A Real Response to ‘How Do You Achieve Work-Life Balance?’

Julie Zhuo, the vice president of product design at Facebook, writes about the complexities of ‘doing it all’

“How do you achieve work-life balance?”

Whenever I do a fireside chat or a Q&A, this question will pop up like a predictable, well-crisped piece of toast. The question almost always comes from a woman. Most recently, a high school student asked it during a Q&A in Chicago. I suppose the stroller next to me that held my sleeping newborn was the equivalent of a neon sign blaring “ASK ME ABOUT MOTHERHOOD!”

But as often as I get this question about work-life balance, it still stumps me. Putting aside the fact that men almost never seem to get asked how they “do it all” (a topic for another day), I end up giving different answers every time, which probably makes me look extremely inconsistent.

A predictable, well-crisped toast of a question deserves better. It deserves an answer richly smothered with butter and nuance. So here it goes.

One reason this question is so complicated is because the words “how do you achieve…” implies that I have achieved it, that this golden chalice of “work-life balance” is somehow in my possession, sitting pretty in my cupboard. This is not true. (My cupboard is actually filled with Yeti mugs.)

Most evenings, my end-of-day routine starts with a private lament that sounds something like this: “WHYYYYYYY ISN’T THERE MORE TIME IN THE DAYYYYYY?!?!” Once that’s done, I spend a few minutes fantasizing about all the yet-to-be-invented pieces of technology that could make life easier: a pill that lets me function beautifully without sleep; a sleek, matte-black remote control with a pause button, allowing me to freeze everyone else while I get several additional hours while everyone else is frozen mid-pizza-bite; a brain implant that enables me to think and act seven times faster than I currently do; a machine that clones me several times over, but keeps all our thoughts connected via a giant hive mind.

Then I fantasize about all the things I’d do with that extra time these inventions would give me. Encourage my kids to expand beyond the Elephant & Piggie books they ask me to read every night, despite this being a tiny fraction of the worldly and diverse bookshelf I have zealously curated for them. Go for a two-hour hike in the woods to muse on the awe of our natural world like a poet laureate while getting in some invigorating cardio. Make sure my table setting is seasonally appropriate with gourds and tasteful turkey figurines. Actually return or sell the impulse purchases I make and don’t need, like that hoodie that doubles as a baby carrier.

Every single person you see who seems like they “get a lot done” is likely receiving a healthy amount of support from a network of people. It takes a village to keep those Kardashians looking that sultry.

All that is to say that I, too, often find myself consumed by the desperate and visceral longing of having time to do more. But folks see that I have three kids, a VP title at a big company, a published book, and that I write random stuff like this on the internet, and assume that I really do have some secret technology, or at least one weird trick in my arsenal. But I just want to shout: “I don’t think I have achieved it! Ask somebody else who has. Like any of the Kardashians!” (How do they manage to attend seven Halloween parties with matching mommy-and-me outfits in a single weekend?)

Another reason the question about work-life balance vexes me: The truest, most pragmatic answer is that I have support. Like, a shit-ton of support. I live with my parents in the same house. (Guess who was reading Elephant & Piggie for the 50th time while I was in Chicago?) DoorDash drops off salads every night, so I spend zero time on meal prep. My husband takes on the lion’s share of “the mental load” in our household — coordinating weekend plans, filling out forms, signing documents, and finding a tae kwon do class for my daughter because she wants to fight Star Wars villains. We hire a lot of help, from a nanny to a tax adviser to a housekeeper.

But it’s not terribly helpful or actionable to tell someone that they’ll have more time for themselves if they move in with parents, marry someone who will do 50% or more of the household errands, and pay for help. It’s downright obnoxious, really. I count my lucky stars for the people in my life and the career I have. In the hand of life, I got dealt a bunch of aces and kings.

But I talk about support because I think it’s important to debunk the myth that “being productive” requires superhuman abilities. I don’t consider myself more focused or intelligent or efficient than most of the people I talk to. Every single person you see who seems like they “get a lot done” is likely receiving a healthy amount of support from a network of people. It takes a village to keep those Kardashians looking that sultry.

