The Work-Life Balance Myth

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Is the concept of ‘work-life balance’ not working for you? There could be good reasons for that. You might be buying into the work-life balance myth.

Like any myth, it’s tied up with belief. We all like to believe there’s a way to have it all.

It’s the real world, though, and you, your family and your staff are human beings. In daily life, you cannot totally separate the human and the personal aspects from what you might consider the ‘work’ components. 

‘Leave your home life at home’ is just as impossible a requirement as ‘Don’t bring your work home’. 

You could even say the term ‘work-life balance’ is not useful at all.

That’s because the concept of ‘balance’ depends on taking two discrete variables and having them roughly in equilibrium. That can’t work when human factors are involved. And there are several reasons why.

We can’t separate work from life

The first is this: human beings are complex and inter-relational. They tend not to segregate work-related matters and preoccupations. They don’t package them neatly and separately. Neither can they store them ‘out of sight and out of mind’ while getting on with ‘real life’. How often do you think through a work problem while having a shower or cooking a meal? Work intrudes into any number of personal situations.

It works equally the other way. People don’t push aside family, personal, financial, and a dozen other types of concerns, just because it’s time for ‘work’. 

Trying to achieve ‘work-life balance’ starts with a wrong assumption. It supposes this kind of compartmentalisation is possible and healthy. For most people it just isn’t.

We can’t measure the immeasurable

There’s a second reason why the concept breaks down. It suggests we can easily give a weighting to those things that count as work, and those that don’t. We can’t. We might try, by calculating how much time, energy, effort, or thought we are prepared to spend on each. But that isn’t possible either. 

Even if we take the crudest way of measuring the work component  –  the number of hours we spend in the workplace  –  we all know how inadequate a gauge of ‘work’ that really is. To confirm it, we only have to look at how two different people might spend a defined seven-hour work day, and what they achieve in that time. We also realise how differently one person might spend two days of identical length; it depends on so many variables.

The truth is, work and life can’t be compartmentalised, measured and balanced and, at times, they can’t even be distinguished clearly from each other. 

Life is many things, and work is one of them. For most of us these things merge and overlap to varying degrees, and preoccupy us more, or less, at different times, and for different reasons. 

Even when time our time is strictly ‘allocated’ – either to work or non-work activities – how can we possibly determine how much of our energy, effort, or thought is genuinely directed where it should be. 

The best laid plans …

We often try to manage arbitrary time slots for work, rest and play: 

  • Some (as I do) try to ‘chunk’ time for highly specific tasks, or for deliberate leisure. Sometimes it works
  • Some explore biological patterns with their circadian rhythms and seasonal changes, and try to work (or not work) in harmony with these natural patterns 
  • Others study the effects of environmental stimuli on energy flow and try to create optimal physical and mental states for peak performance.

We might feel we’re closer to the answers, but the unique combination of influences that make up an individual life is as unfathomable as it ever was.

A traditional comparison is with the ebb and flow of the tides – but even then life is nowhere near so predictable. 

Add to that our ever-changing capacity to deal with what washes over us. On any given day, an infinite number of infinitely variable factors – including our health, our current mood, external events and circumstances, and even the weather – makes our ‘dealing’ ability predictably unpredictable too. 

And that’s a whole new story….

If it isn’t broken…

All this is normal. And natural. Setting up a pre-defined, fixed, and evenly balanced plan to ‘do’ work and life might look good on paper. We might even manage to keep to it for a day, or more. But the weights will shift; the scales will tip. And our changing levels of involvement in work, family or personal concerns, or all of the above, will slip and slide into glorious imbalance, settle for a while, then readjust themselves into a different configuration. 

The only real pattern is that there is no detectable pattern. And this way of living doesn’t need to be mended, because it isn’t broken. It’s a kaleidoscope. It’s infinitely variable. And that’s human.

Find out more about the human dimensions of work.

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