Let me tell you something you already know: Work-life balance is a myth.
Aside from the obvious impossibility of “balance” in a world where work dominates most of our waking lives, it’s not clear that neatly separating work and personal life is even a desirable goal, let alone an achievable one.
So where does that leave us?
The truth is, balance is bunk. It is an unattainable pipe dream. … The quest for balance between work and life, as we’ve come to think of it, isn’t just a losing proposition; it’s a hurtful, destructive one.
— Keith H. Hammonds, writer
There is no work-life balance. We have one life. What’s most important is that you be awake for it.
― Janice Marturano, director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership
When I’m advising folks, I often hear about one recurring anxiety over and over again: little to no work-life balance.
These are high need-to-achieve people who spend the majority of their waking lives either at work, working, or thinking about work.
And for them, the lack of “balance” in their lives—between work and home, work and relationships, work and self, etc.—drives them to feel horribly guilty.
Guilty about the people they’re neglecting, guilty about the household chores going undone, guilty about the 15 pounds of flab circling their bellies.
Guilt is a strong emotion to be walking around with all the time. But so many hard-working Americans have it. Loads of it.
But what if work-life balance is a myth anyway—and that’s why we can’t seem to find anyone who has achieved it?
Would it be surprising that most people working 50-60 hour weeks have no work-life balance then?
In The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, author and entrepreneur Gary Keller, along with Jay Papasan, writes that we misunderstand the balance between work and life:
Seen as something we ultimately attain, balance is actually something we constantly do. A “balanced life” is a myth—a misleading concept most accept as a worthy and attainable goal without ever stopping to truly consider it.
Balance, therefore, is in the mode of becoming, not the mode of being.
You constantly shift to maintain balance. You don’t get to the point where you’re just “balanced.”
Think of a tight-rope walker. At no point is the walker “in balance,” rather, she is constantly “balancing.” If she stops balancing, she falls off.
Because we don’t understand that distinction, Keller says, we get trapped into thinking our lives should be perfectly ordered, compartmentalized, and “balanced” all the time. That’s not how it works.
So if “work-life balance” is at best misleading and at worst a complete fabrication, where did the term come from?
Keller has an answer for that too in The One Thing:
Still, the term “work-life balance” wasn’t coined until the mid-1980s when more than half of all married women joined the workforce. To paraphrase Ralph E. Gomory’s preface in the 2005 book Being Together, Working Apart: Dual-Career Families and the Work-Life Balance, we went form a family unit with a breadwinner and a homemaker. Anyone with a pulse knows who got stuck with the extra work in the beginning. However, by the ‘90s “work-life balance” had quickly become a common watchword for men too.
And the usage of the term exploded in growth from there.
The notion of work-life balance, in the guise of “having it all,” reared its head into the national conversation once again when Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article came out in 2012.
It’s an issue that plagues both genders, across every generation. There’s no issue that unites the “Peter Pan” generation with their Baby Boomer parents quite like the dreaded work-life balance question.
But there are problems with the concept of work-life balance. Not only is the balance between work and life a fool’s errand—it might not be a worthy goal at all.
Why We Have No “Work-Life Balance”
Writing in Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life, Wharton professor and leadership adviser Stewart D. Friedman believes there’s a fundamental misconception out there about the costs of success:
Many people believe that to achieve great things we must make brutal sacrifices; that to succeed in work we must focus single-mindedly, at the expense of self, family, and society. Even those who reject the idea of a zero-sum game fall prey to a kind of binary thinking revealed by the term we use to describe the ideal lifestyle: work/life balance.
Friedman thinks it’s harmful to promote this forced separation between our “work” selves and our “life” selves. Not only is the tidy partitioning between the two impossible, it also confuses the issue.
