pm but you have more work to do, you still go to your workout class. She thinks that’s the only way to maintain the balance: treat it as you would your work.

But what’s frustrating about doing that (and I’ve actually been trying this week) is the fact that you’re scheduling or intentionally forcing a balance. There’s something in that — the effort of it –that makes it feel like it’s not balanced. There’s this perception that people who have achieved a work/life balance have a magical on/off switch, that they go to work 9 to 5 and then they turn their switch off and have their balance time. That’s not realistic. But when you don’t experience that, it’s frustrating.

TT: For me, it’s not so literal. It’s more about all the things that crowd the mind when you end up tipping the scale in one direction or the other.

LM: So you’re thinking about work while you’re working out and then you’re thinking that you should’ve enjoyed the workout more when you’re at work. But that’s the condition of a very particular type of person. I think I’m hard on myself and I’m really aware of the fact that I’m hard on myself, and it seems like you’re that way, too.

This is why, whenever people ask me for business advice, I always tell them – especially young girls with starry eyes and pencils in their hands – if you can be happy working for someone else, do that. You can live a very satisfying and emotionally fulfilling life operating under someone else’s franchise. Just because it’s “cool” to build your own business today doesn’t mean that everyone should do it. Doesn’t mean that I should have done it! That piece of the puzzle is interesting to me. I think it’s hard to consider what work/life balance looks like when you’re at the helm of your own thing, which is the case for you Taryn, and is the case for me, and is the case for you, Amelia because our team is so small, and is kind of the case for you Lev, because you’re in business school.

TT: We’re talking about work/life balance, but what falls into what bucket? Because my workouts are my work, so where does that land? Is that part of the balance of life? I’m also a mom, I try to be a wife and a friend, and colleague and mentor…

LM: Do you ever feel like a bad mother?

TT: No, because that’s really what I prioritize.

LM: So in my opinion, you’ve figured out work/life balance.

AD: When people close their eyes and think of what it looks like to “have it all,” they probably think of you, or someone like you. You represent that.

TT: Maybe with the exception of myself.

A: Well I think what’s so interesting is that you pull back and realize, fuck, if she doesn’t “have it all,” or doesn’t think she has it all, does anyone?

LM: Maybe that’s sort of satisfying in a vaguely masochistic way. It elicits comfort in you to think, “Well, if this person doesn’t have it all or seems to be going through something, I feel so much better about myself.”

Everyone feels that way about someone else, right? What does that say about our perceptions of perfection?

TT: But that’s just in a physical and material sense, you know? There’s such a different thing when you talk about work/life balance, which is much more emotional and subtle body stuff with how you feel being inside yourself. How it is when you fall asleep at night, what you say to yourself, what you believe about, what you do.

LM: And the capability to detach those thoughts from work. For me, socializing works. I’ll actually leave happy hour without having had anything to drink, but feel so loose and relaxed.

TT: I get the same benefit from that. What I really find is a decompression valve for me is getting down on the floor with my kids with no distraction, no phone, nothing on my mind for the next morning. Or going out with my girlfriends and just having those belly laughs and cheek pains because you’re laughing so much about nonsense. That’s really the release valve for me. And when we run and scream.

LM: Lev, I feel like the whole conversation about work/life balance happens so infrequently in the male discourse. Did you ever have this conversation with male coworkers? Do you ever talk about it with your male business school classmates now?

LE: No. When I was in finance it was very much: you do your work, you try to meet your sales goals (if you’re in sales), or whatever division you’re on, and then you go and get drinks. And that’s three or four drinks, every single night.

Because bankers work gruesome hours and often 7 days a week, it’s now policy at some banks, if not all, to have a “protected day” where an Analyst is essentially pardoned from working on that day. If a manager needs something to get done for a live deal and it’s really urgent, there is now a process in place where they have to get approval to ask the Analyst to work on their “day of rest.” It’s in place so that the Analyst doesn’t burn out. Banks have implemented this to achieve a better work/life balance, but it’s not enough.

A: “Work/life balance” feels like such a millennial-era concept. Did our parents think about having a work/life balance? Or having it all?

LM: That’s the thing I keep coming back to, this concept of “having it all.” That definition varies by person. For some women, having it all really does mean marrying a wonderful, helpful partner and having healthy children. And that’s a lot! That’s a fuck ton. You know what I mean? Whereas for other women, “having it all” means owning an apartment and having a job that they love to go to every day. When did we start falling into these pockets of definitions that we don’t even wholly agree with? Do I sound like Carrie Bradshaw?