At the same time, the takeaway also shouldn’t be: “If you don’t have a shit-ton of support, you might as well throw those scales into the dumpster because you’re never going to achieve balance, sucker.” That’s totally disempowering and not at all what I believe.

And anyway, who is to say that my version of balance — or your neighbor’s, or that mommy blogger’s — is right? The word “balance implies there is an objectively ideal spot between “work” and “life.” But that’s kind of like asking what’s the ideal balance among pets in the world, so you can decide which one to get. You could certainly look at the world that way, but dog people would say that more people should have dogs, and capybara people would say that not enough people own capybaras, and after many heated Twitter debates, eventually someone would point out that it makes more sense for you to ask, “What’s the best pet for me?”

Similarly, the only person who can determine your ideal work-life balance is you. So a better question might be: What do I consider “balanced?”

Answering this well requires that you search deep inside yourself, like a Jedi looking for the Force, and come up with your top three to seven life priorities. Keep the number low and manageable because otherwise you’ll end up with a million-piece pie chart and cry.

After you have those three to seven life priorities, rank the shit out of them. If you need help figuring out what should be at the top of your list, simply contemplate your mortality with one of those deathbed thought exercises: “If a creepy dude with a scythe told me that I was going to die in a year, what is the most important thing for me to do in the time I have left?”

Once you have your ranked list, the next step is to assess how you actually spend your time. Do a quick audit of your last month. What percentage of your hours are you dedicating to sleep, work, hanging out with friends, checking social media, plus all the things you listed under your life priorities?

Now that you have both lists — your life priorities and your how-I-actually-spend-my-time — you can answer the actual question that determines whether you get the golden chalice: Does where you’re spending your time and attention match what you say is most important to you?

If your top life priority is “raise my kids to be kind, happy, and productive citizens with strong values” but hanging out with your children is number 20 on your list of how you allocate your time, behind Keeping Up with the Kardashians, your intentions and reality are not in alignment. You are not achieving your ideal balance.

Now, there’s always going to be some stuff in your how-I-actually-spend-my-time bucket that isn’t a top priority in and of itself, but is a necessity for other priorities. For example, maybe you don’t love your job, but you have to put food on the table if you want to raise your kids well. Or maybe you wish you didn’t have to sleep eight hours a day, but “live a healthy lifestyle” is high up on your list. The key is to ensure that these grudging “must-dos” are done at the bare-minimum level to support the life goal, but not beyond. For example, if your top life priority is “raise my kids to be kind, happy, and productive citizens with strong values,” don’t use the excuse that you need to earn money to take the 80-hour-per-week job that affords you a Maserati, compared to the 40-hour-per-week job with a Taurus. Only do that if a top life priority for you is “being on the top rungs of the career ladder” or “collecting Maseratis.”

It’s fine if your life priorities change as time passes. I didn’t care a lick about my kids before I had them. I didn’t care about my health in my teens. Carve out time every six months or so to sit down and reconsider what your short list of life priorities looks like.

When I started doing the above, it became easier to reduce my “why isn’t there more time???” spasms. I stopped kicking myself for all the things I wanted to do but didn’t have enough time for, like cleaning up the messy rooms, learning surfing or rock climbing or reading Chinese, keeping up with news or pop culture — the list goes on and on. Because the issue wasn’t that I didn’t have enough time. I simply did not choose these things because I was doing other things that were higher on my life priorities list, which is a heck of a lot more empowering.

At the end of the day, achieving balance means that our actions flow from our big-picture priorities. It means we get out of the habit of simply reacting daily to what’s thrown our way, and instead make intentional decisions to follow the life plan we want. It means sitting down with paper and pen every once in a while and thinking until our brains hurt about who we are and what will give us meaning in the short snatch of time we have on this earth. It means saying no to priority number 28 and not feeling guilty about it, because you know you’re saying yes to priorities one, two, and three.

The next time I get asked this question about balance, I’m going to recite the entirety of this essay. Meanwhile, if you have any tips for how I can get my kids interested in books beyond Elephant & Piggie, I’m all ears.

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager https://amzn.to/2PRwCyW. Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

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