When to Put Work-Life Balance Ahead of Career Success

In an ideal world you can have both a successful career and an amazing work-life balance. Your career trajectory will continue upward with greater responsibility and increasing pay and rewards. At the same time when the workday ends (at a reasonable time) and when the weekend arrives, you never have to think about work. Vacation days will be plentiful (or unlimited) AND you’ll take pride in a job well done. Ahhh, that would be the work-life balance!

Career Success versus Work-Life Balance

Let’s take a step back from this fantasy work-life “balance” and return to earth. Balancing our careers and our lives (or do I mean integration) while having enough time off for family, travel, and enrichment is the end goal at VacationCounts. However as you all know our career-centric culture gets in the way of having all the time off we earn and deserve.

So how do you choose between work-life balance and career success if you can’t have both? Are you the type of person that puts career achievement first (work comes before life) or do you stay at the same job role because it meets your balance goals (life comes before work)? For me it all comes down to the difference between having a job and a career.

Do You Have a Job or a Career?

From my experience working at over 8 different companies over 20 years (typical office environments), I have identified two distinct groups of working people. There are the people for whom career success and growth is most important and valued. On the other side of the coin are working people who keep working at a job that offers both security and work-life balance. You might fall somewhere in between the spectrum as I have at different stages of my working life.

1. I Live to Work (Career First)

Who: People that focus on career growth at the cost of a healthy work-life balance can be heard saying…

  1. I don’t mind staying at the office late and checking email while on vacation to succeed
  2. I prefer to be rewarded by earning more money versus having more vacation days
  3. I seek promotions at work in order to gain more responsibility and challenges
  4. I am willing to change jobs regularly simply to push my career path forward
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2. I Work to Live (Balance First)

Who: People who keep the same job in order to maintain a predictable work-life balance often say the this…

  1. I hate putting in overtime hours when it means less time for myself and my family
  2. I prefer a job that is routine and low-stress over one that is unpredictable and demanding
  3. I look forward to earning more vacation days as I gain seniority at my employer
  4. I like feeling confident doing my job such that it leads to a sustainable work-life balance
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Which camp do you fall into? Are you like many people who wish to put balance first but feel trapped in a career achievement cycle? I’ve met many people who start out putting their career ahead of time off goals simply because they need to earn more money and prove themselves on the job. Later on they reach a point where they enjoy their career but want to get off the work-work treadmill.

Ask yourself if your own job situation affords you the opportunity to maintain a stable job as you turn the focus towards work-life balance.

Scott’s Career vs. Work-Life Balance Evolution

Work-Life-Vacation Balance

For the longest time I was a firm believer that #1 was the best option. I always worked hard and accepted additional responsibility to earn that next promotion. Taking pride in exceeding expectations over and over again is professionally (and personally) rewarding in so many ways. I just accepted whatever work-life balance was available. It was my assumption that the status-quo of work-life balance was a given. People wait until they retire to have lots of time off, right?

While I have been forced to find a new job a few times due to job cuts, I have also changed jobs when I felt that my career trajectory and paycheck would improve by searching for a new job on Monster or Indeed. I recall at least one time where I left a perfectly good job because it wasn’t challenging enough and I felt confident that I could get a higher level job elsewhere. During good economic times this is much more possible than when a downturn hits. There is not much you can do when your position is eliminated except look for a new job and in those cases, work-life balance was the least of my worries.

Paycheck for Job Security or Work-Life Balance (VOID)
Are you sacrificing work-life balance for job security?

Over the years I’ve learned the obvious lesson that few jobs today are permanent. Regardless of my reason for switching, I always kept my eyes open to new job opportunities. I never let my resume become stale and stayed connected to my network on LinkedIn. While I always took all my paid time off for vacation (I was never one of those Americans who said they were too busy, too important, or too worried to take a vacation), I never questioned why I didn’t have more flexibility and paid time off. Who was I to question the balance that resulted from my working life. I had my weekends and set (limited) number of vacation days and that seemed like enough for most of my colleagues.

Eventually I started to notice the people who worked at my office who had been at the same company and often the same job for many years. At first I felt sorry for them. Didn’t they want to move up and switch jobs to make more money? Thinking back they were the ones more likely to have a healthy work-life balance. Why did I think they were missing out by not changing jobs during a hot economy? These co-workers knew how to get things done so they could leave work on time and not feel guilty about taking their annual vacations. Many of my colleagues could have easily found a better job (I often encouraged them to).

