The Lunacy of Chasing “Work-Life Balance”
Well-meaning self-help gurus bombard us with advice telling us we need to strive for “work-life balance”. I believe that this is flawed advice. This post will explain why I think that the advice is flawed, and what I think we should strive for instead. Because striving to achieve this mythical balance may do more harm than good.
Even if I don’t agree with the term, I will admit that there is a stark reality, a deep reason there is so much attention given to the concept of striving for work/life balance.
Huge numbers of people (most!) people in the workforce are miserable. And if you are miserable at work, it will be very hard to live a happy life full of meaning. What happens at work bleeds over into your personal life, and vice versa. We cannot break life down into neat little compartments like that.
So if you are — like so many people — unhappy at work and wishing your time away, you are in fact living an unhappy life and wishing it away. And if you do that, you need to stop. Seriously, please stop! And take action to improve the situation. Because you only have one life to live. And you are the only person that can fix it.
Trading 5 days of your life for 2 days off with the occasional vacation thrown in is a terrible deal. It is essential to have work contribute positively to your life, rather than have it detract from it and prevent you from living the life that you desire.
Before I present my critique of the concept of work/life balance, I feel I should make one quick clarification. I am definitely not advocating for the “grind” or “hustle” culture that is so pervasive in the modern world of work. While “hustle” might move you ahead (and might sometimes be required!), “hustling” all the time is a recipe for disaster in the long-run.
You need to build a career that is sustainable over the long-haul. A career is much more like a series of marathons than a sprint. Building a career that is sustainable over a period of the 40-years that you will be in the workforce means that you need to pace yourself, much like you would need to when running a marathon. Not that you can’t have periods of your career when you go like hell. But you can’t do that all the time. You will surely run into problems if you constantly run flat-out.
Back to the idea of “work/life balance”; I take exception with a couple of concepts of the term.
First, it seems to imply that there is a “work you” and a “life you”, and that you need to make trade-offs between the two. This is flawed. In reality, there is only one you. And how you are spending your time, whether it be at work or elsewhere, is how you are living your one and only precious life.
Second, the term includes the word “balance”, like the two should somehow be equal. That also seems quite wrong to me. We are not all the same, nor do we all have the same goals and objectives. We do not all want the same things. Some people may want their work to play a significant role in their lives, dedicating a lot of their time and attention to it for some period of their life. Others may wish to spend more of their time doing something else. Neither approach is wrong. This makes whole concept of balance feel wrong.
Instead, I propose we strive for “work/life integration”. This implies striving for an ideal state where work takes on as much of a role in our lives as we want it to. Different people at different stages of life want different things. We need to be aware of what it is we want, and then strive to structure our work in a way that supports those objectives. We need to change how we think about work; it should be more than something that we have to do. We can transform work into something that adds value not only to others, but to our own lives.
Work can make us richer in more ways than just the financial sense.
The key is to understand what you want. It shocks me how many people truly do not know what they want. This is such a problem! If you don’t know what it is you want, you definitely cannot start working towards it. That is just common sense. Yet — if you ask most people what they want, you will get a blank stare, or an off-the-cuff response that they have not taken the time to think through. You might hear what their parents or spouse told them they want. Or you might hear about the promotion that they think they want, even though they know that the work would make them miserable (when in reality they just think that they want the title and the money).
You must figure out what you want out of your work. And how big of a role you want it to play in your life.
And it is not just as simple as money. Sorry, but that is too easy. Almost everyone would like to have more money. In fact, if you try to shape your work life by pursuing money, there is a strong likelihood that you end up working at a job that will make you miserable. And spending a bunch of time at a job that makes you feel that way is not probably not the wisest path to pursue.
Take a few minutes and reflect — what would an ideal working day for you look like, if you could just remove all the perceived barriers that would prevent you from having days like this? What would you love to work on? Who would it be serving? What problems would you be solving? What tasks would you be doing? Where would you be doing those tasks? And with who? How much of your day would you allocate to work?
I am sure that some of you think you would just like to sit on a beach all day sipping margaritas. But — would you truly want that? If you mull over it, I am certain that the answer is that you would not. Doing nothing but relaxing all day long makes for a good travel brochure, but a horrible career. It might be nice for a week or two, but you would get bored. You would feel the need to do something that matters, to contribute to something of value. This need to do something meaningful is innate; there is no escaping it.
The trick is to leverage work that matters to you to fill this need. When you do, you will notice something extraordinary. Rather than feeling drained after work, it will surprise you to notice that doing your work can charge you up and leave you feeling energized and inspired. It may sound crazy. But it is possible! You will experience this if you put in the required effort to understand how you want work to add to your life, rather than to just detract from it, and you then take meaningful actions toward that goal.
Once you have imagined what an ideal day of work would look like for you, you may notice that you are quite far from where you would like to be. And that is okay! Now you have established something to strive for, and you can begin the journey of working towards that ideal. Let that striving fuel you. Achieving a goal feels great. Until you realize you have other goals to work on. But it is in making progress that you can feel genuinely content. So enjoy the journey.
Now that you know what an ideal work day looks life for you, start finding small ways to move yourself closer towards it. Start SMALL. And then pay attention. How did that change make you feel when you did it? You will feel it when you are moving closer to what you want. But you must pay attention to notice the subtle shifts in how you feel.
Remember that change always feels uncomfortable at first. Try it for a bit, be patient. Remember, you are running a marathon. So don’t expect to be at the finish line right away. Patiently make slight tweaks to your approach to work. Most people working in the knowledge economy today have some amount of flexibility to change how they work. Most people don’t try making changes. Because staying where you are and complaining about it is much easier. And then you never need to deal with the discomfort of change. But — you also never get the benefit of the change that way.
Deciding to change is hard. Sticking to it and seeing it through is even harder. But the only way to get something different from what you have is to try something different. It is not magic.
Just wishing for something to change will not get you there.
If the idea of redefining your relationship to work resonates with you, I encourage you to download our free guide to help you “Re-ignite your Career”. It lays out a clear roadmap for how to transform your work into something that adds value and meaning to your life. It has helped others and certainly will help you.
If you desire even more guidance, support, and help, I encourage you to check out our 1-on-1 coaching program. This program WILL reshape your relationship with work. It uses proven techniques to help you figure out what you want out of work and how to go about getting it. The program is affordable and includes access to the detailed Truity Big 5 personality test and report, as well as the full Clifton StrengthsFinder34 test and report. These detailed reports allow both you and me as your coach to better understand who you are and how you work. I use the information from these assessments to help shape our coaching conversations, allowing me to personalize the approach for maximum benefit. After our 1-on-1 coaching sessions, I walk you through a personalized career transformation roadmap that helps you get where you are trying to go.
So that you can stop dreading Monday morning. And start enjoying work again. Life is simply too short to do otherwise.