Why Chasing Work-Life Balance Does Not Work

Work Life Balance

I hear a lot about work-life balance. Frankly, it makes me feel guilty. I feel like there is a project I have not done. I need to get on it. It makes me feel as if I am living life wrong. I read the articles about how to balance my work and my life, and I have no desire to do what they suggest. Am I a bad person? Or, is it possible the authors of all this wisdom start with some bad assumptions?

A. What is Work-Life Balance

I have been trying to work-life balance. But what is work? What is life? Are they really two different things? I mean – when I am working, am I dead? Or am I still alive?

What do we even mean when we say “work-life balance”? Not that I can know what everyone means, but I am pretty sure much of this talk is out of fear.

Fear of being a workaholic and never think about anything but work.

Fear of bringing our work home.

Fear of bringing our home to work.

All may be valid concerns. We all need some boundaries in life. At the very least we need boundaries with people. (Henry Cloud’s book Boundaries is a must read on this topic.)

But I get the sense these people who talk about work-life balance want us to have some kind of a mental scrubber that erases our brain as we walk out of our office heading home. Is this even possible?

B. How Do They Suggest We Balance Work and Life

I know, I am using the dreaded “they” word – but I guess I mean the collective wisdom about work. I constantly hear my graduate students in engineering management say they need to develop more work-life balance – so the message is out there. When I hear others say they need more work-life balance – I ask what they mean. Here are some common answers:

“I need to not take work home.”
“When I leave the office, I need to leave it all there and not take it home with me.”
“I need to leave the office on time.”
“When I am with family, I need to be present.” (which I think means pay attention to them)
“When I am working, I need to quit thinking about home and family issues.” (which I think means to keep your mind on work)

I guess all of these are good in theory  – but are they really practical?

C. Why Work-Life Balance is Wrong

First, we have to face it, our work is part of who we are.

I know we live in a time where you are not supposed to identify yourself with your work. I remember being told that when I meet someone new, I am not supposed to ask them what they do.

Why not? Are they ashamed of what they do? Would they rather do something else? Or is their life massively interesting without their work? So if you cannot ask what you do – what do I ask you? (Where did you get those cool shoes?)

But I Hate My Job

A lot of people just hate their job. Survey results show that in the United States – arguably the freest country in the world – over 50% of the people do not like their work. Really? So is that why they are ashamed of what they do? Is that why they need balance?

We are defined by what we do.

Face it – whether we like our work or not – we are defined by what we do. Doctors, lawyers, CPAs, engineers, clerks, welders, … you name it … we are defined by what we do for a living. This is nothing to be ashamed of (if it is, you need to start rethinking how to find the work you will love to call your own)

We Need to Work Less – but Not for Balance

We wear businesses like a badge of honor. But, that does not mean we are getting anything done. In fact, often the most productive people work less – or at least they appear to be working less. I know in my job as an Associate Dean, I am often solving problems or trying to come up with strategy. As much as I would like to believe I can go sit in the office and start to strategize – it does not work. In fact, I often solve the problems while with family, while driving, or even while sleeping. Sure, if my job was to ring up customers, ship product out the door, or answer the phone, it would be hard for me to be productive when not at work. But for those of us in the “knowledge work” business, we need space to solve problems. Space is where creativity happens.

I used to feel guilty about this – thinking I needed to work more or show up more for meetings etc. But in reality – little of that produces results. Sometimes less truly is more.

D. What should we do instead?

The real issue is not about work-life balance, but where are we spending our time. It is not a juggling act. When I am at home with my wife and kids, I am often thinking about work. In fact, my wife and my kids want to know some things about what I do – that is part of knowing me. They often inspire me to a new idea about a company or my work. I may not act on that – but I am certainly thinking about it. I might even jot some notes down to myself about the idea. I might ask others to help me think through it right on the spot. Their outside perspective on my work actually helps me.

The same thing happens when I am at work. I am often thinking of my family. Again, ideas hit me and I may even act on them.

The Freedom Goal

The one thing we want in our culture more than money is freedom. The freedom to do the work you love and work where you want and when you want drives many to an entrepreneurial lifestyle or to specific jobs that allow them a lifestyle of freedom.

If you get this freedom, what do you need to balance? Me personally, I am always working and thinking about work. As well, I am always thinking about and being with my family.

This sounds a lot more like priorities than balance. It is not work-life balance – it is making the decision about how we spend our time on our priorities.

 

If you hate your job or have developed a workaholic mentality – then go after the work-life balance and take action. But, if you are seeking freedom – where you love what you do and are proud of the way you serve the world, forget balance – instead just be who you are. Set some priorities and goals in your life and start taking action to live life. It is not a balancing act like a circus performance – it is about paying attention to what matters and living at the moment. You have enough to do without having a balancing act to add to the day.