Work-life balance is an unhealthy myth

Balance is a good goal for gymnasts, not necessarily the rest of us.
Balance is a good goal for gymnasts, not necessarily the rest of us.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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If you’ve mastered work-life balance, congratulations. You’re rested, healthy, fit, friendly, dependable, and measured. Also, you’re probably a bit boring, lacking in intensity, and possibly not too good at any of the many things you manage to do in small doses.    

Balance is overrated. It’s a cultural myth, much-discussed because it’s supposed to be the key to a healthy life. But whether all of us can or should aim to attain this elusive middling state is unclear—maybe not if we want to be great at anything.

As Arianna Huffington, former workaholic and now preacher of the gospel of rest, recently told Tesla CEO Elon Musk, we all have limited energy. As such, we must allocate time wisely, depending on priorities and circumstances. Inevitably, some things are neglected when more important matters demand our attention—and what we prioritize changes at different points.

While we may not want to follow the lead of Musk, who runs four companies, works 120 hours a week, and sometimes sleeps at work, he’s not all wrong. Things need to get done. Sometimes you’re the one who has to do them. Often, the things in which you’re investing your time matter to you most of all, which is why you are willing, begrudgingly or not, to sacrifice other aspects of your life.

Could Musk delegate some of his duties? Maybe. But Tesla, Musk’s car company, is in trouble right now—he says rest is not an option. Plus, he’s intense. Taking on impossible projects and working like mad is his signature style. He’s famously unbalanced, for better and worse, a prime example of both the positive and negative aspects of drive.

Even if you’re not that passionate about your job or projects, work-life balance might not be the right idea. In fact, it’s a highly problematic notion. Thinking we can have it all in perfect doses is itself harmful, creating unnecessary pressure to attain an impossible, and perhaps not totally laudable, goal.

Balancing act  

The first problem with the phrase “work-life balance” is the language itself. The formulation implies that work is not part of life but something separate, and is getting in the way of existence. Life is all-encompassing, however, and work is just one thing that fits in under the greater umbrella. If anything, separating work from life overemphasizes the importance of labor.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, argues that “work life harmony” is a better phrase. “I prefer the word ‘harmony’ to the word ‘balance’ because balance tends to imply a strict tradeoff,” he says. Bezos believes happiness at work makes him happy at home, and vice versa.

Others suggests a more appropriate term is “work-life blend.” This recognizes that work and life are intertwined. “A lot of people try or claim that they have perfected balance. But in reality they’ve just drastically deprioritized, so they really are just working on fewer things. The key is to accept reality and then come up with some strategies to prioritize within your blended lifestyle, knowing that’s the playing field,” Joshua Zerkel, a certified professional organizer and productivity expert, tells the organization-app maker Evernote in a post the company shared on Medium.

Similarly, radio and television host Jeffrey Hayzlett suggests in Entrepreneur that “work-life integration” is better wording. This term, he says, recognizes the need for a “culture of wellness” but doesn’t sound “new age-y” or off-putting to executives.

Yet all of these options still put work and life in two separate but equal categories. The best bet then might be to eliminate the work-life combination from our vocabularies altogether and to recognize that life is what’s happening and work is one of the things you do in life.

What should you say instead then? Nothing. Just get sleep when you need it, exercise, eat, take breaks, and if you find checking emails over the weekend onerous, don’t do it. No one owns you. Be a grown up and assume both your responsibilities and freedom without making a big fuss about either one.

Having it all

Everything we do has a cost and consequences. The sooner we make peace with this basic fact, the better we’ll be at also making calculations that work for us. If we keep talking about having it all, however, we’ll continue to be a society where unrealistic expectations are basic and people feel like failures for not attaining the impossible.

Evernote CEO Chris O’Neill recently boasted about his balance to the New York Times (paywall); he wakes up early, works out, follows a daily to-do list which he makes the night before, hikes with his kids, and gardens. Still, he admits, “The truth is that it’s not easy balancing work with family. I travel a bunch. I don’t get home in time for dinner on a regular basis. Saturday is the thing that’s closest to sacrosanct.”

Doing things well requires commitment. It requires doing the things. If you want to be a doctor, you have to go through medical school and a residency and you simply won’t have a lot of time to hang out or relax. You may not get much sleep for seven years and you may feel really bad sometimes—that doesn’t mean the goal isn’t noble or the effort isn’t worth it.

Likewise, if you want to be a novelist, no one will pay you for your creative efforts, at least not initially and maybe ever. That means you also need a job, and probably can’t hang out with pals while drafting a book on the side. You’ll need the discipline to work after work and may have to occasionally isolate yourself, or perhaps miss a family gathering. To the extent you are doing what you want to do to make your dreams come true, this lack of balance isn’t necessarily unhealthy.

Pretending you can do everything in equal measure creates artificial pressure and ignores the pleasure of impassioned action and discipline. There’s a lot to be learned from giving some things up and giving your all to what you love.

The long view

We emphasize daily balance, as if it’s necessary or possible for every day to be equally divided into neat slices no matter what is going on around us and in the lives of those we love, and no matter what our dreams, needs, or personality type. The truth is that we don’t all have the same conditions or ambitions, constraints or strengths, and not everyone thrives on balance.

There’s no point throttling people who have energy and drive just because others feel overwhelmed. Similarly, there’s no need for those who feel harried to push themselves over the edge. But everyone should be wary when considering their busyness. Just how busy are we really?

Although we love saying we’re busy, many of us are just distracted. We may not really need to relax but to focus and make the most of however much time we have. It could be, as productivity consultant Chris Bailey explains in the New York Times (paywall), that much of the busyness we flaunt like a status symbol is just a result of wasting time procrastinating and pretending—checking social media and email. Bailey argues that the more complex your tasks, the more you focus, the more is done in a condensed period. He believes we should work harder and smarter for a richer, more fulfilling existence.

And he has a point. If you have a job that’s challenging and you’re passionate about, you tend not to feel resentful of its demands because you understand that it’s working for you, too. But when you’re bored or don’t see how work fits into the big picture of fulfilling your dreams, you’re more likely to feel the need to escape. Bailey would argue that what you really need in that case is more of a challenge, not less.

In fact, at different ages and stages of our lives, we need different things and have various demands on our time. If we’re really lucky, we occasionally get to choose what we do and how we want to prioritize it, although very often things just happen and we adjust to ever-changing conditions, working less when we’re ill or when a family member needs help, for example, and putting in grueling hours when a deadline looms on an important project.

Sometimes there isn’t enough work, while at other points there’s too much. In the grand scheme, there is something resembling a balance. But in the short term, less so.

For now, devote yourself to parenting and your job, or to friendship and fitness, or to whatever combination of things might allow you to be great at things you really care about. Perhaps at some other point in life, you’ll have time to give your all to what you can’t commit to today. In the meantime, stop talking about “work-life balance,” as a favor to yourself and everyone else.