Work-life balance – have we got it all wrong?
The term “work-life balance” is so common that it has lost its meaning. Ask a bunch of people what work-life balance is for them and they all will come with a different meaning. Balance means a state of equilibrium, a condition where everything is still and in equal proportion. Have you ever had a day when either your work or your life was still? Or you spent your time in equal proportion on work and life?
In that case, is work-life balance is the right aspiration for a fulfilling life?
This suggestion of work-life balance is based on the assumption that work is bad, life is good; spend more time on life and less time on work and you will have a happy life. That is the wrong assumption.
Let me make a case for work.
Work is a major part of our lives. It defines us. It provides intellectual stimulation, helps us learn, expresses ourselves, pays for our bills and helps us socialize and collaborate with other people. When done for thirty to forty years of our lives it becomes a habit. Work is essential for a fulfilling life. Without it, life is purposeless, uninspiring and dull.
On the other hand today we are expected to be at work 24/7. There are no defined working hours. Technological advancement means even when you are not at work physically, work can reach you. If you can’t get out of range you are not really away from work. It is very easy for your work to claim demands on your time particularly your free time. The demand for your time has been increasing with other technological advances such as social media.
Some infer that human evolution hasn’t caught up with technological advances:
Evolution (via gene mutation and reproduction) works to a very, very slow clock; big changes take hundreds of generations, so it lags weirdly when there are rapid changes to the human context.
We’ve evolved to have relatively short attentions spans and to be very easily distracted by brightly-coloured moving things. Which worked beautifully when we needed to be on the look out for snakes in the long grass – and which goes some way to explaining why Times Square is one of the biggest tourist attractions on the planet.
But this jumpy, highly visual kind of mind is ill-adapted to much of the work we need to do day-to-day at work.
The lag in genetic evolution means that our brains are brilliantly adapted to the situation we used to be in; but are tragicomically mismatched to our modern environment.
Evolution tells us why we struggle to fit the huge demands of work into our lives. We are trying to get ourselves to do something that’s very hard for us.
It changes the scale of our troubles. Although so often it seems incredibly personal that one fails to combine work harmoniously with family life or with exercise or with maintaining old friendships, the charge should not really be laid primarily against oneself. The fault lies with something much larger than our own individual failings (real though those are). It lies with where we are in history, with the nature of the economy and in the slow pace of evolution.The Book of Life
Then there is this argument:
Our brain is funny. Its primary function is to keep us safe from danger. It has us believe that in order to insulate us from such, we must work harder, meaner, and longer to stay ahead of potential competitors who can rip the rug out from under us at any moment. But the reality is, when we are well rested and reflective rather than reactive, we put ourselves in a better place; a place that is well insulated from the ultimate danger of meaningless or, even worse, toxic, self-destructive work.”Charles F. Glassman, Brain Drain The Breakthrough That Will Change Your Life
Poet and Philosopher David Whyte call “work/life balance” a “phrase that often becomes a lash with which we punish ourselves” in his new book The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship and offers an emboldening way out of this cultural trap.
The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.[…]
We can still make a real life even when crowded by other identities, or even when unbalanced and intoxicated with desire, or even when we are disappointed in work or love, and perhaps the way, at the center of all this deep love of belonging and this deep exhaustion of belonging, we may have waiting for us, at the end of the tunnel, a marriage of marriages, a life worth living, and one we can call, despite all the difficulties and imperfections, our very own.[…]
Work, like marriage, is a place you can lose yourself more easily perhaps than finding yourself. It is a place full of powerful undercurrents, a place to find our selves, but also, a place to drown, losing all sense of our own voice, our own contribution and conversation.[…]
Good work like a good marriage needs a dedication to something larger than our own detailed, everyday needs; good work asks for promises to something intuited or imagined that is larger than our present understanding of it. We may not have an arranged ceremony at the altar to ritualize our dedication to work, but many of us can remember a specific moment when we realized we were made for a certain work, a certain career or a certain future: a moment when we held our hand in a fist and made unspoken vows to what we had just glimpsed.[…]
Work is a constant conversation. It is the back-and-forth between what I think is me and what I think is not me; it is the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world. Like the person to whom I am committed in a relationship, it is constantly changing and surprising me by its demands and needs but also by where it leads me, how much it teaches me, and especially, by how much tact, patience and maturity it demands of me.David Whyte in The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship
The truth is there will always be unbalanced in work and life. There will be times (days or months or years) when work will be your number one priority and there will be a time when life will take precedence over your work. Your ability to identify those times and maturity to be flexible will determine the “balance” in your life. Your time and energy shifts based on the rotating demands of each area of your life.
“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.” – Alain de Botton
― Alain de Botton
When we start losing ourselves in work when we seeing ourselves as an extension of work and when we have no identity left outside of work, that is when we have a problem. Too many people fell prey to ‘work is life’ syndrome and pay a heavy price when work is no longer there.
I would like to know your thoughts about work-life balance. Please share them here.