Anxiously seeking work/life balance? Give up. You’re bound to fail. You’re bound to fail because you’re framing the problem the wrong way. The phrase itself is a false dichotomy. It’s not work OR life, it’s just life, and work can and should be as much a part of making it rich and fulfilling as all the other aspects of life. Chasing the mistaken idea of work/life balance won’t make you happier.
I don’t mean work should be fulfilling in a “do what you love and the money will follow” kind of way. Unfortunately, I don’t believe it’s realistic to expect everyone will have a job for which they are perfectly suited to as an individual, one that taps into their unique abilities and passions. That would be nice, but probably isn’t realistic. I don’t think work needs to meet this unrealistically high bar in order to be a fulfilling part of your life. Anna Quindlen got the emphasis wrong when she said,
Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work. … The second is only part of the first.”
I’m guessing she said this at a graduation ceremony. A small refactoring of her second sentence would fix it up just fine, however. Substitute “a big” for “only”, and I think it’s spot-on.
A first order approximation of work’s significance is that it represents half of your adult life. Once you’re out of childhood and through your education, you get about 88 hours a week after sleeping, eating, and personal hygiene. That means typical work hours for a lot of jobs are pushing 50% of your discretionary time. Thinking about this strictly from a systems perspective, I’d say you’re making the job of living a happy life much more difficult if you write-off work as a potential source of satisfaction, accomplishment, creativity, and fulfillment. That is exactly what the phrase “work/life balance” seems to me to imply, and why I don’t like it.
To work is human
I think human beings are deeply wired to create value, to bring order from chaos, to husband resources responsibly, and to create a buffer between survival and death through work. Modern social and governmental structures isolate us a bit from this, but as a species, these factors are only very recent. We’ve got a lot more history when laziness or irresponsibility or lack of collaboration meant starvation, and not just having to cancel the cable TV. Work, and specifically, working together, means being able to feed, clothe, house, and protect yourself and your family. Work is a necessary ingredient to effectively passing your genes along, and hence a powerfully selected behavior.
Even in the case where work is not something that inspires you (you’re an artist, but you work in a restaurant), it still can and should be a source of fulfillment. Any job can provide a sense of meaning (you’re supporting yourself and maybe others), service (other people rely on you), satisfaction (you do your job well), social interaction (fellow employees, customers, kids), growth (learning, getting better at your job, refinement), sacrifice (earning future opportunities and rewards), and accomplishment (you start and finish something).
What about balance?
Balance is important. Very important. Speaking as a person who periodically gets out-of-balance, I wouldn’t want to throw the balance baby out with the false dichotomy bathwater. The trouble with the “work/life balance” meme is that it puts into opposition two things that are really part of one thing, not that it points out the importance of balance. I find it much more useful to consider how balance is maintained in my life along dimensions where there actually is opposition and a tradeoff.
Some of the balances I feel are important to pay attention to include:
- working for yourself vs working for others
- time with family vs time with friends
- time alone vs time with others
- idle time vs busy time
- giving vs getting
- creating vs maintaining
- aspirational commitments vs follow-through
- starting vs finishing
- sacrifice vs selfishness
- brain work vs muscle work
- desire to help vs time to help
- spiritual vs material
- short-term vs long-term
- urgent vs important
- starting new ventures vs optimizing current ones
- abstract vs concrete
- low risk vs high risk
- the comfort of the known vs the stress of the new
- doing for myself vs hiring others to do for me
Balancing your life along the dimensions above is a lot more complicated than segregating “work” from “life” and leaving every day at 5pm. On the other hand, counting up to 40 and expecting to magically find balance seems to me naive. Taking half of our adult life off the table when it comes to maintaining balance makes the problem harder to solve, not easier–you have a lot more to work with if you balance across work, hobbies, family, friends, groups, and service.
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MadhuApril 27, 2012
Great article! And for me, the timing is perfect…. I was thinking about how work is a huge part of my life, and what should I be doing to balance it with “life”. But, just couldn’t do it satisfactorily.
Reframing the question seems like the way to go. I’ll definitely give this a shot!
Carl EricksonApril 28, 2012
Thanks, Madhu. Hope it’s helpful. It’s a hard problem, for sure. Hopefully thinking about it differently will be useful.
