The Myth of the Work/Life Balance

I’m going to let you in a little secret here…  There is no such thing as a “work/life balance” – no matter how much all the pseudo-psychologists out there like to throw the term around in their self-help books and web articles!

Really, there are two problems with this notion.  First, it’s important to recognize that time is finite and that it’s impossible to work on both business and personal priorities at the same time.  You can’t simultaneously work late and attend a child’s soccer game – you’re either doing one or the other, at the expense of the other.  That isn’t balance – it’s consciously choosing one priority over another.

At the same time, pursuing work/life balance on the organizational level isn’t an effective approach either, as one person who chooses to focus more on the “life” part of the equation naturally creates a greater “work” burden on other members of the team.  Even if a company is committed to offering flexible hours to give employees more freedom, the same amount of work must be done – and that means that somebody’s picking up the slack (usually resentfully).

So why do we continue to press forward with this nonsense notion of a work/life balance – even when it’s obvious that there’s little in the way of rational reasoning to back it up?

In part, it’s out of guilt.  We’re all torn between work and competing responsibilities, whether those include growing children, aging parents or hobbies that occupy our interests.  However, there are plenty of different ways to balance these competing demands without doing so under the guise of the false work/life balance approach.

Consider the following approach for making changes in your life and managing competing priorities, without frustrating yourself over the unattainable myth of work/life balance:

Identify 3-5 top priorities

First of all, let’s get one thing straight – you can’t actually have it all.  There are only 24 hours in the day, so it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll have a great career, a growing family, a booming social life, great relationships with your family members and hobbies that you’re passionate about (at least, you can’t have all of these things at the same time).

But what you can do is to determine which of these priorities are most important to you and to protect the place they hold in your daily life.  For example, if you decide to balance both a career and young children, be aware that your social life or hobbies may need to suffer in order to give these dual aspirations your full attention.  If, on the other hand, your passion is travel, focusing on this priority will likely mean investing less time into relationships with family and friends.

There’s nothing wrong with recognizing that you can’t do it all.  Instead, by taking the time to choose the few priorities that you’ll focus on at the expense of others, you’ll free up more of your time and energy to invest in the things you do care about.

Define limits on how you’ll protect these priorities

Now, once you’ve identified your top life priorities, it’s up to you to defend these pursuits from other demands on your time.  As an example, if you’ve chosen to focus on your family over your career, setting a rule that you’ll leave the office by 5:00pm every night will help you keep yourself honest about the priorities you’ve set for yourself.

Obviously, any limits you set on your career will be influenced in part by the requirements of your job.  If you don’t have access to flexible scheduling, you may not be able to leave early enough to take part in all of your family’s activities.  Or, if your career is particularly demanding, you may run up against the expectation that you’ll work longer hours than everybody else in the office.

At the same time, though, you can set limits in other ways.  You can turn down projects or business dinner invitations that don’t require your specific involvement in order to focus on your other priorities.  Or, you can clear out time in your evening and weekend schedules in order to give your family your full, undivided attention (rather than sitting around with your face buried in your phone or laptop).

It isn’t always easy to align your daily activities with your defined priorities, but it’s the only way to ensure that you’re living your life in accordance with the principles that are most important to you.

Ensure your personal pursuits don’t infringe on others’ rights

Finally, as you go through the process of determining where your limits lie, pay close attention to how your decisions affect others.  Nobody has the right to pursue his own happiness at the direct expense of others, so it’s important that any limits you set still allow you to contribute your fair share to both your work and personal expectations.

If you plan to take advantage of flex scheduling at work, make sure that your tasks are completed on time and that you reciprocate by allowing others the same courtesy of leaving early on different days.  Or, if your pursuit of a personal hobby will take you away from your family, find a way to help with the burden of household responsibilities left on your partner.

Finding a balance between your work priorities and personal interests isn’t always easy, but with a little foresight and planning, it is possible to come up with a workable solution that allows you to live a more fulfilling and more meaningful life.

2 thoughts on “The Myth of the Work/Life Balance

  1. Mike Allison

    Thanks for this article, and I really do think you’ve made some great points.

    I often tell people who are working 60 or more hours a week and who are complaining that they don’t have enough time for their wife and kids about my father.

    He worked for the same company his entire working life (almost 40 years). He had a good position, plenty of responsibility; but he never worked overtime. He made a choice to not work overtime.

    As a family, we ate dinner every night together. My dad had opportunities for promotions, but he made a choice to only advance to a certain level within the company he worked for. This was so that he could keep what was most important to him in first place – his family and his faith.

    I admire my dad for setting that type of example for me. What you’ve written here about not being able to have or do it all is so true. Of course, each person has their own priorities, but if you’re going to truly pursue what’s most important to you, you will have to sacrifice other things/activities.

    Thanks again.

  2. Sue

    I found many of your comments interesting and thought provoking. While it is true that for the most part in the US and UK work like balance is difficult to achieve. It is also true that in other countries work does not overtake everything thus giving a better balance. Also while the UK in particular seem to think of work at the expense of all else things are shifting to allow for a better working approach. Many have turned their backs on the traditional role of employment and looking for alternatives. While not always practical working form home can be one method or working for ones self although can mean even more hours can at least mean you can choose them.


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