Work-Life Balance (or Why Work-Life Balance is a Myth)

I was sitting at lunch with a friend the other day, moaning (as you do) about work-life balance.  She’s a single mum with a full-time management role at an NGO, so she knows what she’s moaning about.

We’d both been scouring the internet reading these articles that pretty much say women are leaving the workforce in droves, because they can’t get the balance right.

When I was a twenty-something management consultant, work-life balance was something of a joke.  I would check my emails upon waking, stay in the office until 10pm and then do revisions to client documents when the bars closed at 2am.  Work-life balance didn’t seem important because everyone I knew was doing the same thing.  Work was new and fun and it kinda made me feel important.

Now, with a toddler, a newborn and a husband who is traveling 2-3 days a week, work-life balance seems a WHOLE lot more important, but it is still something of a joke.

Because here’s my question: how do you balance two things that are inextricably connected?

Balance means that you pitch one thing against another and try to make sure that they even out.  But if one thing exists within the other, and they can’t be separated, then it’s silly to try and create balance.  You’ll turn yourself inside out crazy trying to do it.

Which is what many of us are doing.

We’re trying to take the life out of the work, or the work out of the life, and pitch them against one another.  We’re trying to lean in or step back, but what if we just want to stay still and enjoy?  We’re trying to separate the inseparable and make the math work – but it simply doesn’t.

Which is why many of us are going stark raving mad, and then complaining to pretty much anyone who will listen, that our lives are out of balance, we feel rushed and harried and downright ill with the imbalance of it all.

No wonder.  We’re trying to achieve the impossible.

* * *

It wasn’t always like this by the way.

A few decades ago, there was a national debate raging about a crisis of leisure.

Policies and technology had managed to push working hours down to an unprecedented 40 hours per week.  Politicians, religious leaders, academics were all convinced (and a bit nervous) that labor-saving machines would increase productivity to the point that, as a society, we would scarcely have to work at all .

These same people were worried about what would happen to society if it were not burdened down by work – but rather with an abundance of free time.

So what happened?

Turns out, most people didn’t actually want lots of leisure and free time.

Most people were willing to trade their labor hours for more money and more stuff.  Companies and countries were happy to capitalize on this, and so the quest became GDP growth and earnings growth.

Rather than free time, we got an explosion of consumerism and an exponential growth in standard of living.

Which is where we are today.

* * *

Every day, we have a finite number of hours to work with.

We choose how to use those hours – or somebody chooses for us.

If work and life are inextricably linked, it makes sense to put your hours toward the things that you love and that are meaningful to you.  As many hours as possible.

Nearly everyone must trade some of their hours for the things that make us tick: food, shelter, clothing.  That’s ok, and even noble.

But every time you choose to trade your hours for something that means little to you, you are selling a small piece of yourself.

With work-life balance, I think we can strive for something better: the place where our passions and talents intersect, where our hours are not seen as currency, but as an investment in the things that we love.

How will you spend your 24 hours today?