Work-Life-Balance Is A Crock—Do This Instead…

Work/life balance is horseshite. Either work is enlivening and life is productive, or we’re in the trap of working as a means to an end and living as a way of checking out.

Look up ‘work-life balance’ online and you’ll get inundated with advice and admonishment.

Or don’t.

It won’t matter anyway. The whole enterprise is based on a false dichotomy that arose since the Industrial Revolution, if not before.

And I’m here to argue it’s a distinction without relevance.

Work—what’s that..?

Miriam-Webster gives us two general meanings for Work:

  1. Efforts exerted to overcome an obstacle, and
  2. A job, something done to earn money.

According to other authorities, (alright, I mean Wikipedia) work-life balance entails the proper prioritizing of “work” and “lifestyle”; the latter being shorthand for health, pleasure, leisure, relationship, family and spiritual development.

So, apparently Work is hard, and it gets us the money to do all the fun and meaningful stuff – the other part of our equation.

And Life is on one side of that formula only.

Now, does that strike you as balanced?

Furthermore, running the numbers tells us our pattern is roughly the ‘law of thirds. One-third of our time is focused on Work, one-third on sleep, and the last third is targeted at Life.

Of course, sleep-time is actually more when we add time spent ‘trying to get to sleep’, as is work-time when we factor in the commute, etc.

Take time out for running the average household (and any other duties you would delegate if you could) and Life gets to happen in whatever time remains.

Again, is anything sounding balanced in this setup, an arrangement that varies little from one industrialized nation to another?

I know, the answer is clearly for us all to work part-time, right? And sleep less!

But if I know one thing it’s that you’ve already thought about working less and you are, all things considered, at your baseline.

And you probably need more sleep rather than less.

What’s the solution?

Well, try this on: would we need to balance Work and Life if we had not separated them in the first place?

A Devil’s Pact..?

Although it’s origin as a narrative is debatable, work-as-drudgery, and therefore as a means to an end, is a pervasive notion nowadays.

Don’t misunderstand me, livelihood has always involved significant exertion, otherwise what would be its value?

However, over the centuries our collective understanding of labor has shifted to such an extent that we now think of the financial and other benefits of work as compensation.

Let that sink in for a bit.

Compensation.

I don’t know about you but when I was a kid ‘compensation’ is what one received as recompense for loss, injury, or suffering.

In fact, back home we had a government program called Accident Compensation for injuries sustained while working. Qualify for that program long enough and you were officially ‘disabled.’

So, given all that, work/life balance must be where the cost to our lives – the injuries sustained – of making a living is in some equilibrium with the enjoyment we experience when not at work, right?

Honestly, this is sounding more and more like the bluesman Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads for success.

If only there was an alternative…

Before And After The Imbalance

Elsewhere I’ve explored the practice, and downside, of professionalism at work.

I conclude it has been a necessary phase to undergo and yet swiftly is becoming outdated; literally holding us back.

The unnerving thing for us all to confront is that the next stage will in some ways remind us of the very phase we needed professionalism to cure.

This happens.

There was a time when automobiles were legitimately seen as a green innovation when compared to the ongoing burden of dung and carcasses resulting from horses being the primary mode of transport in cities.

Yet no one would think of combustion engines as green-tech now.

The next iteration of something needn’t always resemble some strategy we’ve gladly transcended in the past.

But sometimes it will.

Here I want us to dive into the notion of making work personal again.

Take it Personally.

To an extent that we ourselves are only beginning to appreciate, most people at work, even in high-performing organizations, divert considerable energy every day to a second job that no one has hired them to do: preserving their reputations, putting their best selves forward, and hiding their inadequacies from others and themselves. We believe this is the single biggest cause of wasted resources in nearly every company today.

—Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Andy Fleming, & Matthew Miller, April 2014, HBR

The first step in undoing the work vs. life conundrum is to recognize, to admit, that work is indeed a very personal endeavor for each of us.

Work is personal.

I know, I know, work is where we are professional, not personal, where we are public, not private, where we have colleagues, not friends – dammit, this is our work, not our life!

Exhibit A. Take another look at the quote beginning this section, especially the bolded area, and tell me you have no idea what they’re talking about, nor could it possibly apply to you.

Exhibit B. Have you ever been fired by a client or needed to field some significant piece of negative feedback at work?

