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  • Balance

    The Fallacy of Work-Life Balance

    Photo of Erik Reagan

    by Erik Reagan


    Work-Life Bal­ance. It’s an often mys­ti­cal tar­get for many. The idea most peo­ple have is that of a two-sided scale. The weight of one side must equal the weight of the oth­er side to achieve ​“bal­ance” prop­er­ly. In the­o­ry that would mean you per­fect­ly bal­ance ​“work” and ​“life” over­all. This is the Bal­ance Equation.

    This word pic­ture is dan­ger­ous­ly inaccurate.

    The ini­tial con­cern I have with ​“Work-Life Bal­ance” as a phrase is that it implies that Work and Life are sep­a­rate things. Isn’t Work just part of your Life? Con­sid­er­ing that fact, how can you bal­ance one thing that is a part of a larg­er thing? You can’t. So what is it we’re try­ing to balance?

    In essence what peo­ple try to bal­ance is often a mix­ture of Work, Fam­i­ly, and Me. (“Work-Fam­i­ly-Me Bal­ance” just doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it?) Work is the stuff you do — wait for it — at work. Fam­i­ly could be your spouse, chil­dren, sib­lings, par­ents, extend­ed fam­i­ly, and close friends. "Me" is, in essence, the time you spend on and for your­self. Dif­fer­ent peo­ple crave each of these things in dif­fer­ent sizes and ways.

    Now that we’ve prop­er­ly iden­ti­fied the things we want to bal­ance, let’s talk about the keyword itself: Balance.

    Going back to the open­ing word pic­ture, it’s easy to think of this like that two-sided (or three-sided now) scale. The prob­lem is that you can be led to think you’re sup­posed to keep them equal all the time. That’s the ulti­mate goal of a ​“bal­anced life”, right? Well, I think that’s a pret­ty crap­py goal in life. Here’s why.

    Life is flu­id. It changes and evolves. You know this. I know this. If we aim to keep Work, Fam­i­ly, and Me bal­anced equal­ly all the time, we’re set­ting our­selves up for dis­ap­point­ment. And when you’re work­ing toward goals, hav­ing fre­quent dis­ap­point­ment can be detri­men­tal to main­tain­ing con­sis­tent effort toward them. If you’re not sure how your life could be so flu­id that it would throw off your bal­ance, con­sid­er the fol­low­ing possibilities:

    • You expe­ri­ence a major ill­ness or lose a fam­i­ly member
    • You bat­tle depres­sion which comes and goes in waves
    • You have a baby (which changes every­thing, if you aren’t aware)
    • Your busi­ness goes through a real­ly rough patch (most­ly applic­a­ble if you own the business)
    • You specif­i­cal­ly go through a real­ly rough patch at work

    I could go on. The point is that we all have major life events that could impact the bal­ance of time we spend at Work, with Fam­i­ly, and on Me. How is some­one sup­posed to keep these three things bal­anced amidst things like this? You can’t. That’s where the aware­ness of Sea­sons becomes incred­i­bly important.

    We will all go through Sea­sons in life where cer­tain areas need more atten­tion and ener­gy. Maybe we need to invest more ener­gy into Work to save a por­tion, or all, of the busi­ness. Maybe we need to invest more ener­gy into Fam­i­ly because of a major ill­ness or try­ing to save a mar­riage that’s on the fringe of falling apart. Maybe we need to invest more ener­gy into our­selves because we’ve burnt out from exert­ing all of our ener­gy into oth­er things and people.

    We all go through Sea­sons. Some Sea­sons are short­er than oth­ers. Some are more com­fort­able than oth­ers. The key is being aware that they come and go and know­ing what type of Sea­son you’re cur­rent­ly in.

    Accept­ing the exis­tence of Sea­sons means you accept the fal­la­cy of the Bal­ance Equa­tion. There is no equal sign with two val­ues on each side try­ing to equal one another.

    A New Pic­ture of Balance

    Have you ever watched young chil­dren learn to crawl, walk, and run? At each stage they have to learn skills that they didn’t pre­vi­ous­ly have. Through­out the process you can watch them get into a posi­tion and try to hold it. It’s fun to watch.

    I remem­ber my daugh­ter pulling up on our couch to help her stand up. The look of intrigue and brav­ery when she let go of the couch to stand on her own was a fun sight. She would stand there and see how long she could hold her­self up before falling down.

    She was learn­ing to balance.

    After learn­ing to bal­ance while stand­ing still, she start­ed tak­ing a step or two. Once this entered the equa­tion she need­ed to learn a new type of bal­ance. This was the bal­ance required while walk­ing. Nat­u­ral­ly she’d fall over while learn­ing. But she’d get back up and keep going.

    This is the word pic­ture I think of when I talk about bal­anc­ing one’s life.

    At first, we kin­da suck at bal­anc­ing things. We have to prac­tice it. We often need to see some­one else doing it so we know what it looks like. Then, as we prac­tice, we begin to get bet­ter at bal­anc­ing. We may still fall from time to time but we know how to get back up. Occa­sion­al­ly we lose our bal­ance because we’re exhaust­ed, so rather than get up imme­di­ate­ly we just chill out on the floor a bit. But the key is that we know what stand­ing and walk­ing looks like so we know how to get there again.

    There is no such thing as work-life bal­ance. Every­thing worth fight­ing for unbal­ances your life.

    Alain de Botton

    How is your bal­ance right now?

    Have you seen this type of Work-Per­son­al-Me bal­ance in some­one else?

    Are you in the crawl­ing stage? Walk­ing? Running?

    Have you recent­ly lost bal­ance and need to get back up?

    Give it some thought.

    Opening Photo by Loic Leray on Unsplash

    Photo of Erik Reagan

    Written by Erik Reagan