It seems that more I work with executives the more the subject of work life balance pops up in conversations, sometimes disguised as overwork, burnout and stress. Also common at this time of year is the conviction to do something about it. Like with fitness centre memberships, the self discipline to take action soon runs thin, and ‘finding balance’ gets relegated to the dark corner of the To Do list.


I am still convinced that this is the wrong way to resolve the cortisol hum that leads to our overloaded brain, and the emotional push and pull between your role at work and with loved ones (see The Work-Life Balance Illusion ). If we only measure work and life as a time factor, then we are fighting a losing battle. If we care about our work, we need to give it due time. To spend time with our loved ones is necessary for fulfilling relationships. We also need to squeeze in some ‘me time’ to grow and learn. With a fixed number of hours in the day, all we can do is compromise, a lose-lose situation.


Zen Buddhists, Maslow and many other thought leaders described our motivation for seeking happiness, self-actualisation and finding our true essence; the reason we look forward to getting up in the morning. To achieve this, and not fall into the ‘transactional’ aspect of balancing work and life, we need a paradigm shift. We need to maximise the value of different aspects that make up our whole. I’ve looked at the things that make most people tick and they broadly fall into these four categories laid out in this map and described in more detail below;



Doing something that you enjoy, often for its own sake, takes our mind off the stresses of life and helps us focus on the here and now. Doing things out of your comfort zone, on a regular basis, helps create flow states that raise our brain function to another level (see more on Flow here). We also get a kick (or a buzz) out of the challenge, nd the sense of achievement when we reach a new level. Whether it’s playing a musical instrument, reading a book, or playing a sport, we can take these activities to a higher level through commitment to improve, practice and focus. This fulfilment of such activities leads us to become Passionate.


When you take that commitment to improve, and become passionate about an activity, you inevitably get into flow and raise your game. You invest more time in fine tuning your skill and seek excellence in your delivery. This also happens in our roles at work. If you are ‘good at what you do’, people define you by your skill. The problem solver, the creative genius, the number cruncher, and as your role becomes more defined, the manager, the artist, the accountant. In effect, your excellence (proficiency) at work makes you Professional.


Aristotle described virtue as something that is excellent at doing what it is supposed to do. A knife is virtuous if it cuts well, and living our lives with virtue requires us to live mindfully within the various roles we accept. Wether a boss, a colleague, an employee, as well as a partner, parent, sibling or friend, these are roles we must aim to fulfil with virtue, commitment and responsibility. To do this, we must live up to the expectations we have set for ourselves, as well as the expectations of others we commit to. Once we accept a role, for example a job, then we must aim to do the job to the best of our abilities. With excellence, if we can, or with determination and dedication.


The three aspects of our life, seeking fulfilment, excellence and virtue in our roles, are all driven by self-improvement. The fourth factor that makes our lives meaningful is our ability to make a difference to others. Our ability to better the lives of others through our work lead to these roles becoming Vocational. If we use our free time to help others or a cause, then this volunteering has a direct impact on others. Often this becomes deeply fulfilling, meaningful and can become our Mission.


FIRE Icons

“Layering” is important. The more we can overlap the four squares by choosing our activities wisely, the more we create meaning and embark on a virtuous and self-fulfilling journey. The journey starts with self-awareness, triggered by mindful introspection. We need to really ask ourselves the purpose behind our roles, our work, what we enjoy and our place in the world. We need to understand our starting point before we can seek to learn, develop and excel. Mindfulness is the the key to getting outside of ourselves and looking in. The deliberate layering makes a big difference, for example, when we feel our day jobs are dragging us down. Being helpful to colleagues or training a new recruit will increase my ‘yellow’ layer, while trying to better my skills at work will increase by ‘blue’. Being positive and finding enjoyment and excitement through flow can be really powerful. As we layer, we start to find our centre. We approach what makes us tick, what gives us meaning, fulfilment; a sense of purpose.


However, sometimes we are kicked out of the centre. Stressful situations cause us to lose enjoyment and remove the ‘red’ layer of passion. Boredom wipes our our ‘blue’ layer and a sense of isolation or selfishness kills our ‘yellow’ state of mind. Living in the ‘green’ takes over our whole life; merely living to work.


Take Joe as an example. Since he was a child, he loved playing the guitar. What started of as just good fun (red) turned into a passion as he practiced and learnt, becoming an excellent (blue) musician. Getting noticed, he was asked to join an up-and-coming band and started to play local gigs, earning some extra money. Soon he was earning enough for him to quit his job and call himself a true musician (green). In order to sustain himself, he accepted to play at weddings, a lucrative source of income. Joe seemed to be living the dream, being paid for something he’d do anyway for free. He thought he had found his purpose.


A few years later Joe was depressed. He had hung up his guitar and went back to his old job. His family broke down as he spent all weekends away playing at weddings. He hated the very thing that caused so much enjoyment in his youth. What happened?


Joe layered excellence on his source of fulfilment, and defined himself through his role as a musician. However, soon music became just another job. Playing cover songs ad nauseum at weddings didn’t stimulate his creativity, and he no longer need to practice for self growth. Never having a free weekend killed the enjoyment, and he missed his family. He no longer had a purpose and it became just another dead-end job.


Being in any of the colours in isolation is weak, deprived of meaning. Enjoyment without passion becomes fickle and hedonistic. Learning without practical application is useless. Giving up your time without deep involvement (a flow trigger) becomes meaningless. The layering is the value added. Joe did find enjoyment in music again, as he was asked to teach some young kids by a local Sunday School priest. He went along with his guitar and found that teaching kids gave him great fulfilment. He found his balance once more, and life became meaningful. You see, you don’t have to work full time for a charity to find meaning. You don’t need to live in poverty as a missionary.  If you can, then that’s great, but as long as you can find ways to layer all the four aspects of life described here, you’ll have a great reason to get out of bed in the morning!