I’ve never really liked the term ‘work-life balance’. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never really understood what it means. It’s something that everyone seems to talk about, so I feel like I should know what it is. But I’ve never ‘got’ it. In any case, whatever it is, I’m pretty sure that I don’t have it. And I don’t know anyone who really does. Everyone always seems to want more of it, but is in a constant struggle to get it. Having ‘work-life balance’ seems to me to be a very desirable and highly prized, but ultimately unattainable, state of being.
After some reflection, I realised that the biggest problem I have with the term ‘work-life balance’ is that it separates work from life. So, you go to work, and then after work and before you next go to work is when you live your life. Huh? I recognise that I have a propensity to overthink things (and sometimes be a little too literal), and perhaps that this is a classic example of this, but for me ‘work’ has always felt like a very big part of my life. So it always felt a bit odd for me to try and balance two things when one was in fact part of the other. Of course, maybe ‘work-life balance’ was never meant to be about balancing work vs life, but about balancing the role/impact/demands of work within your life. But, it just never made sense to me. And ‘life’ seems like a rather generic ‘catch-all’ term to capture the diversity of interests, obligations, activities, and needs that people have or engage in when they’re not at work. ‘Work-life balance’ is an over-simplified and over-generalised term, and this over-simplification and over-generalisation is causing much confusion and frustration – leaving people constantly feeling that ‘work-life balance’ is something that they had failed, or were failing, to achieve.
The importance of the period over which we measure or consider ‘work-life balance’ is also often over-looked. This is a point that Nigel Marsh makes really clearly in his great 2010 TEDxSydney talk (check it out, it’s worth the watch!). A day is clearly too short a period to achieve ‘balance’ in our lives, but we also need to avoid falling into the trap of ‘when I retire, I’ll swim more / see the grandkids / take up that second language / travel / pay more attention to my wife…’ – it’s far too long a period. It’s something that Scott Belsky, founder of Behance and author of Making Ideas Happen, also mentions in this interview: “I have come to view balance not as a daily thing, but a periodic concept…. Balance is not achieved at any given point in time, only over time.” An awareness of the period over which you’re considering your (or other people’s) ‘work-life balance’ is essential, but not commonly considered.
On the subject of time… I think there is also a tendency to think about achieving ‘work-life balance’ in terms of balancing our diary (the how and where and with whom we spend our time). Specifically, time spent at work, and time spent doing other ‘life’ stuff. When we think or talk about ‘getting more work-life balance’ we’re often refering to increasing the time we spend on certain activities (eg. going to the gym 4 hours a week instead of once every month) or with certain people (eg. leaving work early one day a week so we can pick up our kids and take them to the park). There is that classic exercise where you’re encouraged to think about what’s really important to you (the if-you-had-72-hours-to-live test, or some variation of it) and then match that up with how you currently spend your time. It’s not that this reflection and prioritisation isn’t important or valuable, but it seems to create an impression that there is some formula or timetable or scheduling that one can implement to achieve ‘balance’. I’m pretty sure there’s not.
So, I’ve decided that I don’t believe in ‘work-life balance’. It’s a term that’s too simple, too vague, and too generic to be meaningful or useful. I think we need to stop worrying about how many hours are spent on each activity and trying to balance the timesheet. We need to stop thinking and talking about ‘work’ vs ‘life’ and instead we need to re-examine and re-articulate what ‘balance’ actually means.
Instead of ‘work-life balance’ I like to think in terms of ‘life well-being’. There are a number of different aspects that contribute to my overall ‘life well-being’. Importantly, these aren’t activities or obligations or people (like work, volunteering, family, education for example), but rather they are deeply personal, intrinsic needs (and these may vary from individual to individual). For me the areas are:
As this post has turned into a mini-essay, I’ve decided to split it into two parts… In the next part I’ll provide some more explanation about how I think about each of these aspects and the relationships between them, and why I think the approach of focusing on ‘life well-being’ rather than ‘work-life balance’ is more likely to lead to feelings of fulfillment, satisfaction and harmony.
What do you think about ‘work-life balance’? How do you use the term? What does it mean to you? Is it something you’ve achieved or are trying to achieve? How?