Chris YehApril 30, 2012
The responsibility for how you live your life is
always remains with the individual. We are fortunate to live in a
time/place where we have agency over our own lives (at least as adults),
and we should never willingly give up that agency.
While it’s true that balance should be simply a matter of time
accounting, and that you should try to design your work so that it helps
bring you fulfillment and meaning, the fact is that time accounting is
important. If you spend 80 hours per week at the office, I guarantee
that your personal relationships will suffer.
You should seek both a sensible schedule *AND* fulfilling, meaningful work. It’s not an either/or.
Carl EricksonApril 30, 2012
The extreme cases are interesting to consider. I too can’t imagine a balanced life spent 80 hours in the office. Nor can I imagine a balanced life spending 0 hours creating value, building, solving problems, and bringing order to chaos (aka working).
Couldn’t agree more that it’s not either/or.
BrettMay 1, 2012
I particularly like the list of balances to pay attention to – those are really useful. There’s quite a good discussion of your article going on in this LinkedIn group if you’re interested in chiming in: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Work-Life-Balance-4214303.S.111319562?qid=27e80727-030e-47a6-9c91-1e45857ab459
Carl EricksonMay 1, 2012
Nice to see that, Brett. Thanks for the heads up.
Andrea DiCastroMay 1, 2012
I really liked your perspective. i have been struggling with the definition of work/life balance for a long time and only recently changed my thinking more to what I really wanted which was a diversified life. I love working and have been known to be a workaholic and noticed when it gets really out of balance is when I am the crankiest and least productive and creative. Work is a big part of my life but I also need time for family, friends, travel, exercise, play time etc. Simply put I need a lot of variations and if day in and day is the same for to long of a period then my life is out of balance… Work is part of me and always will be but so is a lot of other things…
Carl EricksonMay 1, 2012
Andrea, I love this dimension you’ve identified: diversity. Really important in my life, as well.
Eli GottliebMay 2, 2012
The problem is that your “just-so” story about the role of work in human existence is simply wrong. We evolved to work a lot LESS than we do today. 50 hours/week for 50 weeks/year with 8-10 national holidays is far, far more than most people worked prior to the advent of capitalism.
Carl EricksonMay 2, 2012
Really? Do you have some references to suggest for understanding that better? It seems quite unlikely to me, but I’m certainly no expert in the subject and would be very curious to learn more. It seems to me that the economic leverage provided by modern economies means less overall time that people need to work, not more.
Kate KentMay 5, 2012
Great statement that “human beings are deeply wired to create value, to bring order from chaos, to husband resources responsibly, and to create a buffer between survival and death through work.”
I’m retired but it remains important to me to make the effort to accomplish things. Do I ever get through the entire list? No, not usually but it’s a place to start. Just sitting around is not an option! The Anna Quindlen quote (amended to reflect your point of view) was much better after you adjusted it. Work is a natural, important part of life. Even in my former life as a State employee, I was occasionally surprised to feel a sense of importance through my work (I was just a cog in the big wheel). I don’t miss the grind, overwhelming volume, long days, never-finished and ever-in-flux nature of State work; it is different now, to bear sole responsibility for creating that “important” feeling through the way my days are spent but the desire to be useful, helpful, use my brain etc. (the sorts of things on your list) remains. That most of us aren’t happy unless we’re busy doing something is no accident, hey? It’s all about the wiring! So interesting. I enjoyed reading your reflections on this topic, Carl.
Carl EricksonMay 22, 2012
This is a great perspective to share, Kate. Thank you. I had actually cut from an earlier draft several examples that I think illustrate the point that humans are wired this way. One of those was how much people who “retire” end up doing and contributing to.
Paul DoyleMay 6, 2012
This is really good Carl. …provoking though, reflection, agreement or dissent. There is some powerful stuff here.
One of the threads I am drawn to is the importance of recognizing we live in a reality of scarcity, requiring trade-offs. We have choices to make, and we make them all the time, whether we recognize them as choices or not. My concern is the latter condition is too often the case.
Gonna be thinking about this some more. Thanks!
