Work-Life Balance is the Wrong Goal

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We hear about it everywhere we turn: the quest for work-life balance. I’ve certainly thought a lot about how to balance work and life. I’ve read endless pages filled with strategies for improving the mix of “work” and “life.”  And yet I’ve begun to think that we are chasing the wrong goal. Some of the problem lies with the labeling.

Social worker turned artist Nancy J. Hill offered some wisdom about labeling that resonates with my thoughts on this work-life balance conundrum. In her book, Unfolding, (gifted to me by a good friend), Hill writes, “Labeling is the core of language. It allows us to order our world. But it also diminishes being in the moment by encouraging us to see all we encounter as ‘one of these’ or ‘one of those.’” Next to this passage, I scribbled two questions in the margin: What is work? What is life?

We have this tendency to label our jobs as “work” and to label everything else “life.” But that diminishes the very real work that a lot of people do without pay. Raising children is work. Caring for an aging loved one is work. Working as a community volunteer is work. Being a stay-at-home husband or wife, taking care of the needs of home and family is also work. These are actions that bring great meaning to the lives of many, but they don’t bring in a paycheck and therefore, we often don’t label them as “work.” In the process, as Hill notes, we diminish a lot of the work that people do.

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But another problem with the labeling is that it encourages us to create a false dichotomy between life and work. After all, isn’t work an important part of a satisfying life? It certainly has been for me. The work I have done—teaching, writing, coaching—have meant much more to me than simply a paycheck.

In my research on the lives of twentieth century women, I found that women considered work—paid and unpaid—as central to their happiness even as they grew older.  Lucy Cobb was typical. A teacher and writer turned genealogist, 81-year-old Lucy wrote to her niece in 1958 that she could not move to a nursing home away from the archives where she conducted her research. “When you take the means whereby I live, you take my life.” She insisted that “I have to have someone need me.”

Likewise Dorothy Smith Dushkin, a music educator, didn’t become a successful composer until her seventies. On January 1, 1976, she wrote in her journal, "Have to remind myself that I'm 72, an old woman. Don't feel old except going down uneven steps. . . . Having achieved a certain competence in composing late in life, I wonder how much more will be allowed me. Can I distill a lifetime of undefined, half- realized musical expression that has meaning worth recording?" Later that month one of her compositions premiered at Kennedy Center to some acclaim.

I digress by telling stories about the women from my research, but my point is that work is an essential part of a satisfying life, so it’s wrong-headed to think of work as something separate from—and something that has to be balanced with--life.

That’s why I’ve come to think that pursuing work-life balance is the wrong goal. That is not in any way to deny that the reality for many of us is that our jobs have taken over our lives in an unhealthy way. It seems to me that there are several reasons we feel this way. One is that in the wake of the last recession, some employers have tried to heap more and more work on the existing workforce, expecting far more than anyone can reasonably do.

A second problem is that some of us become addicted to busyness--especially at work. We come to measure our self-worth with our level of busyness. The Catholic spiritual teacher Thomas Merton described it this way: “There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist…most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.”

For some of us, the problem may be that the work we are doing is not the work we are called to do—or work that is no longer a good fit for us. For most of my twenty years as a college professor, I felt little need to chase work-life balance. I did work hard. The hours were long, and work commitments often bled into nights and weekends. I spent my summer breaks doing research and writing. Nonetheless, the work was enormously meaningful, and the job offered great flexibility. For many years, work and life did not feel out of whack.

And then they did. The demands of the job did increase, but a bigger problem was that—as I’ve written in earlier blog posts—the work did not feel like the work I was called to do anymore. As the old roles began to pinch and bind, I increasingly felt a conflict between “work” and “life.” I was no longer the person I needed to be to do that job. The old work no longer felt like an integral part of who I was.

I’ve come to think that our goal should be to live lives of integrity. One definition of integrity is the state of being whole and undivided. Too many of us, I suspect, are living divided lives in which the person we have to be at work is not the person we believe ourselves to be at our core. Our goal must be to live fully integrated lives in which the things we DO in the world—including our work—match our sense of who we ARE.  

In some ways, this is a much tougher nut to crack than the problem of work-life balance. We cannot achieve a fully-integrated life with some tweaks in scheduling or an extra week of vacation time. Dividing the chores more equitably at home or hiring someone to clean or take care of the lawn will not lead to a fully-integrated life. Instead that will take harder work—inner work to discover who we are and outer work to make our inner and outer lives match. A fully integrated life requires (sometimes painful) soul-searching and courageous choices. But I suspect it’s the only way to find the sense of peace that we are looking for when we talk about work-life balance.

Executive coach Jerry Colonna summed it up pretty well in a recent podcast. Jerry told his podcast guest, “Work-life balance is bull$*&t. True balance is where the outer expression of who we are matched the inner expression of who we truly are. . . . When we are living in . . . full engagement, self-care becomes a natural expression of who we truly are. . . . It’s just how we live.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the challenges and satisfactions of living a fully-integrated life. Feel free to leave some comments or drop me an email.