by Maria Rapetskaya

The term “work-life balance” gets thrown around so frequently, it’s become a blanket phrase to convey what we must all strive for, lest we remain miserable. 

We’re bombarded with bullet-pointed lists, such as “Five Steps to Achieving Work-Life Balance.” Often, these lists lack anything readily relevant, particularly for an industry that revolves around airdates and deadlines, with frequent long days and late nights.

The sad truth is this much-coveted balance is as unique as your situation and goals, and no one can simply hand you a five-point blueprint. However, this realization can be quite empowering. Regardless of circumstances, you can make room for a little more happiness now, precisely because you write the rules on where that happiness lies.

Beyond the term, few have a clear picture of what this “work-life balance” actually means to them. So before you set off on a wild-goose chase, you’ve got to identify two key bits.

What it is you’re really seeking.

Not as easy as it sounds! It takes some soul-searching to determine the work-life balance definition that’s actually right for you. You can want to have it all, and all at once, but let’s be frank: your odds are far better if you identify what will have the greatest immediate impact on your life right now and what can wait.

You have to discard desires that are incompatible with your current situation. If you are the family’s sole breadwinner, ditching your network job to start an heirloom tomato farm is probably a bad idea. Instead of being depressed over an unaffordable, unrealistic leap, why not focus on making the current job more tolerable or finding a new opportunity in your field that’s more inspiring. And perhaps it’s making the farm a small weekend hobby first, so the idea takes shape without risking your livelihood.

Of course, this is a generic, over-the-top example. But, the point I’m making is this: 

Too often, our overblown, unrealistic ideas about what we need to be happy, personally and professionally, are the very causes of our inability to change our situations for the better. 

Full-timers envy freelance flexibility. Freelancers complain of waiting months for payment. Entrepreneurs can’t find the time to get away. If our goal is misery, misery is what we’ll find. Focus on what is working, identify what isn’t, but prioritize what can be adjusted for the better right now. Don’t get caught up in exaggerated wants while ignoring the working potential in what you have.

What you’re willing to give up for it.

That’s right. We prefer to believe “work-life balance” will magically be everything and anything we wish for. But it begins with compromise, and balancing facts with dreams.

Working six months a year while building a company that grosses $10 million annually is less likely than winning the lottery, even if someone did it and wrote a how-to book about it. Most people can’t have both.

But if your vacation policy makes you miserable, do something about it. If individuals don’t chip away at our workaholic culture, it’ll remain that way forever. Just don’t attempt to negotiate eight weeks of paid leave right off the cuff. Consider your salary, your company’s attitude towards remote work and your ability to take unpaid leave. Negotiate with realistic expectations and introduce ideas, not demands. Six months off could be possible, eventually, if that’s your main goal. But if you subsisted on two weeks off for years, taking four would be a 100% improvement.

On the “micro-level” of daily work-life balance, the 10-hour week works for a lucky few. But don’t let their book sales fool you. For most, equal productivity in a mere quarter of the hours isn’t a realistic goal, unless you’re currently wasting an enormous amount of time. Instead, consider adapting your schedule to your internal clock. If 9-11 a.m. is your most painful and least productive slot, your life could drastically improve on a 12-8 p.m. day. 

Plenty of companies nowadays allow for some flexibility, though you may need to frame this request wisely. Do track and understand the activity cycles of your job. Time sheets or sales records, for example, can help you analyze and make the case for schedule adjustments.

As for late nights, check that your above-and-beyond efforts are warranted. Anyone can fall prey to habitually over-staying at the office, even when it’s not necessary. I certainly do it, and it’s taken time to train myself to leave when I’m done. Same goes for deadlines. Some of course, are real and serious. But, deep down, I know that at least some of mine are self-defined and unnecessarily stringent. Could yours at times be as well?

Daydreaming is great for generating ideas, but will get you nowhere without a dose of pragmatism. Like most change, it’s best approached incrementally. 

Finally, this balance isn’t static. It shifts with job opportunities, changes in personal life, and requires frequent re-evaluation of your priorities.

What you have to compromise now could be integrated in phase two or three. Or, you may find what you thought you wanted to badly was never that crucial to your happiness. Desires and dreams do evolve. The grass will always appear greener for someone else. But, once you begin to adjust your situation, instead of lamenting it, you’re already halfway to where you want to be.

Founded in 2010, Undefined Creative is a creative agency blending uncommon ideas with sophisticated design and polished execution to establish and cultivate brand awareness, through motion graphics and animation. The agency’s clients include national consumer and media brands across platforms.

This article originally appeared on PromaxBDA's Daily Brief.