Carl EricksonMay 22, 2012
Hi Paul. Scarcity of the only commodity that really matters (time), yet abundance of opportunity for how to spend that time. I guess it’s that mismatch that makes it challenging, even when we forget and stop making conscious choices.
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Zach TolanMay 21, 2012
Thanks for the wonderful read! It’s a topic I’ve struggled with a lot and never realized was a false dichotomy… It was so nice to hear about it from someone who actually had fresh perspective on what seems like a topic as old as time… It wasn’t until looking at some comments below that I realized who wrote it! Keep up the good thinking!
Carl EricksonMay 22, 2012
Thanks, Zach. Glad you enjoyed the post.
MaevespOctober 29, 2012
The phrase work/life balance was coined with women with children in mind. Research has found that while men see work and life as one women see it as too distinct arenas. Maybe that’s because overwhelmingly children and other forms of care are still seen to be women’s work, and work that cannot be taken into the workplace. So women see they have two arenas in which they need to do work that are competing against each other for their time and attention. I do agree that writing work out of the equation does not lead to more satisfaction but less. I don’t agree that we should posit that work and life should not be pitched against each other, because for many people this is not something within their reach.
Carl EricksonOctober 29, 2012
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. While I certainly have been reading a lot about work/life balance and women lately, I hadn’t ever thought of the phrase itself being created with women in mind.
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jrullmannDecember 31, 2012
I love this thought:
“…human beings are deeply wired to create value…”
This wiring is what makes work/life balance an unattainable goal. We can’t simply stop working once we leave the office, because we have an inner drive to accomplish things. And because we think we’re not supposed to be working we feel guilty and overworked. What a shame!
We have an incredible diversity of opportunities for creating value. We can do it by improving our gardens, raising our kids, discussing philosophy with friends, etc. Let’s put that work on a pedestal, where it belongs. Let’s celebrate the diversity of ways we can create value. Then our discussion can change from work/life balance to diversity in our lives. I can’t help but think that we would feel much happier and lead richer lives with that discussion.
GreatNotBigJanuary 13, 2013
I love the way you put this, and couldn’t agree more about diversity of value creation being the more valuable way to look at it. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
BobJanuary 20, 2013
Hmm. This is entirely directed though towards the talented, intelligent, good-looking, well-situated etc. For the great majority of us who are none of these things, the truth is that work is a torment and waste-of-precious-lifetime that we exchange for money.
Those of you who are more fortunate may not quite believe this, but it’s demonstrably true. *We* all quit work the moment we can: when we retire, win the lottery, get some kind of sickness benefit, marry someone wealthy etc. You don’t notice this, because we’re invisible. We clean your offices, serve your food etc.
I’ll stick with work-life balance, where that means keeping working hours as short as possible, so as to live as fully as possible in self-owned time.
GreatNotBigJanuary 21, 2013
Thanks for the contrary viewpoint, Bob.
I don’t agree that getting satisfaction from your work, whatever it is, requires unusual talent, intelligence, good-looks, or being well-situated.
But for the sake of argument, do you think the people who live according to your strategy are as happy as they would have been had they found a way to make work a source of satisfaction?
BobJanuary 21, 2013
@GreatNotBig:twitter I don’t know anyone for whom work being “a source of satisfaction” is an option, so it’s a moot point. For many (most?) of us, work is an imposition, which we deal with as we must, by grinning-and-bearing until it goes away.
No amount of “strategising” alters the basic fact that most work is, by its nature, crap work that the economy demands be done, by someone. The most talented/intelligent (etc) scramble over the pile in order that they don’t need to do it. That inherently leaves a multitude for whom the idea of work providing ‘satisfaction’ (as opposed to just housing, food etc) is just not relevant. Indeed many Western countries (the US, Australia, Canada) import people for this very purpose. Most human imports are of course in a way ‘happy’ to do the work as a means out of more extreme poverty. But it doesn’t provide a scintilla of intrinsic satisfaction, and they’d dump it the moment they could afford to.
Chris JohnsonJanuary 18, 2019
Thank you Carl! Your articles and those written by others in your company have been educational and inspirational to me. As I consider taking a larger role in my company and possibly one day starting a company of my own, your insight is invaluable!