The myths of work — life balance
Does it exist and if so, should we strive for it?
I’ve always tried to keep work and the rest of my life separated as much as possible. I try to avoid checking emails in the evenings and weekends and I generally get annoyed when work tasks spill over into my free time.
Don’t get me wrong, I work hard, I am professional and I am a high-performer. I take my job very seriously, don’t miss deadlines and often achieve more than what is expected of me. But nonetheless, it’s a job — it’s not who I am.
I have been working for more than twenty years now, but no matter how much or little time I spend at work and no matter what my job is — it still does not feel like my life. And I always want more free time.
That leads me to the question: Is there such a thing as work — life balance? And is balance something we should strive for or are we just looking at this the wrong way?
I like my current job a lot, but I need to be a in a specific environment and mindset in order to be able to get my assignments done. As I travel a lot for work, this can get complicated. I have to compartmentalize work into different sections of my time. If I am totally relaxed, I can’t work. Work is a specific thing that I need to get ready for and focus on doing. It does not come naturally when I am in a context that is not normally related to work, for example on a trip.
Work is not a part of who I am, but a thing I do. It’s separate from myself and therefore I need to separate it in my life. I am sure that most of us feel this way, but I know that there are those out there who do not understand this.
As I was getting ready for the trip I am currently on, I had to get some new clothes to wear for work events. I went shopping with a friend and I explained that I was looking for work clothes. I bought some stuff, but ended up buying more clothes to wear on my free time. My friend looked at me strangely and said;
” What’s the difference?”
For him, clothes for work and clothes for the rest of his life are the same thing. He is who he is — all the time.
Obviously, some jobs require that you stick to a specific dress code, but that’s not what I am talking about here. I just mean that I am not fully myself at work, no matter how comfortable I am there. Work is a part I play. It’s a title I wear together with my outfit.
I also spoke to a colleague of mine before leaving the office to go on my trip. I told him that I was going to stay abroad during most of the winter and work from there. I asked him if he had any tips on where I could live once I was done with the meetings and events I needed to go to. He suggested one lovely beach town after another in the region where I will be. I looked at him with a puzzled expression and said;
” But I am working. If I was going on a holiday, I would love to go to any of those places, but not when I am working.”
To me, these are two different things, different trips, different destinations. I can’t work if I am hanging out under a palm tree with people in surf shorts and flip flops drinking Piña Coladas. I just can’t do it. In that scenario, I want to be me. I want to be free. I don’t want to be my work self in my bikini. It’s just not relaxing.
Now it was he who had a puzzled expression on his face. It was clear that he didn’t understand me at all. To him, it was obvious that you would simply want to be in the nicest place, regardless of the reason for your visit.
Maybe I’m the one who is weird about this. But would I really want to blend my work with the rest of my life in that way? The way entrepreneurs and digital nomads do. I value my free time too much. I want to be able to relax when the work day is over or when I am on a holiday.
Wouldn’t thinking like them be like being an eternal student with that feeling hanging over your head all the time that you should be doing more, studying more, working more?
As I take out my computer at yet another airport hoping that there is Wi-Fi so that I can get some emails done before my next flight, I start thinking about this again and shift my perspective.
Is this concept of work — life balance really a healthy thing? Maybe it’s somehow a failure that I feel the need to make such a clear distinction between work and the rest of my life?
Just the idea itself, to create a balance between work and life, is strange. Is work not your life when you spend at least eight hours a day doing it? Add the commute and checking emails on your phone to that and it’s probably almost half of your day that is in some way connected to your job.
Given this, does it even make sense to divide our days into these two parts? And even if we manage to do so, should we? It takes a lot of energy to constantly split ourselves in half. To some extent, we all already have public self and a private self, but should we also have a professional self and an “off duty” self?
Most people whom I admire and view as successful seem to be who they are all the time. They network over a cocktail on a Saturday evening without getting annoyed about spending time on the weekend talking about work. They see opportunities whether they are in the office or having brunch with friends.
Maybe it’s true what they say that if you do what you love and are meant to do, you won’t work another day in your life. It won’t feel like you are slaving away to get through the office hours, because you would do the same things for free — and on your free time.
Most of us keep fighting for more free time and a better balance, but perhaps we should instead be striving for better alignment. When work and life blends naturally, we stop looking at the clock and counting down the hours to our freedom. When we bring our whole selves to what we do, we get more powerful and don’t waste any energy dividing our minds and our days into well-defined parts. If we do what we do because we want to and it drives us from within, it creates so much more impact and joy than when we do it out of obligation, even if we do it well and enjoy it.
When I’m done with my emails, I don’t put my computer away. Instead, I open up a different document that I can’t wait to work on. Now begins the night shift, the side hustle, the hobby. My art. I work hard, but I don’t even notice it. I’ve forgotten to sleep and to eat many times when working on my creative projects.
I can do it anytime and anywhere. I put all my energy into it and nothing can distract me from it. I don’t need to do it. Nobody expects me to do it. Nobody is telling me to do it.
But I just have to do it.
Suddenly, the hours are flying by and I almost miss my flight.
Maybe they are right. Maybe this is how work should be?
No balance at all.
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