Is it time to let go of work-life balance?

Grace Marshall — №25 with Andrea Feinberg

Most people I work with want a better work-life balance. They want to be productive at work so that they can go home on time, “switch off,” and have a life outside of work.

And that’s great.

But I have a problem with the term “work-life balance.” I have a problem with it, because in reality, it has become this holy grail that no one seems to get.

It’s supposed to get us working less and enjoying life more, but in reality, it has us striving for perfection and counting the hours we spend at work, the hours we spend with our family, at the gym, even in bed, trying to get the elusive “right” combination.

It’s created a superhero syndrome, where it’s not longer good enough to just be good at one thing. We have to be great at everything, flying high at work, going the extra mile and exceeding expectations, raising great kids, giving them brilliant childhood experiences, helping them with homework and extra reading, feeding them healthy, nutritious organic homemade food, having the best marriage, going on luxurious holidays, volunteering for the school PTA, board of governors or doing some other community involvement, and all the while having an immaculate home. We have to be all things to all people, and it’s exhausting just thinking about it!

It’s also become a source of guilt. We’re constantly counting the hours that go by and worrying that we’re not spending enough time elsewhere.

The problem with work-life balance is we’ve turned something that was intended to give us a break into something we beat ourselves up with.

Perhaps it’s time to let go of work-life balance. It was a man-made invention after all.

Here are some alternative propositions instead:

Work-life rhythm

Having a work-life rhythm means there are highs and lows and ebbs and flow to your life, instead of trying to make everything uniform and “balanced.” There are times when we need to run fast and times when we need to slow down and be still.

So instead of trying to slow down the fast times and speed up the slow, let’s run with life when it speeds up. Let’s treat rest and renewal as essential to our productivity. Let’s embrace the wild rides, soak up the quiet lulls and enjoy everything in between.

We are, after all, human beings and not robots. We physically (and mentally) cannot sustain the same level of performance through every hour of the day. Studies into ultradian rhythm show our natural biology works best in cycles of 90-120 minutes followed by times of rest and renewal.

Work-life integrity

Are you the same person at work and outside of work? Yes, you may adapt your behavior to suit the situation, but deep down, are you being the same person, with the same values, identity and purpose?

Work-life integrity is not so much to do with the hours we spend, but who we are being at work. When we are true to ourselves at work, there is a sense of peace that comes with it.

When there’s a conflict with our core values, no matter how much we achieve, our work will lack meaning and satisfaction, and our life will feel out of balance.

The same applies to life outside of work. For those of us fortunate to find ourselves doing work that we love, sometimes the challenge is to be the same fired up, passionate person at home, with grumpy teenagers and tired toddlers, when we might be equally tired and grumpy ourselves.

As I heard one CEO admit recently, “People at work thank us more, they appreciate our contributions, they think we’re brilliant. I can’t always say the same for my family!”

I realised a while ago that to truly live up to my “Chief Encourager” title in my business, I need to make sure I’m encouraging my kids just as much as I encourage my clients. On a practical level, this means having reserves of energy and patience beyond working hours, making sure I set healthy boundaries and get enough sleep, so that my kids don’t just get the leftovers at the end of the day.

Work-life integrity is about being equally mindful of who we are being both at work and outside of work, so that the way we live and work honours the values that matter most to us.

Work-life quality

We all have crazy seasons, when one part of our life takes over the others, but just because we don’t have as much time for the other parts of our life, it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy them as much.

This week I spent five hours traveling on a Sunday in order to deliver a workshop the following Monday, which meant that I had only a short weekend with my family. Determined to make the most of it, we enjoyed a lazy morning together as a family, taking our time over an indulgent pancake brunch before my train journey. What we lacked in quantity, we more than made up for in quality.

The quality of our life at work matters too. Hours are not the only way to measure how consuming our work can be.

Conflict, difficult relationships, lack of appreciation, lack of connection or community, uncertainty, stress and being constantly overwhelmed can all contribute to a low quality of life at work, that takes far more out of us than time spent in a positive, productive environment.

Instead of obsessing over hours, let’s make sure the quality of life — at work and outside of work — is good. Because when our life at work is good, we are naturally more productive and happier at home. When our life at home is good, the quality of our work improves. Our well-being and productivity are inextricably linked, both in and outside of work.

So instead of striving for the perfect work-life balance, I wonder: how’s your work-life rhythm? How’s your work-life integrity? How’s your work-life quality?

Photo: Flickr / Mattia Notari CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Grace marshall

Grace Marshall

Grace Marshall is a naturally disorganised productivity coach, mum of two and author of 21 Ways to Manage the Stuff That Sucks Up Your Time. She is also a Productivity Ninja with Think Productive, one of the UK’s leading productivity training companies, helping organizations across the world survive information overload and get more done with less stress.

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