What we really want is harmony:
Work/life balance is a misguided metaphor for grasping the relationship between work and the rest of life; the image of the scale forces you to think in terms of trade-offs instead of the possibilities for harmony. And the idea that “work” competes with “life” ignores the more nuanced reality of our humanity. It ignores the fact that “life” is actually the intersection and interaction of the four domains of life: work or school; home or family; community or society; and the private realm of mind, body, and spirit. Of course, you can’t have it all—complete success in all the corners of your life, all at the same time. No one can. But even though it can seem impossible to bring these four domains into greater alignment, it doesn’t have to be impossible. Conflict and stress aren’t inevitable. Harmony is possible.
Friedman says we should be seeking out four-way wins, actions that promote harmony in all four domains of life. The four domains, again, are:
- work or school
- home or family
- community or society
- mind, body, spirit
So instead of raging about how we can’t get the four different domains in perfect “balance,” we should instead be looking at ways to create wins in two or more domains at once:
- Could you negotiate a partial work-from-home arrangement so you can spend more time at home with young kids? Work + Home/Family
- Could your work sponsor a local charity or nonprofit using employees as volunteers? Work + Community/Society
- Could you find a new route home from work that gets you into the gym for 30 minutes a day? Work + Body/Spirit
The elusive four-way win could take the form of starting an agile lifestyle business—work from home, spend more time with family, prevent burnout, get more involved with your community.
I strongly believe that the alternative to the harmful work-life balance myth is work-life integration.
It’s finding ways to acknowledge that you will spend most of your waking adult life at work—and integrating that reality with leading a fulfilled, meaningful existence in all facets of your life.
The Three Be’s of Work-Life Integration
Friedman’s system, the one he teaches in his Total Leadership program, revolves around the three Be’s: be real, be whole, and be innovative.
What does he mean? Again, from Leading the Life You Want:
To be real is to act with authenticity by clarifying what’s important to you. It’s about exploring your answer to this basic question: What matters most to me in my life? To be whole is to act with integrity by recognizing how the different parts of your life affect each other. This involves identifying who matters most to you at work, at home, and in the community; understanding what you need from each other; and seeing whether and how these needs mesh or don’t mesh. All this examination allows you to be innovative. You act with creativity by experimenting with how things get done in ways that are good for you and for the people around you. You learn how to take small steps aimed at scoring four-way wins: improved performance at work, at home, in the community, and for your private self (mind, body, and spirit).
Taken together, Friedman’s three Be’s act as a kind of safeguard against living the schizophrenic/inauthentic lives we’ve become accustomed to living.
Since the division between work and home, career and life are largely illusory anyway, Friedman says we have to find a way to act in the world that integrates these different spheres into one cohesive life.
Here’s a sampling from Leading the Life You Want of how the three Be’s play out when you apply them to your life:
KNOW WHAT MATTERS.
You know how important each of the different aspects of your life is to you. Your high self-awareness enables you to understand clearly describe the value of each of the roles you play—work, spouse, parent, sibling, son or daughter, friend, or citizen. You are also able to see the bigger picture, in which all your different roles in life contribute to your vision of the future.
EMBODY VALUES CONSISTENTLY.
You are able to be yourself wherever you are, wherever you go. You act in ways that are consistent with your core values. You have taken the time to get comfortable in your own skin. This confidence allows you to be yourself wherever you are. Rather than conform to external pressures, you rely on your internal compass to guide your words and deeds. Rather than bend to social pressures, you make choices that match your values, and you are not afraid to share your opinions.
ALIGN ACTIONS WITH VALUES.
You make choices about how to spend your time and energy in ways that match what you really care about. This skill allows you to think about your goals so that you have a clear understanding of them, making it easier for you to prioritize. You understand how what you do each day fits with your values, so you are able to persevere when things get rough. You also know when and how to say no. You do not let feelings of guilt force you to take on things that are not true to what you stand for.
Being real has a lot to do with integrity: Do you embody the same values in the work sphere and the life sphere?
For instance, if you’re a committed environmentalist, can you rationalize working for a company that harms natural habitats and promotes unsustainable practices?
