The idea of work-life balance is popular. For many years I strived to achieve it. I now think, as it is commonly understood, it is grossly over-rated and even potentially harmful. I know that is a radical thing to say. Here’s why.


Balance is dynamic and not static.
Another way of saying that is life-work balance is a tension to be managed rather than a problem to be solved. When we think of balance we instinctively think of a scale. There are two priorities of equal value and we are trying to give them both equal attention. Like the tight-rope walker we are precariously placed and any sudden change can potentially be dangerous.
For the tight-rope walker, she has to keep moving or she will fall off! She has to be a little out of balance if she is to move forward. When she is balanced, it doesn’t feel like it and yet that is so much how it is with life! We have to keep making adjustments and move forward, but not too much or too little too quickly in case we fall off….

Albert Einstein said the same thing another way: “Life is like riding a bicycle. In order to keep your balance you must keep moving.” In fact the slower you go the harder it is to keep your bike up and not fall off. It is momentum that helps us stay on course. (See Finding Momentum In Your Life).
The older you get and the more your responsibilities increase the more this becomes the case. The key as I see it is to have systems and processes in place that are not dependent on your continual presence and supervision. Trusted people who you can delegate to is even better.
So balance requires adjusting our schedule, our to-do task lists and all the other priorities in our lives. And that never ends. If you get it right one week, you still have to give it your full attention the next.

Setting up a distinction between work and life is artificial and misleading.
It probably arose from the industrial age when the predominant form of work in the West was in factories and involved a mechanistic view of life. But for knowledge workers (the predominant group of people who read this blog) that is not the case.
Life and work are not separate, but closely related. In fact the last time I checked all the people who were working were alive! My work is a part of my life. Yes I have my personal life and I have my work life, but what happens in one can have a direct impact on the other. Simple things like not sleeping enough, and not taking adequate breaks in my personal life can impair my concentration and work ability.
So rather than seeing work and the rest of my life as distinct from each other how much better to find ways to integrate them. I love the quote by James Michener:

The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labour and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both. ”

What Michener is advocating full engagement with what is in front of me. So when I am working I am fully present and when I am relaxing I am able to switch off completely. We looked at this when we discussed what it means to be in a state of flow. (See How Increasing Flow Increases Happiness).

Balance is not the same as just getting enough rest.
Don’t misunderstand me here. Rest is important. In fact it is vital. Rest is an integral part of living a balanced life. But if we think getting balance means finally getting a well needed break from our at times hectic and exhausting schedules, then we are only seeing part of the picture. Sustained periods of activity can only come out of regular periods of rest. In fact true rest has deep theological implications (see Discovering Silence and Solitude).
Balance is about distributing the demands on ourselves in such a way that we stay on the path we intend to go. And that is not easy to achieve without deliberate intention and effort. While rest matters, we still have to find the energy, motivation and stamina to deal with the responsibilities we have. That requires the right mindset,  resilience and grit.

So is work-life balance possible? As I’ve tried to explain it all depends on what you mean by the phrase. We are going to look at this subject more in a future post, but for now I want to leave you with a question:

What do you think of work-life balance? How do these 3 popular misconceptions resonate with you?