The Misleading Assumption in Work-Life “Balance”

Don’t balance competing interests. Create a synthesis.

Recently I argued that one problem with the concept of work-life balance is that we think of balance as playing out over the course of a day, when in fact we might be better off thinking of balance as something we achieve over a longer term — across seasons or years. Here, I want to highlight another, subtler problem with the way we think about work-life balance: the unintended consequences of our use of the term “balance.”

When we talk about “balance,” we unintentionally place work and rest in opposition, or make them competitors. We don’t mean to do so, but “balance” implies a weighing of opposing objects, one on each side of a scale.

The metaphor of truth or justice being weighed on a scale has been used for thousands of years: ancient Egyptian inscriptions show the gods using a balance to assess the lives of the dead.

Judgment (from the New York Public Library Digital Collection)

Even today in courtrooms, the Roman goddess Justitia using her scale to weigh evidence for or against a position, or the innocence or guilt of a defendant.

Likewise, in politics, “balance” usually involves striking a compromise between competing interests. In political negotiations, nobody gets everything that they want. You have to give up something in order to reach an agreement.

As a result, when we talk about work-life balance, it’s easy to see the task as one of juggling the competing interests of work and life, career and children, office and home. When seen as a kind of negotiation, the best one can hope for in work-life balance is a compromise that keeps everyone — well, not happy exactly, but not neglected.

Sometimes that’s a completely honorable goal. When things are really difficult, and you‘re dealing with multiple emergencies and challenges, simply holding it together can be a win. (That calls to mind another meaning of balance, incidentally: staying upright in an unstable environment.)

But simply remaining balanced shouldn’t necessarily be an ideal.

In my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, I talk about how super-creative and -productive people often engage in what I call “deep play:” they have time-consuming, challenging, even hazardous hobbies that take up lots of their free time.

For example, Winston Churchill was a devoted amateur painter. Rosalind Franklin, the physicist whose X-ray crystallographic studies of DNA helped James Watson and Francis Crick puzzle out the double helix, was a mountain-climber. Harvard physicist Lisa Randall is a rock-climber who has climbs in Colorado named after her.

Rosalind Franklin in Norway, ca. 1938

Accomplished people have lots of demands on their time, lots of obligations, and tend to be very ambitious. They don’t have lots of time to waste, and don’t like to waste time. So why is it worth it to take a month off to go climbing (and potentially risk months more recovering from an accident), or to spend weekends painting?

The answer is that deep play offers a very specific kind of break from work — one that offers lessons for thinking about work-life balance.

Deep play actually offers some of the same challenges and rewards as work. That’s part of what makes it appealing. For Churchill, painting was fun because it was like politics. Both required a clear vision of what you wanted to do, decisiveness and boldness once you began, and a willingness to see a plan through to the end.

Likewise, scientists talk about mountain- and rock-climbing as a struggle to find the most economical and elegant solution to a tough problem — just like science. And as with science, there’s distinction that comes with discovering a new route, or being the first to the top of an unconquered peak.

Climbing in Yosemite: photograph by Henry Kendall, who later won a Nobel prize in physics

Deep play also lacks the frustrations of work: even if painting was like politics, the Labour Party was never looking over Churchill’s shoulder, complaining that he should have made the sky lighter.

Deep play is also different from work in critical ways, which makes it a respite from work. Working with canvas and paint was “great fun,” Churchill said, and the physicality and visual nature of painting set it apart from the verbal jousting of politics.

Likewise, climbing is more physically intense. For physicists and chemists accustomed to working with quarks and nanosecond-fast reactions, the vastness of mountains make climbing very different from science.

Mountain-climbing, by Christopher Burns

The risks give climbers a sense of perspective about their lives: as one medical researcher who climbed both Everest and K2 put it, professional disappointments “simply didn’t have the same consequences . . . as what had happened in the mountains.”

Deep play differs from work in the speed of its rewards. For scientists who might spend months or years working on experiments, only to get negative (or worse yet, ambiguous) results, climbing offers a wonderful clarity: after a day, you’ve either reached the summit, or you haven’t. There’s no uncertainty.

Photograph by Evan Kirby

Finally, deep play offers a powerful break from work because it forces a strict division between work and play. When you’re on the face of a cliff, or in the middle of a regatta, there’s no time to think about recent experiments, or office politics, or that upcoming court case; there’s only you, nature, and the next move. For people who normally spend lots of time and energy thinking about work, that’s really refreshing.

This helps explain why creative people do some of their best work when they’re most invested in their deep play. Rosalind Franklin was developing a reputation as one of Europe’s most skilled women climbers when she produced her studies of DNA. Biophysicist Britton Chance won a gold medal in the 1952 Olympics, and did some of his most important science in the decade after that, when he was one of the sailing world’s most ferocious competitors.

Britton Chance sailing in a regatta

For these people, work and deep play aren’t opposites or competitors. Periods of hard, focused work creates space in their lives for deep play, while deep play helps restore their energy, and reminds them of the pleasures of making discoveries.

This is not “balance,” in the sense of trading off competing interests. It’s not zero-sum game, but win-win.

Of course, this is an ideal, and it’s not always within our reach. But the model of work-life balance that envisions our lives as an eternal set of balances, tradeoffs and compromises is one that can help us manage our day-to-day lives, not one that will help us do great work or lead good lives. We should aspire to lives in which work and deep play are equally important; in which we‘re able to devote time to each; in which work and deep play each contribute to making our lives better.