Why Work-Life Balance Doesn’t Actually Work
Work-life balance: “refers to actions, decisions, and obligations that define the amount of time one spends on work and on the rest of one’s life. As this definition suggests, some of our work-life balance is within our control (actions, decisions) and some of it is not (obligations).”
Is it a phrase that employers actually value and implement into their culture or simply a buzzword slapped at the end of an interview to lure top talent?
I’ll admit that when I was preparing to graduate from college and aggressively looking for the perfect opportunity to kick off my career, work-life balance was high on my priority list.
Yes, I desire balance to an extent. I’ve learned that work-life balance on the other hand implies something entirely different. Life doesn’t always move down a linear path; it is full of bumps, turns, diversions, and obstacles. In constantly desiring the ideal work-life balance, we are effectively putting balance on a pedestal which may be more problematic than fruitful over time.
“The theory of work-life balance is enticing, but it doesn’t leave room for life to happen.”
As I’ve moved through my career, it has become obvious that work and life are not two separate entities; they need to co-exist harmoniously underneath the umbrella of life.
Achieving work-life balance isn’t the golden ticket to happiness. It’s time to extinguish this phrase from our vocabulary.
The attempt to “balance” life against work necessarily pits the two against each other; in reality, we do not have two lives, one personal and one professional, but one life that contains both aspects.- Matthew Kelly
Finding A Better Solution
Let me walk you through a typical weekday.
My job starts at 8 AM and ends at 5 PM (I rarely leave right at 5). That is 10 hours spent in or around the office if you include staying late, arriving early, and traveling to and from work. That leaves me with 14 remaining hours, and 7–8 going towards sleep, which means I have 6 or 7 waking hours remaining. Of those hours a few can go towards family, friends, personal objectives like going to the gym, and some time is allocated to necessary miscellaneous activities such as eating.
So despite the assumption that I actually have pretty good “work-life balance”, there isn’t much balance at all.
But why is balance even the goal? In order to have balance we need equal, counteracting parts competing for the same space and time in our lives.
In Off Balance: Getting Beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth to Personal and Professional Satisfaction, author Matthew Kelly argues that we should seek satisfaction over balance. Finding a perfect balance is pretty unrealistic for the average working individual, and may bring on more stress and anxiety when trying to prevent one area from seeping into the other. Even though it is sometimes unavoidable, thinking about work and the rest of life as a series of trade-offs is fundamentally counterproductive. When the goal is work/life balance, you’re forced to play a zero-sum game.
By holding ourselves to a greater standard of setting an intention, making it known, and giving ourselves grace when things don’t go as we planned, we set ourselves up for a more meaningful life, balanced or otherwise. - Matthew Kelly
The goal then should be to successfully intertwine work, family, community, and self into one highly-functional and realistic approach that accounts for the unpredictable nature of being a human.
Tim Ferris brilliantly outlines this idea in his blog:
“ A better metaphor for our quest comes from the jazz quartet: becoming a total leader is analogous to playing richly textured music with the sounds of life’s various instruments. It is not about muting the trumpet so the saxophone can be heard. Unless you seek ways to integrate the four domains of your life and find the potential for each part to help produce success in the others, you cannot then capitalize on synergies in places most of us don’t see or hear.”
I have begun to strive for life fluidity. It doesn’t roll of the tongue like “work-life balance”, but it provides me with a comfortable definition for how I want to allocate my time and energy.
Decide What Is Important To You
Work/life balance is a silly question, just as work/food balance or work/breathing balance is.- Seth Godin
Some people need work to survive while others just tolerate it for a paycheck. Some people view success as having a rich life full of memories and family, while others look at it through a monetary lens, emphasizing material possessions and titles.
Ultra-successful real estate mogul and Shark Tank entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran recently discussed the idea of work-life balance on her new iHeartRadio podcast, eventually concluding that “it just doesn’t exist”.
Work-life balance was an elusive concept that she chased for upwards of 40 years. Eventually Corcoran determined that it would be far more beneficial for her to stop forcing the integration of work into her personal life and separate the two. Instead of being “balanced” she puts 100% of her effort into being a great boss in the office and then 100% into being a great mother the second she comes home.
I actually enjoy going into work almost everyday and creating content, analyzing trends, learning, and growing. I don’t view my job as an endless cycle counting down the hours until I go home but as a springboard for what’s next. This may be due to my relatively low low level of experience in compared to seasoned employees and lack of a wife and kids, but work is something that I want to play a larger role in my day.
Life is about perspective, adaption, relationships, health, and quality. Finding the perfect blend between work and life will vary from person to person, but ultimately it comes down to what you deem to be important.
Tomorrow will always bring new work and new opportunities. It won’t necessarily bring back other aspects of life. I don’t want to reflect on my experiences in 50 years and think “I worked too much”.
The answer isn’t work-life balance. It’s so much more than that.
You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls — family, health, friends, and spirit — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same.” ―Brian Dyson
What do you value most?