Work Life Balance is Impossible
The nobler goal of life bucket integration
Attempts at “Work-Life Balance” are doomed before they start.
The term “balance” suggests there’s some invisible scale held aloft by Father Time on which we need to allocate grains of sand between our Work and Life buckets. Too much on one side, and the scale tips, sending us careening towards unemployment or a Pez-dispenser of Xanax.
Confronted with this dichotomy, we consume endless media clawing for a solution to our frenetic see-saw of priorities, looking around each corner for the One True Plan, which will deliver us to happy stasis.
Sometimes, we may stumble upon it, but the equilibrium never seems to last. We settle into the new routine as a well-oiled machine for a season, and then the wheels start to come off. Sand piles high on the work plate, and our daily sine-wave of caffeine and alcohol magnifies with it. After a midday cry in the bathroom or an I’m-totally-never-drinking-again-for-real-this-time weekend, we must admit the balance is broken and return to the trough of knowledge for a new solution.
There is no solution, though. The language we used to define the problem made it impossible to solve.
Words that Work by Frank Luntz is one of the few books that significantly changed how I think about the world.
Luntz is a political consultant who helps candidates and organizations use language to shift public opinion. His research has centered around how changing the words you use can shift the public consensus on whether or not to support an issue.
You likely use a term popularized by Luntz daily without knowing it: “Climate Change.”
When Luntz consulted for the Bush administration, “global warming” was a growing concern that the White House didn’t want to deal with. So Luntz suggested shifting from calling it “global warming,” which sounds scary, to calling it “climate change,” which at the time at least sounded much less intimidating. It was apparently luck that it ended up being the more accurate term anyway.
Luntz’s work is fascinating because it highlights how important language is for shaping our beliefs. If someone uses the right words on us, they can change how we feel about important topics without realizing it.
“When we are in love, we are not rational; we are emotional. ... my job is to look for the words that trigger the emotion. ... We know that words and emotion together are the most powerful force known to mankind." - Luntz.
The power of this realization extends well beyond Politics and well beyond trying to convince others to agree with us. By changing the language we use in our heads, we can radically shift our view of the world in the places it matters most.
The problem with “work-life balance” is the term “balance” itself.
When you hear “balance,” you immediately think of a dichotomy. For two things to be balanceable, they must be at odds with each other. Lowering one side of the scale must raise the other side.
When we describe work and life as things to be balanced, we are suggesting that work and life are at odds with each other. More time or energy allocated to work means less time and energy allocated to life.
This is obviously absurd, though. Work is just another part of life like family, community, food, fitness, creativity, travel, fun, spirituality, etc.
The question isn’t how do you balance work and life, but how do you create a healthy relationship among work and the various other important areas of life? You can make your own list of areas, but I rather like Anthony Gustin’s:
Framed in a list like this, it’s clear the problem isn’t work vs. life. Work is just part of a puzzle you’re trying to find the best way to fit together.
If a parent says, “my family is my life,” you don’t typically look down on them or think they have some sort of unhealthy obsession they can’t break out of. Their children bring immense meaning to their life, and you respect them for it. But if someone says, “my work is my life,” we treat it differently. Why?
We can get a clue for how it becomes a problem by thinking about when the Family focused person becomes concerning. If they have no hobbies, no friends, no creative outlet, or poor health, then we might be worried that they are overly focused on their family. We can say the same for work. When someone is so obsessed with their job that they don’t seem to have any of the other aspects of a full life outside of it, that’s when we get concerned. They don’t seem “balanced.”
But the “balance” term still feels inadequate because of how adversarially it frames the relationship. Our goal is not balance. It’s for each piece of our life puzzle to support the other pieces as much as possible. To see them as additive to the others, not subtractive. For the life buckets to be integrated, not separated.
By framing these various areas as priorities to be integrated, rather shuffled around, we can start asking more helpful questions. Many people see time allocated towards fitness as subtractive from a fun life. But is there some way for my physical health to support the other parts of my life better? I enjoy running, but training for a big race can be a huge time commitment that saps resources from other areas. Group sports and games can integrate more fun, relationships, and family than you get from solo exercise.
If it feels like work is adversarial to your life, is there some way to change it, so it better supports the other areas? I’ve found that working outside and thinking through articles on walks both help my work support my physical and mental health. Making friends at work or coworking with friends can help support relationships and fun.
I also find that the long-term enjoyment of activities depends on how many of the various areas they can integrate in a meaningful way. Fun activities that support your physical and mental health, creativity, and relationships, tend to be more enjoyable over long periods than fun activities that cost you physical and mental health. Time with your family is much more enjoyable if you incorporate fun, work, creativity, and fitness, instead of seeing it as taking away from those things.
The more buckets you can integrate, the more full the activities in your life will tend to feel. If you can have fun with your community in a creative way that’s not hard on your finances, you will get more long-term enjoyment than watching TV alone in your bedroom. There’s something about the integrated experience that’s just richer.
Work is not something to be balanced against everything else. It’s one of the many buckets in our life, sometimes the most important one if you’re hardwired that way, and something we should figure out how best to integrate with the other areas in a healthy, supportive way.
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