What do you think Chip Gaines, Jeff Bezos, Nigel Marsh and me have in common?
We’re all trying to define or debunk the term “work-life balance”. Is work-life balance a real thing? Chip, in a recent interview says he and Joanna balance their work and family life well, but that when push comes to shove, family comes first. Jeff says in his Ladders interview with Jane Burnett, “work life balance is a debilitating phrase”. Nigel Marsh (in his TEDtalk “How to make work-life balance work”) says if you’re happy at work it effects your life (home or outside of work) and if you’re happy at home it effects your work – I agree. The converse is true also. Each of these men are talking about a separation of the two – work and life - and most of us do the same. I have a different view on this.
I’ve been thinking about this for awhile. I’ll sum up where I’m at now with this and then follow with my thoughts if you’re interested.
Here it is:
There is no such thing as work-life balance.
There is work. There is life. Work is a part of life. (I’m considering “life” here as the whole of things we do, not so much our existential being, existence or essence, although what we do is reflective of these). You can’t balance a part of something with itself – it’s part of it.
There you have it. Work and life are one – they are not separate. Our lives are stressful enough without having to balance another thing. Balancing is hard. Think of a balance beam in gymnastics, balancing your bank accounts or managing your budget, balancing justice (punishment, restitution, and mercy in a court of law, etc). These are all difficult things to do. They each take focus, thoughtfulness and intentionality. Rather than balancing, how about measuring, resizing, or determining the scope or area, the amount of time needed or energy required? This feels more manageable and we have some control. You don’t really have control if you balance something – it either is or it isn’t balanced. Sounds absolute.
I think the separation of work and life is impossible. As I said, work is part of life. It’s really hard to live without work. This is true for “paid” workers, unpaid stay-at-home parents or adult children taking care of parents, people recovering from health challenges, volunteering, you get the idea. Almost all of us are working at something. (I do recognize that there are people who have given up or find life overwhelming or their challenge insurmountable. I feel for and with you.) I believe that the people that are reading about work-life balance are those who generally are working a lot at something and believe it’s negatively impacting their “life”. Usually too many resources are needed at work and too many are needed at home. “Too many” can be defined as more than we feel able to give.
It’s probably true that we’re feeling negative impact in our lives somewhere - usually seen in higher stress levels. I think “work” is part of life, and life is all encompassing of us as an individual, and so really our life, including work, then has negative impact.
I suggest we see our life as a whole – work being a part of it, just like important relationships and activities we enjoy. Think of a pie. The whole pie is called "Life" and the pieces of the pie are the things for which we spend our time and energy. So draw or picture a pie for your life. What are the pieces and how much space in the pie do they cover? Do you want to change the size of any of the pieces? If so, what is one thing you can do to re-cut or resize that piece? Our pie, like our life, is finite. We only have a finite amount of energy and time and we have to fit what’s important to us into that pie.
Where I’m sitting now is that we choose our life (the things we do) and we make choices everyday – usually many of them. How much we work is something that we have some say in. Work-life balance? No such thing. There’s just life. Are the pieces the size we want them to be? If not, we can make a change. The changes may not be drastic. In fact, make small changes and see how the size of the pieces change. Re-cut that pie! The pieces are resizable and we can adjust the size as needed. There will be times when family may be the biggest piece because of a celebration or a traumatic event, or work may be the biggest piece, perhaps much bigger due to an important project, or short staffing. The take away is that we can resize the pieces – not the pie. Be mindful. Be aware of the area in our lives represented by each piece – is this the size this piece needs to be? Is this the size we want it to be? For practical help on how to resize those pieces, check out our blog post, “4 Ways to Set Goals”.
Learning to live life well,