This is not another article about how to define, pursue, or attain work-life balance. Instead, what we should strive for in our lives is rhythm. Why? Because work-life balance is a fundamentally a flawed concept, one that sets up a harsh dichotomy and unrealistic goal. Even the word balance evokes the scales of justice, seesaws, a gymnastics balance beam—all tied to instability, requiring expertise.
Here’s the thing about this scale: it’s either in balance or it’s not. Both sides need to be exactly equal in weight for that balance. And once you have painstakingly achieved balance, an ounce more or less on either side and you are immediately thrown off. Seems like a tedious, rigid and, calculating way to live.
Imagine the seesaw without anyone sitting on the ends, and you standing precariously on the middle, with one foot on each side. The plank is suspended horizontally in the air. It’s a decent workout—but that’s exactly the problem: it’s a workout. It requires a tremendous amount of energy, and your core muscles have to be firing at all times to stay in balance. Relax for a moment, and one side of the plank comes crashing to the ground.
The balance beam
The beam is four inches wide (four inches!) and approximately four feet off the ground. Obtaining anything close to a perfect score in this event requires years of training. Since difficulty x execution = total, the more difficult your routine, the higher your score. The more mistakes you make, the more deductions you receive. And the ultimate goal is to get off the balance beam without falling or getting injured.
No matter how I cut it, striking a perfect balance in life sounds tedious, exhausting, and virtually unattainable. Rhythm, however, is different.
Ebbs and flows
Life already follow a natural rhythm. Seasons have a rhythm. The holidays have a rhythm. Even the fiscal year has a rhythm. Whatever the events and punctuations of your life, there is an accompanying rhythm. Sometimes the anticipated rhythms are interrupted for better or worse— sickness, the departure of a colleague or friend, a promotion or new relationship. However, for the most part, there is a certain amount of predictability about the ebbs and flows of our days and months.
Riding the wave
Finding the rhythm of your life is like riding ocean waves. Some waves are taller than others, some you can see coming, others creep up on you. But no matter what, every time you go up, you know that eventually you will come down.
When I realized that life is about rhythm, I was freed of the guilt and judgment that comes from feeling out of balance.
At some points in my life I’ve crested the waves while at others, I’ve been splashed in the face. I’ve missed missed recitals, sports games, and even a child’s birthday. I’ve also missed an important presentation at work for a family vacation. We have hosted spontaneous dinner parties with neighbors while piles of school and work papers were shoved just out of sight. My family has had take-out four nights in a row, but we also cooked farro and used watermelon radish in a salad for the first time this year. We strive to have dinner together as a family, but some nights it just doesn’t work out—and that’s okay.
Finding your rhythm
Rather than measure your ability to balance day by day, reflect on the rhythm of your life over the course of the year. Have you created memories based on quality time and little moments? Have you kicked butt in delivering knockout work, not out of obligation but out of passion? Are you proud to say that you bring your best to family, friends, and colleagues as much as you can?
The thing about waves is that we are never surprised that there is a next one. We know there will be a lull, and sometimes even crave the thrill of a big one. We learn the rhythm, and more importantly, learn how to work with it. Work is a part of life, not something to compartmentalize, to balance against. Ride the waves in your life instead, and look forward to a year of memorable highs and relaxing respites—a natural, sustainable rhythm.