A: Do you think having a work/life balance is a part of “having it all?” I guess having a work/life balance means you have figured out how to “have it all.”

LM: That’s what it is. One infers the other. I also believe that the ultimate goal and destination for both of those things is a sense of spiritual fulfillment and happiness. That’s what we’re all in pursuit of but it gets lost in the bullshit.

AD: I remember back when we first lived together, Lev, and we both had our first jobs, there were multiple weeks in a row where you would come home at midnight, go to bed, wake up at 6 am, go to work – it was like this endless cycle for you. Did you even try to find a middle ground, or was it impossible?

LE: I felt like I had to pay my dues when I first joined. I was also used to that grind; it was all I knew. I always wanted a job on Wall Street, so I spent my entire life working to get it. So for me, this work/life balance thing didn’t really come to fruition until recently.

TT: You were like, “I’m putting my head in the sand, and I’m gonna power through right now.”

LE: Yeah. I have bad anxiety, and at one point I was depressed. Eventually I realized that the rate I was going was unsustainable.

TT: One of the things to remember is that what we’re talking about — work/life balance — it’s just that: a balance. Balance doesn’t mean that it’s always consistently right in the middle. Balance is like a seesaw. It tips a little bit in one direction and as long as you catch it before it totally bottoms out, you can start to tip it back in the other direction. It’s about noticing it when it’s really starting to move in one direction, and then coming in with the balance to even it out. Or think of it like a pendulum: the more that you pull that thing back, the more you let it go, the more it’s going to swing into the other extreme. Working to stabilize it in the middle is the key.

LM: Do any of you feel like you have work life balance?

TT: At times, yeah. But you need to hit the…I almost want to say panic button, but it’s not the panic button…it’s the “Hold on a second, I need to take a moment” button, and then come back to that steady space in the middle, and then start to add some more movement again. The ideal thing would be to figure out the signs in yourself before that happens. Listen to the signs, and then act.

LE: I try to just not take myself too seriously. The recruiting process is very intense. I had a bad experience recently and I was feeling very down on myself, and I had another one shortly after, so I cancelled. I knew I wouldn’t get benefit out of it — I was aware enough to see the diminishing returns.

LM: There’s a little bit of shame around stepping back. People are embarrassed to stop.

TT: I keep thinking back to this thing that I asked at the beginning. What is a work life balance? Is it ever enough? Is it ever balanced enough? What does fulfillment of work/life balance feel like or mean? Sometimes I think that if we don’t know what it really feels like or means, we just never actually realize that we have it.

A: So who do you think has it?

TT: I’ve never thought about it in the actualized form. I don’t know anybody who says, “I have a work life balance.” It’s just always waxing and waning, it’s never settling. Is that just the way that society is — to talk about things as being “off?” Is it ever really gonna be “I feel good?” I wonder if our programming has made us unable to realize that on the whole. things feel pretty good. I like what I do, I love my family, I feel pretty fulfilled about my work, it’s my passion. Within that, there can be pressure, and it’s uncomfortable. It kind of presses your edges a little bit and pushes you on and then it kind of sets into the new normal. Then you’re in that new space. So, there’s not somebody that comes to mind. But I still have that question mark. What does that really mean?

A: Well, I think that the idea of finding comfort in the discomfort is probably the only way to really lay off yourself and achieve “it.” But I think that’s annoying because I’m like, “What the fuck? I was told someone out there has figured out this real balance.” I mean, somewhere we got it in our head this work life/balance meant you had it all, everything’s perfect. I don’t know if it’s intended to drive people or if it does the opposite.

TT: I also wonder if it’s an age thing. As you get older you have different perspectives on what matters. You’ve either had kids or you haven’t and they’ve grown and moved on, and there are all of these early-on pressures that we’ve put on ourselves that might get a little easier.

AD: Leandra, do you have someone that you look up to as the person who has it all?

LM: All of my career role models, I am realizing, are independent operators. Like Joan Didion and Cathy Horyn and Gloria Steinem. These are all venerated journalists and writers. These are not people who sought out to build their own businesses, really. Except for when Gloria Steinem started Ms. It really makes you wonder about what you’re doing. You know? Sometimes I think I could feel really happy and fulfilled just raising a family and cheerleading for them. But I also know that that’s not me. The stuff that I’m not even mentioning — the pursuit of a hustle, the inability to remain quiet and keep an opinion to myself, that’s the stuff that’s built into my identity. I wonder if you can create the balance while you’re at work.

