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November 18, 2013Picture a circus balancing act in which the performer stands one-legged atop a ball while juggling flaming torches. Sound terrifying? You bet! But this image captures how many working women feel on a daily basis.

As with other high-pressure professions, a career in law (my chosen field) is demanding. Grueling hours and intense competition are an undeniable part of the equation. 

What’s the upside? In a profession dominated by type A personalities with perfectionist tendencies, “balance” is less about ensuring that “work” and “life” get equal time—which is rarely, if ever, possible—and more about diving into one’s personal and professional lives with equal gusto.

Unfortunately, for many professional women, the concept of “work-life balance” has become yet another impossible standard to try to live up to. At Dentons, we have tried to shift the focus away from the image of a successful superwoman with briefcase and cellphone in hand and a picture-perfect family eating a gourmet meal in the background.

My family is perfect in my eyes, but I can assure you that we’d need a lot of staging before we’d be ready for our close-up. We type A professionals need to work on managing our expectations. Among other things, this means learning how to give ourselves a break. So what if the kids’ outfits don’t match? Isn’t it enough that what they’re wearing is weather-appropriate? And, the last time I checked, scrambled eggs and veggie sticks make for a perfectly healthy meal and only take about ten minutes to throw together. 

When we talk about “work-life balance” at my firm, we encourage people, especially our senior leaders, to share stories of their everyday struggles, challenges, and setbacks. Most of all, we encourage them to talk about how important it is to create your own definition of success at work and in life—one which is grounded in reality, rather than based on a pie-in-the-sky ideal no one can possibly live up to.  

For me, the trick is to maximize my time at work as well as my time away from work. I don’t always—and some might even say I rarely—get it right, but it’s the best strategy I know. When I’m at work, I try to be 100% at work. When I’m at home, I try to be 100% at home (and this is the part I struggle with the most).

I try to think of it this way: can I resist the temptation to check my BlackBerry every 20 minutes in the evening and on weekends? Can I dedicate100% of my energy in my downtime to being with family and friends or pursuing outside interests and hobbies? Can I set more realistic expectations for myself and spend more time just being “in the moment?” 

No question this is tough to do, and there are days when I don’t think I get any of it right. But a rich life requires resiliency, perseverance, and ever-improving juggling skills—not some perfectly proportioned (and perfectly unattainable) ideal of balance.

Kate Broer is a 2013 Catalyst Canada Honours Human Resources/Diversity Leader Champion and a Partner and Canada Region Co-Chair of Diversity and Inclusion at Dentons Canada LLP.