If you believe in everyone getting a fair shake, can you justify working for a financial organization intent on skimming money from unsuspecting 401(k) contributors?
Being real forces you to confront the inconsistencies in your expressed values and your lived experience.
It’s the supposedly minor hypocrisies that get you in the end.
MANAGE BOUNDARIES INTELLIGENTLY.
You are able to delineate and maintain boundaries between the different parts of your life. you not only know when to merge the different aspects of your life, but you also know when to segment, or separate, them. You are able to decide when it is beneficial to create boundaries that allow for concentration on a single goal or responsibility. …
WEAVE DISPARATE STRANDS.
You are able to weave together the pieces of your life so that it has coherence. You view the different aspects of your life as interconnected in a way that is mutually enriching. You see how your different roles complement each other. You have a sense that all aspects of your life are integral parts of who you are; they all fit together as one. You understand how the various parts you play enable you to realize your vision.
Work-life integration isn’t synonymous with working all the time, just as the freedom of work anywhere, anytime is undermined if you work everywhere, everytime.
The point is, you can set up intelligent boundaries between work, family, and personal time. If even the President of the United States can find time to review his day and work out in peace, us mere mortals can surely do it too.
CHALLENGE THE STATUS QUO.
You challenge traditional assumptions about how things are done, experimenting to make things better whenever possible. You are not constrained by conventions about how others think things should be done. Rather than follow the pack, you are willing to think and act like a rogue. You are not overly concerned about how others will perceive you. Instead, you are willing to step out on a limb to find a creative solution to the challenges you face.
SEE NEW WAYS OF DOING THINGS.
You are willing to question old habits and innovate in managing life’s demands. You do not allows long-standing routines to dictate how you live your life. You are willing to try new approaches to see whether there are opportunities for greater performance in, and cohesiveness between, the different aspects of your life. You are willing to question your behaviors and to experiment with creative solutions for managing day-to-day as well as long-term goals.
EMBRACE CHANGE COURAGEOUSLY.
You look forward to change—seeing it as an opportunity—rather than fear it. You embrace opportunities for personal development. Rather than follow a strictly defined path, you realize that life takes unexpected twists and turns. You are confident that you will be able not only to survive the unexpected but also to thrive in new circumstances.
Once you live a lean, nimble, integrated lifestyle, your capacity to respond to change increases too. And that’s the crux of personal agility.
The world is changing faster than ever. Technology—ubiquitous telecommunications in a globally-connected, 24-hour world—isn’t going away, nor are we go back to the old days anytime soon.
Learning how to change with the times and seize new opportunities requires seeing things in new ways. You can’t outsource innovation.
But Remember: Magic Happens at the Extremes
There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.
― Alain de Botton, philosopher
There is a counterpoint to all this. And it’s actually presented by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan in The One Thing.
It’s the idea that in order to lead a successful, fulfilling life, you will need to be unbalanced at times.
To do something extraordinary requires extraordinary focus.
And the idea that you can be perfectly in “work-life balance” while pursuing something extraordinary is faulty and leads to guilt or mediocrity:
The problem with living in the middle is that it prevents you from making extraordinary time commitments to anything. In your effort to attend to all things, everything gets shortchanged and nothing gets its due. Sometimes this can be okay and sometimes not. Knowing when to pursue the middle and when to pursue the extremes is in essence the true beginning of wisdom. Extraordinary results are achieved by this negotiation with your time.
The reason we shouldn’t pursue balance is that the magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the extremes.
Keller’s quote is a useful reminder that although your life may be unbalanced now—for work, for health, whatever the case may be—the key is that your unbalanced state should be temporary.
If it isn’t temporary, if unbalance has become a permanent fixture of your life—well, that’s when you have a problem. That’s a sign you’re heading for burnout.
But in order to have massive impact you need massive effort. There’s no getting around it.
Balance can’t be an excuse for mediocrity.