LE: I feel like I don’t have purpose without working, I like that weight of something that grounds me.

AD: It’s totally a personality type — you’re either that type of person who likes to work or you’re not. But I think that most people are. When unemployment is down, national morale is down. People need a sense of purpose. It’s human nature.

But what also happens is that we experience a sense of pride…that may be the wrong word…in feeling stressed, having all this work and the lack of balance. It implies responsibility, that what you do is so important. And then we kind of brag about it without meaning to brag.

TT: I think a lot of it is a state of mind that you can talk yourself in and out of.

AD: Leandra said that today. Mostly I just talk myself into a frenzy and feel like I’m fucking stuck there.

LM: You can also talk yourself out using the same tactics that got you there!

You know what? I feel like I have work/life balance. My relationship with my husband is pretty strong. I don’t think he feels like I don’t give him enough attention. Maybe he does and he just doesn’t articulate it to me. And I have Friday nights with my family and I see them and I speak to them a couple times a week.

But then, as we are sitting here and talking I am coming in and out of the conversation because I’m remembering, “Oh fuck, I’m giving a talk tonight and I wanted to Instagram about it to make sure that people would come and I forgot to do that and I need to do that but I can’t because my recorder is on.” So I missed five minutes of this conversation because of that narrative. And then I come back in and five minutes later, I’m back out because I remember that I didn’t e-mail our social media director. But that’s not a balance. I think for me, work/life balance has always meant making sure the people at home are happy with how I’m treating them, and that the people at work are happy with how I’m treating them. It’s never actually been about how I feel. Does that make sense?

TT: That’s a lot happening at once, that’s what that all is. It’s not necessarily your work and your life is out of balance. You just have a lot to do.

LM: So here’s a question: what does work life balance look life for you or to you? In a perfect world.

TT: I’d have a normal day where I would drop my kids of at school, then I’d teach, maybe work until about 4:00 P.M. and not teach more than one class a day (which hasn’t been happening lately). Pick my kids up from school, and then have nothing on my mind so that I’m able to be present with my kids. Then my husband would come home and we’d hang out — not talk about how stressed out I am or how much I have going on, but just be present. And then start it again. It’s the “what do I have to do tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that” that gets me checked out and then I feel like I lose these precious hours with my family.

LM: That’s achievable. So what do we do to get there?

TT: You just have to set up boundaries. But the problem is that walls get knocked down all the time because you let them. And hopefully you feel them getting knocked down and then you reset the structure, but that doesn’t always happen. It doesn’t always get repaired.

AD: In my “perfect balance,” there are four different components. First there’s work, which is very proper. In at 9 am, leave by 7:00. Then you go home and have you time, you workout or read…for some reason, whenever I think of work/life balance I picture myself in my kitchen cooking and listening to jazz with a glass of red wine. I do not cook. But that’s part of work/life balance in my head.

Then there are friends. That’s the third part. And then there’s this fourth component that is creating or finding inspiration to enrich your work and your life so that you go in to the office charged up. What about you, Leandra?

LM: To me, that sounds like work/life balance is an illusion. That red wine and jazz music and cooking scene, that’s like straight out of a Helen Hunt movie. Doesn’t that mean something about our conceptions of balance? For me, it’s waking up excited, going to work, making stuff, coming home and then making other stuff, e.g. children without feeling like I am half-assing. But what is stopping us all from achieving our balance? Or our versions of balance. There’s a lot of execution involved. But if we really wanted these things, wouldn’t we execute?

AD: There’s definitely a general false sense of what work/life balance means.

TT: We also live in a crazy city. There’s a lot of pressure here.

LE: I’m looking to leave New York. I’ve realized I’m an anxious person, so I’ve made a conscious decision to go back to California. I had to realize that it was getting out of control and I was making bad decisions. You have to check in, and know when you’ve hit your limit. I hit my limit and I’m choosing to fix it — to make my life more chill. And I still will be successful because I’ll be much happier.

LM: Good for you for taking action.

TT: A couple of weeks ago I was with my kids and we were on our way to my daughter’s birthday party. I’d rented out this space she’d been wanting to have her party at for six years, and I had always been like, “This place is too expensive, you’re absolutely crazy, I’m not doing that. We can have it at the house and you can have five of your friends over, end of story.” And I finally did it. I worked hard and made enough money to rent this space. So I’m pushing the stroller down the street and it’s a nice day and I’ve got my kids, and I remember standing on the corner and having this crazy experience where I thought, “I feel totally fucking fulfilled.” I have my kids and they’re healthy, and I am able to do this because I work hard. Just standing on the sidewalk with this overwhelming sense of gratitude to be able to live in the city and have access to the things that I do and to feel overwhelmed in a good way because I have so much going on.

