Can you balance the unbalanceable?

Happy African American woman working from home June 18, 2024 By: DeAnna Hughes

We all struggle with creating harmony between our work and professional lives. A young association professional shares her experience and offers advice.

In a post-pandemic world, much of the conversation among young professionals is about how to find work-life balance. But—hot take incoming—you cannot balance work and life. I know that is a striking sentence to read, and there are probably some negative emotions that come along with it. Hear me out.

There is absolutely a world where people can have an optimal balance between the time and energy they spend at work and in their personal lives. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist within our current reality. The traditional 40-hour work week prevents that. We spend at least eight hours at work—during the prime time for getting things done. We’re supposed to spend eight hours sleeping. This leaves just eight hours for us to live our outside-of-work life.

When you break it down like that, it sounds doable, right? However, it isn’t just eight hours for work or life. For those who are back in the office fully, or even part time, that doesn’t account for the time needed to commute, get dressed for work, or meal prep lunches. And for those who are remote, that doesn’t account for the mornings when you log on early or work a little later because you’re already home and on a roll. And it definitely doesn’t account for errands, appointments or school conferences that need to happen during work hours. Do you see where I am going with this? There are tons of small things we do each day that are for the purpose of our job and not our personal life that take place during “business hours” and vice versa.

This is why I prefer the term, work-life integration. I don’t want my job to be my identity. I am a whole person, and my job title could never fully encompass who I am. Though I admit that much of my work seeps into my everyday conversations. Recently, I was talking with a former co-worker turned great friend, and we talked about our work woes before jumping into personal life updates. And he said something interesting to me, “When I met you in person as a friend, I saw the parts of your personality that are unchanged between your work persona and your everyday persona. And you made so much more sense.”

What he was getting at is that I bring some of my real personality into the workplace. I’m a passionate person who likes to find time to joke around, which is why my Microsoft Teams chat is filled with memes and gifs for every mood and occasion. And in my personal life—where I coach youth sports and make insane spreadsheets for personal travel—I bring a huge slice of my work personality, namely my leadership style and propensity for clever PowerPoint presentations.

For an upcoming trip abroad, I created a spreadsheet to theatre tickets, travel arrangements, and funding. Which yes, is a little excessive, but I’m extra and I’m okay with that. But also, when I share a story about having to ask an unpermitted team to get off my lacrosse field so that I can host my practice, my co-worker notes that I’ve always been direct when calling out issues. Or when I mention that I go to the high school games of players I previously coached, he points out how I also show up for my colleagues outside of work. And I realized why it was so easy to switch from co-workers to friends. Because I wasn’t two different people, I just had two different fonts- work and play.

I think that conversation made me understand that there isn’t a balance between the two things. It’s more of a blending. For instance, I can bring aspects of my youth coaching to my association job. As a coach, I teach personal responsibility, accountability, and leadership guided by empathy—which is also how I lead my team. And as the commissioner for my lacrosse program, I must balance a budget and argue for price increases in our program fees. Sound familiar?

Those skills are clearly transferrable, but more than that, the time is transferrable. I can’t run my life from 7-9 a.m. and 5-11 p.m. and feel like my life is balanced. Instead, I occasionally send lacrosse emails during the day. Or take a longer lunch so that I can catch up with a friend who works night shifts. And I sometimes send work emails at 9 p.m. because I had to leave early to get to practice before I could finish my work for the day.

My boss has also helped me to pinpoint the difference between balance and integration. She has always advocated for me to take the time I need to go to doctor appointments during the day and make up the work later. She suggested I change my work schedule to accommodate a later start to my workday because I have some late-night practices. I feel privileged to integrate my work and personal lives thanks to her great leadership. As a young manager, I now set that same example for my team. That is how I am contributing to changing the association landscape. By breaking down the 5pm wall that life hides behind.

So, I ask you to read that first paragraph again and reflect on it being a hot take. Instead of seeking something we cannot find in work-life balance, we should find ways to integrate the pieces of our lives so that we can be wholly ourselves in all of life’s arenas. We can start by living our lives during all hours of the day and acknowledging that what we do at work can help who we are as people. And if you want a place to start integrating, I invite you to look at behaviors in your own life where the patterns of mesh already exist; I’m sure you’re already showing up for yourself in ways you don’t yet recognize.

This article is part of ASAE’s Young Professionals Series. Read stories that reflect your experiences and offer guidance for building a fulfilling and successful career in association management.

DeAnna Hughes

DeAnna Hughes is a Certifications Manager at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and is an ASAE NextGen alumni.