Easy, wasn’t it?

No, it wasn’t! It was hard to deal with, right?

I mean, you were probably quite professional in the way you handled it but I’m not talking about that. I’m referring to the way it felt.

And on the off chance you are thinking: “Well, those were just feelings and I don’t let those control me …,” I have this to say: do you really think those underlying feelings never come out’..?

Is it your experience that you being upset in some way is never a contributing factor to how you behave, even at work?

Exhibit C. ‘Ever had an awesome day at work, the exultation of which you then bring home..?

Exhibit D. Have you ever had a fantastic weekend and then had someone at your workplace, Monday morning, point out how well, how happy you seem?

Exhibit E. Can you remember a time at work where you found out something about a colleagues’ life that, now you know, goes a long way to explaining how you’ve been experiencing them of late, without knowing why?

Admit it, work is unbelievably personal.

It’s just that we are trained to both hide large parts of ourselves while at work as well as treat our poor fellow travelers as cogs in the machine.

No one is a cog.

No organization is a machine.

No one successfully leaves themselves at home, and no one does work that matters and then doesn’t take that with them at the end of the day.

Can I get an amen!?!

Step Two of Twelve

Having ‘admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being’ the personal nature of our work, we are probably now in great need of a period of significant skill acquisition, if not an overhaul.

Now, why would that be?

Well, professionalism had the job of making us more user-friendly at work, helping us play well with others.

But not without cost.

Professionalism depersonalized the work environment so that when the customer complained we didn’t just tell them where to get off.

Depersonalizing work has meant we don’t (or shouldn’t) lash out at our supervisor merely for them having suggested we should raise our game. Nor do we throw a buyer out of our store for not purchasing that thing after we spent endless moments giving them version after version of it to try out.

No. We keep our cool.

We don’t act out, scapegoat, or get belligerent – or if we do, we later recognize that we should have acted more maturely.

We no longer take things personally.

Indeed, it’s often the case that people get chastised for “taking things too personally” at their workplace. It’s not good.

So, if I am encouraging us all to be taking things more personally at work, then something will also have to change alongside that transformation.

Indeed, there are several things that we all need to get much better at…

The Things

We all need to get way better at being in conflict with our work colleagues.

We all need to be more vulnerable and far less overtly defensive at work. Transparency and authenticity are our new best friends; meaning we are increasingly comfortable with being uncomfortable, amongst others.

The way we are going to be less defensive, less reactive at work is to genuinely be more confident in ourselves. No, actually.

I’m not talking here about behavior, I’m referring to the leap in our lives that has already occurred countless times when we’ve overcome an insecurity and felt freer, more ourselves as a result.

Defensiveness is all about fear. Fear. And the Big One is our fear of being judged negatively by others.

We need to be more curious about other people’s worlds and make fewer assumptions. We need to cultivate deeper levels of humility and shine that light on our arrogance and hypocrisy.

To make progress in those virtues is to become more trustable, more integrous—the foundation of both genuine relationships as well as our capacity to influence others.

And, perhaps counterintuitively, we need to lighten up, find our sense of humor and reenergize our enjoyment of play.

Yup, at work.


Lastly, about those ‘colleagues’ of yours…

I once found myself talking to a recent hire in a central administrative position working for an independent school. It’s a very intimate environment because the mission is intense, difficult, and incredibly rewarding, so the team is tight.

They remarked to me, “But, I don’t have to be friends with the people I work with, do I?”

To which I responded, “No, you don’t. But wouldn’t you want to be..?”

Reliably high-performing teams have correspondingly high levels of intimacy between members. They just do.

The more you feel your teammates have your back, the better you will collaborate with them.

Combine that dynamic with truly giving a damn about what you are up to and you now have the basic formula for all group success.


Instead of that unicorn—”Work/Life Balance”—consider expecting more from your Work

There’s a slogan in System’s Analysis: “The problem’s not the problem, the solution is the problem.”

Meaning that often what we are really struggling with is just the downstream consequences of a solution we employed that’s now causing problems of its own.

So what’s the problem that work-life balance is a solution to…?

I’ll try to nail it: we wouldn’t need to balance Work and Life if they had not have been made separate in the first place.

Work is personal.

Work should feel important and a blast.

And Work – assuming we’re up for it – can be the place where we dream and develop the next best version of ourselves.