So that’s when I say: sometimes it really is a state of mind, you know?

Follow Taryn and The Class on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook; Lev’s on Instagram too because who isn’t. Illustration by Maria Sainte. Follow her on Instagram here.

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  • Alarive

    I love the affirmation of not letting anyone trample or knock down your boundaries. I think that is such a huge part of it. Just two days ago I returned from a work trip to Israel and landed at midnight, and I said to myself that I was taking the following day off and I did. I knew that I would otherwise become resentful and just go to work for the sake of appearances, versus really wanting to be there for the job itself. The place wouldn’t collapse without my being there that one day, and I had a hugely relaxing day, which I needed, and everything was okay.
    That said, I also hold close to me the idea of balance happening when you actually love the thing you are doing. A lot of what was spoken here can maybe be applied to someone at a job that isn’t using their innate strength, or that is just impossible for them to fall in love with, no matter how long they stay at it. I look at someone that is doing a job they love and realistically see that there are challenges to it, and lots of compromises to be made here and there, but ultimately and deep down, the work itself fills your heart. Running a successful blog probably entails lots of pain in the asses, between accountants or boring contract stuff, etc., but when you get that chance to sit down and just write, that euphoria makes it all worth it. And every job has those pains, so finding the one that gives you that high in those pockets of moments makes it all worth it.
    After that, you just have to really set up your boundaries and stick to them. Exceptions are allowed, as long as they stay exceptions. And really be present in the moment, so put your phones away during drinks with friends, and just do the work when it’s work time.
    Just a couple of pennies. I could really go on about the whole issue for days, especially how prevalent this convo has become since women have started taking over the workforce. Maybe another time. Loved this talk, keep up (with balance) the great work!

    • Loretta Vest

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  • TravelBlissNow

    The first step is realizing that you have a problem. That was me. Maybe I thought I could “do” it all. http://www.travelblissnow.com/7-signs-your-work-life-balance-needs-fixing/

  • Many very interesting points. Even when you don’t have children, the work/life balance can be difficult to maintain.

    Ashley
    http://www.ashleyelizabethbeauty.com

    • Sir Matthew

      Woman you need to fulfill your duty as a female and give your husband many sons. If you’re barren fruit then you should tell your husband so he may take a younger wife to bear children.

      • Uhm…ok? Not sure what you’re trying to suggest or how that it relevant.

        • Sir Matthew

          I’m not suggesting anything. I’m simply stating if you haven’t already given your husband sons then get to it and stop worrying about a silly job. Does your husband know you’re on his internet? I can’t believe you’d be allowed access without supervision.

  • Elizabeth Tamkin

    I honestly feel like there are two issues with dealing with work/life balance.

    1) some people just cannot help themselves. I’ll get home from work and feel the urge to do stuff for the next day that can totally wait and which my co-workers would probably prefer if I waited (because I’ll send emails at like 11 PM about things I’m stressing about). I am the type of person who feels better checking things off my list than keeping them as pending to-do’s and having them in the back of my head.

    2) in many many fields, you CANNOT get ahead unless you are ahead. You need to be on top of sh*t or else you don’t stand out at your job. I am the kind of person who values and really craves the praise and recognition of my hard work. unless you’re 3 steps ahead, you’re only working at a mediocre pace (NOTE: THIS ISN’T TRUE I AM INSANE). But seriously … I really have found that since a kid in grade school, work/life balance is nearly impossible to achieve. Maybe that’s because work=life and livelihood. I don’t know, maybe I haven’t figured it out yet — but my dad is retirement age yet has not retired because he is now in the habit and he works (a lot) on vacation.

  • HeatherBlanarik

    I am 45 and have come to the conclusion that for me there is no set balance that will make everything perfect. To me balance is an equation that comes out perfect everytime. And we all know that life isn’t like that. There is no perfect equation. I now prefer to look at it as harmony with the pieces of my life. And that harmony could look very different from day to day, year to year and decade to decade. We all have seasons in our life and during each season our priorities can be different.

    I may have a day that all of my thoughts lean to my work and what is happening there, with very little time to my personal self. And that can be a great feeling day.

