February 19, 2019

The work-life balance myth

Do you ever feel that your work has taken over your life?

As our professional lives have gotten busier — with a greater tendency than ever before to infringe upon personal time — pushback is understandable.

Much of this pushback comes in the form of advocacy (by ourself and others important to us) that we find a way to restore the balance between our work and personal lives.  Work-life balance.

I don’t know about you, but I actually have just one life.  It has aspects that are largely professional, and aspects that are largely personal, but it’s all important to me. It’s all me.

Sometimes this life feels like all work, all the time.  My professional schedule gets consuming, leaving little time for anything else.

And sometimes I can really unplug and just enjoy the things that matter to me outside of work.  But rarely is there anything that resembles the static equilibrium implied by “work-life balance.”

The balance myth

Think about the idea of work-life balance.  It implies a steady state in a world that at times can be very unsteady.  Consider a seesaw.  When we strive for balance, we aim to strike a level balance point where work doesn’t cross over into personal, and personal doesn’t cross over into work.

If you think about it, this is a pretty abnormal and impractical concept.  Go back to the playground for a minute.  A true steady state on the seesaw means there’s a bully on the opposite end holding his or her side down, and holding you up in the air.  If you’re holding up your end?  You might be the bully (to yourself AND others).

The case for work-life integration

A more natural state is fluid and flexible.  Sometimes one end of the seesaw is approaching the ground, and at other times it is rising into the air.  At any one moment, either side could be rising, but there is fluidity and flexibility.  When one side must tighten its grip (say, during budgeting season at work), the other slackens.  But this can play out in reverse as well, such as when you have a family illness to deal with and work must move to the back burner.

This is work-life integration, a term I learned from a dear friend.  It implies more flexible delineations between work and life … and it resonates with me because work and personal time are both important to me, and part of me.

You need to work on a Saturday because it means Tuesday will be less painful?  This doesn’t necessarily mean your work-life balance is shot.  It’s a practical solution that helps you retain your sanity.  Don’t feel bad about it.

The truth is, work-life balance can sometimes be one more impossible standard to which we hold ourselves, making failure and the accompanying guilt inevitable.

One final point about balance and integration.  I have a number of clients who say to me, “Everyone thinks I don’t have good work-life balance, but what I am doing works for me at this time in my life.”  My response to them is, “You are the expert in you, and if it’s working, you get to decide that.  Let’s just check on your sense of your own health, well-being, rest and relationships.  If you feel like they are all thriving, you are probably doing it right for this season.”  I do encourage a regular self-check on those issues, and checking with those closest to you, but in the end, you are the only one who gets to decide if you are in balance.

Making time for yourself

None of this is intended to say it’s no big deal if your work encroaches routinely on nights and weekends, eats up time you might spend at the gym, with family or sleeping, or hurts your relationships and your health.  If this is the case for you, you definitely need a reset (perhaps start with 15 signs you’re exhausted and 10 things to do about it).  You might want to explore ideas like building white space into your calendar, developing a practice of deliberate rest and giving yourself permission to say no (so you have more room to say yes to things you care about).

But what works for one person does not always work for another, and when pressure to balance your life becomes its own kind of overwhelming task, it’s time for a different way of thinking about work, life and how we spend our time.

Does the idea of work-life integration resonate with you?

And what does healthy work-life integration look like for your life?  Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Last updated February 19, 2019