For a long time I wrongly believed that a “better” job only meant more money and responsibility regardless of its effect on work-life balance. I know better now.

Is there a bridge to Work-Life Balance?

It wasn’t until my late 30’s that I came to the belief that optimizing for work-life-vacation balance was my #1 priority. Are you willing to make “enough” money and stop being on constant lookout for a better job in order to secure a stable and predictable work-life balance? There is nothing wrong with making this choice when it is economically possible given your career aspirations and family situation.

You don’t always have to choose. Luckily there are a handful of employers out there who embrace the importance of work-life balance. If you can work for one of those corporations you’re in an excellent position to feel both successful at work and at life. However most of us will have stick with a job that is not as satisfying or rewarding as possible having your evenings, weekends, and vacation times to use as you wish becomes your #1 work-life balance goal.

Does Job Security Lead to Work-Life Balance?

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Do top companies really offer balance?

By not having to be on the constant pursuit of that next career opportunity, you can focus on getting your work done and going home on time. Over time you will get used to having a predictable work day, leading to a stronger separation of work and life. Yes working longer hours can lead to promotions and bonuses, but it can also lead to a worsening work-life balance. Who doesn’t want to make more money? It’s far too easy to think you can forgo balance or deal with it later when you are presented with the idea of a promotion or job offer.

Before you ask for a promotion to a higher level or answer that call from a recruiter via LinkedIn, consider the work-life-vacation balance part of the equation. There’s always a trade-off. For some people job security is the best path towards more time off for family, travel, and an enriching life.

So should you be happy in your current job and maintain the status quo in order to pursue work-life balance goals? It’s not always an easy decision because you have bills to pay, need to support your family (if you have kids) as the college years approach, and may (should) want to retire early.

Maybe you are making enough money and happy that you don’t have to take your work home with you or come into the office on weekends. At what point should you stop seeking more salary and greater responsibility if it comes with less time off? Yes I’ve asked a lot of questions. You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of career growth versus work-life balance to decide what’s best for you and your family.

How to Choose Career versus Work-Life-Vacation Balance

There is no one-size-fits-all answer since it all depends on your current job, your financial situation, and your desire for more vacation time off. My advice is to follow this work versus life checklist and reevaluate your answers to these questions on an annual basis.

When to Choose: Career Comes First

  • You are just starting out in your career and need to build your skill set
  • Earning as much money as possible in the short-term is your top priority
  • You are passionate about the project you are working on and the sense of accomplishment is worth the sacrifice of personal time
  • A promotion is in your near future and it is important that you achieve it
  • You changed jobs and need to prove your worth before pursuing balance or seeking a flexible schedule
  • You are close to retirement and wish to maximize your final years of earnings
  • You work for a non-profit or charity that makes a difference and you are happy devoting your personal time to that cause

When to Choose: Work-Life Balance

  • You already have a well-paying job and time is more important than a higher salary or bonus
  • Spending more time with your family is important at this stage of life (like when you have a child)
  • You have an hourly, contract, or part-time job and do not wish to give up that level of flexibility
  • Travel or (fill in the blank) is your passion and it will always take precedence over additional working hours
  • You realize that life is short and you don’t want to delay enjoying as many hours, days, and weeks off as possible
  • You have a family member to take care of so flexibility is not just desired, it’s essential
  • Your outside pursuits like sports, arts, volunteering for a charity, or government is part of who you are

Balance Career and Life Summary

So what if you secure a boring job that lacks challenge and excitement but gives you the ultimate work-life balance? Alternatively what if you have an amazing job which is challenging and rewarding, but results in zero work-life balance? Which is better? Or can you combine the best of both – a fulfilling career and the ultimate work-life-vacation balance. If you have to choose, use this guide to pursuing happiness by making the best career versus balance decision at each stage of your life.

Comment below about your own work-life situation and which you prefer; a stable job that offers balance or a rewarding career that doesn’t. For those that found a way to enjoy both, tell us how you went about achieving that goal.

  • Nir says:

    Both checklist are relevant for me. What should I do?

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