The Work-Life Balance Myth

The Work-Life BalanceI don’t think I’m alone in this: I click on most articles with the phrase “work-life balance” in the title, especially if they seem to be promising more of it. I did it again recently, when Time published a piece called 9 Things No One Tells You About Work-Life Balance and one of my fellow strivers posted it online.

Many of the things “no one tells you about work-life balance” aren’t in fact deep dark secrets. I think we all know at some level that achieving balance means guarding our time, saying no to commitments that don’t add value, and determining which trade-offs you’re willing to make. However, perhaps because I’ve posted a few times recently about this idea of mission or purpose, the list also made me start to wonder:

Is it really work-life balance we’re seeking at all?

I think what we really want, what would transform our experience from one in which work and not-work compete for our time and create psychological conflict, is a life in which all of our activities flow from a set of core goals that we really value. If we can organize our days around a purpose, then the distinction between “work” and “life” should diminish. After all, everything is in service of being the person we strive to be.

What would happen if we changed the conversation from having balance to having purpose? To choosing to do something because it adds value, rather than because it’s expected?

I know that not everyone is so lucky as to have a paid job that connects to their innermost values. Many of us first and foremost need to pay the bills. When that’s the case, I don’t know that the tensions between work and not-work can truly disappear, but I do think a change in attitude can help minimize them. When work doesn’t feel mission-consistent, we can think about how it enables us to live our mission in other areas of our life; focus on the positive benefits it provides to ourselves or our communities; spend time building relationships with customers or coworkers to bring more meaning to work; and so on.

But the biggest change might be in ditching the thoughts of “work-life balance” and instead striving for an attitude of purposefully choosing what fills our days. If we choose well, both “work” and “life” have a place in that schedule.