July 26, 2018

Ever since I finished grad school and entered the work world, I wanted to have that perfect 50 percent life 50 percent work kind of dream. And, up until a while ago, I somehow felt like I was coming close to managing it.

I worked for a consulting firm and had a demanding job that required frequent travel, working on projects after hours, and making early morning or evening phone calls. Still, despite all of those responsibilities, I was able to find the time to get to the gym, keep up with my favorite shows, and hang out with friends. Admittedly, the culture at the firm wasn’t always the greatest. But, I was able to put up with it because I was able to find pockets of time during which I could forget about work all together.

But then things changed. First, I got married. Then, in 2013, I had my son, and all bets were off. All of a sudden I had a lot more balls to juggle but without the same flexibility I had when I was single.

All of a sudden I had a lot more balls to juggle but without the same flexibility I had when I was single.

I was unable to compartmentalize work as I had done before. When work was really busy, I felt overwhelmed, and sometimes even guilty when I was working in the evenings. And, at those points, the crappy culture was a lot harder to tolerate—I even resented it.

As a corporate psychologist and executive coach, I knew these feelings were common. Yet, I was still trying to operate based on some increasingly unrealistic beliefs:

●︎ That my professional life and personal life should be kept completely separate, and that if they overlapped too much, I hadn’t set good enough boundaries.

●︎ That work and life should be perfectly balanced, and that if I couldn’t maintain a satisfying sense of equity, I was doing something wrong.

Trust me, with a plate that was filled with work, a baby, and all of my other responsibilities, a side of self-judgment was the last thing I needed.

Luckily, at that point, I discovered the concept of work-life alignment.

What is that, you ask?

What’s Work-Life Alignment?

Picture this. You say, “How are you?” to someone in an elevator. She gives you a knowing look, rolls her eyes, and says, “It’s Monday.” You both know what that means. After all, how good could you possibly feel considering you have a whole week of work ahead of you?

But, what if you actually loved your job and found meaning in it? What if it aligned with your strengths, values, and worldview? Wouldn’t you have a different attitude? Wouldn’t you even be looking forward to your week instead of feeling like it was a massive drain?

Research has shown that people are more prone to feel burnout and a lack of balance when there is a mismatch between their values and their work. That’s why merely aiming for work-life balance may not be enough to deal with feelings of being overwhelmed, disengaged, or stressed.

Instead, you’ve got to aim for work-life alignment by crafting a meaningful professional life that matches up with who you are and what’s important to you.

Aim for work-life alignment by crafting a meaningful professional life that matches up with who you are and what’s important to you.

So what does it actually look like?

First, your work would actually be aligned with your big life objectives—beyond just providing you with the money to pursue those goals outside of work.

For example, if it’s important for you to give back to others, you could intentionally strive to be of service in your job. Or, if being seen as a high performer is important to you, your workplace would be one in which your boss acknowledges good work.

Second, it would mean that you could leverage your strengths in the workplace—and even find opportunities to develop them further. If, for instance, you’re creative and love innovating, your job would give you the chance to flex that muscle in some way. You would feel as though you were able to bring your best self to your work.

Finally, it would mean that you felt a sense of engagement and satisfaction on the job. Instead of dread, you would feel excitement and passion for the work you were doing. Yes, there are limits to just how many hours you can devote to work without starting to feel like it’s too much, but if you had bouts of working a lot, you wouldn’t feel resentful. In fact, you might feel energized because you were so interested in what you were doing.

Sound like a pipe dream?

While finding a sense of work-life alignment can take some effort, it’s totally doable.

Here are four tips to get you started:

1. Identify Your Top 5 Core Values

The first step is to look back on your life, self-reflect, and simply consider which values are most important to you. Is it achievement? Making a difference? Recognition? Write down whatever comes to mind.

The first step is to look back on your life, self-reflect, and simply consider which values are most important to you.

You might also want to think about a few times when you were at your best—times when you were “in the zone” and felt on top of the world. What factors were present that made those times so amazing for you? (If you are having difficulty articulating your values, here's a list that can help). Choose about five values and rank order them.

2. Bring Your Values to Work

Now that you have a sense of what gets you going, put some thought into how you can draw on more of those values in the workplace.

Are you missing autonomy? See if you can lead an initiative. Need more challenge? Look for opportunities to learn new things.

And be patient with yourself. Remember, baby steps are better than no steps. Small as your first action step may be, it will be more fulfilling than procrastinating.

Baby steps are better than no steps.

As you find greater alignment with your work and values, you’ll likely find that work becomes a greater source of joy for you.

3. Build Meaningful Relationships

A recent survey found that almost half of Americans feel lonely at work. This is highly concerning, given that women who report that they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged on the job.

We are social beings, even when we’re in offices. So, focus on building relationships. It will help you to feel more connected to your job and act as a powerful buffer against workplace stress.

Focus on building relationships. It will help you to feel more connected to your job and act as a powerful buffer against workplace stress.

4. Notice If There's Too Much of a Mismatch

Finally, if you conclude that you are in a situation in which your personal values are too much at odds with your organization, you might want to take some steps so that you can move on. Working in a toxic culture not only feels bad on a psychological level, it can also be hazardous to your health. Life is short, and sometimes, you just need to take a stand for yourself.

Working in a toxic culture not only feels bad on a psychological level, it can also be hazardous to your health.

I actually chose to do just that, and honored my needs for autonomy, challenge, and self-determination by leaving my firm to work for myself. That was definitely the right choice for me, but we’re all different. So, commit to striving for work-life alignment on your own terms, and enjoy a happier and more purposeful life.


Read next: How to Balance Success with Self-Care