    I may have a day where my head isn’t in my work and instead spending some of my time reading while at work might be a great feeling day.

    I may have days where the traditional formula works 8 hours of work an hour of personal time at lunch, a couple of hours at yoga, and a good night’s sleep and that might be a great feeling day.

    I really try to listen to myself and what I need. If I follow that, I tend to get everything done that truly needs to be done and have time for work and a personal life. There is the key, what truly needs done. We put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect, appear perfect and have everything always work out perfectly. And there is no truth in that. Life can be messy, life can be serene. Some days I can handle messy and other days I can’t. Also, those messes build our character. We become stronger and more capable of handling future messes. Or we get to experience something that we may not have given ourselves.

    If I need some personal time and I need to grocery shop, I can incorporate a walking meditation into the shopping trip. If I need to get something done at work and something personal is drawing at my heart, I take a good look at the two things to determine what really needs to be done right then and what can be left behind so I can get enough of both done to feel harmonious.

  • Giulia

    I cook listening to jazz (Ella & Louis or Coltrane, sometimes Billy Holiday) and drinking a glass of wine almost every day. If you cook daily, and a lot of people do, then the wine and the jazz part are very easy to accomplish. Actually, I do more than that: I do candlelit dinner with my husband almost daily, after we cook together drinking wine and listening to jazz because it’s very easy to light candles and it really creates a mood. Sometime the point is to be in a state of feeling constantly deserving of a better life, because, again: what’s unrealistic about pouring a glass, tuning into Spotify, turning off lights and lighting three candles, while doing something that usually has to be done anyway?

    • Melissa

      “Sometime the point is to be in a state of feeling constantly deserving of a better life.”

      I think there’s something so powerful in this statement. I know I personally have a list of things I would love to do and would make me feel more balanced, like reading a book, or cooking with wine while listening to jazz (even if I can basically only boil noodles and pasta sauce), that are actually very realistic if I just allowed myself to do them. If I know they’d make me happy, why wouldn’t I just do them?

      I think there an attachment and expectation to being consumed with work that makes doing anything else feel very self-indulgent and guilt-ridden. I’ve gotten so much better but sometimes taking care of myself or doing something I love feels like so much more effort than just continuing to work. My mind’s already switched on to think about work all the time, I feel more productive thinking about work, and I know I can’t be accused of being behind or forgetting something. I feel like I always need to be checking my phone/email/social channels instead of doing something I love in order to just keep my anxiety at bay.

      I think a key in achieving a work/life balance lies within feeling like you deserve you can take time for yourself, and you should have a balance. It’s so much harder than it sounds, especially in a generation that prides themselves on constantly hustling. Like Amelia mentioned, people brag without meaning to brag about how much they work, and how stressed they are, because it gives a false sense of importance, but really there should be more pride in allowing yourself to stop working and give yourself the time to find whatever balance that gives you actual happiness. Isn’t that the end goal anyways?

  • Aubrey Green

    I don’t have my email for work set up on my phone, that’s helpful for me. Otherwise, I would 100% answer emails, etc. and I just can’t run 24-7 like that – I will get burnt out and not appreciate and love my job when I come in Monday-Friday, 8-5 (which are literally my hours) and I do love my job. It’s important to me to stick to that, 98% of the time. That also includes weekends, which I am more strict about. I don’t think a work/life balance is one set thing, like Leandra had said, it is different for everyone. Do what makes you happy. Love yourself, what you are doing and who you surround yourself with and you’re probably on YOUR right track.

  • Byanka Gonzalez

    An excelent professor in Dental School suggested we practice work/life integration, not necessarily “balance.” “Order” is more likely to help you achieve your goals. LIFE is just life it is not divided into a whole bunch of boxes that you balance or juggle… just one big box called LIFE.

  • This discussion is one I think about a lot. Taryn’s point about balance being like a seesaw really stands out to me…I’m going to try to consider that more when I feel overwhelmed. Another approach that helps me is the idea that economically speaking, it is impossible to have it all. We live on a planet with limited resources, including time and energy. I studied economics and remember learning about utility curves. To have more of one thing you HAVE to give up more of the other thing. The goal is just to find the point on the curve where you find maximum utility, happiness, and every one has their own curve with its own point of maximum utility. My frustration is that sometimes I don’t know where that point is for me. But, I use that approach to decision making. I approach big decisions under the assumption that one path will allow less of the other. It might not be a romantic view but it definitely keeps me realistic and allows me to reach some level of satisfaction.