Work/Life Balance Is A Myth; Here's What You Can Do About It

When I ask busy executives to describe a satisfying life, they often envision a scenario in which they work hard but dictate their own assignments. They want time to take part in important family events. They are eager to make real contributions to their organizations, and they also want breaks when they’re tired. What they really need is control. But, frequently, what they think they want is balance—and that’s where trouble starts.

Here’s what I tell them: work-life balance is a myth. That myth compels many of us to view an ideal life as a set of perfectly level scales. On the tray on one side is your personal life. On the other side is your work life. With heroic efforts, you can keep both trays exactly level. If one starts to tip too far, you make some kind of nifty move that balances them again.

In reality, that perfect balance almost never occurs, except for those rare, fleeting moments when the trays pass each other on the way up or down—and we’re too frazzled to appreciate that brief moment of self-actualization anyway.

There’s always a lot of chatter in the media about the latest trends in work-life balance. As recently as last month, Reuters published a piece about Volkswagen agreeing to deactivate the BlackBerrys of German staff members when their shifts are over, so they can really go off the clock. Having followed articles like these for years, as well as through reflecting on conversations with clients and colleagues, I’ve noticed a couple trends of my own. First, when it comes to work-life balance, we often adopt a victim mind-set. Our lives are out of balance not through our own fault but because of something someone else—a preoccupied spouse, nasty boss, or needy kid—is doing, or not doing. Second, we want to believe there’s a quick fix that we’re somehow overlooking.

Among those supposed fixes:

  • Working from home gives you the best of both worlds: A decade or so ago, when my three boys were very young, I ran across one of those "you can have it all" articles that was accompanied by a laughable photo. A clean-cut, preppy guy sat in his home office in rays of sunlight, sipping coffee and joyfully pecking away at his laptop as he balanced a toddler on his knee. I had attempted a similar trick, under pressing deadlines, on numerous occasions. What did I learn? Doing what that guy in the photo was doing is impossible for more than a few minutes at a time. The only thing we had in common was a love of coffee, which would quickly be spilled on the laptop by my toddler. 
  • You can save yourself a ton of hassle by learning to say no: I tried this once back in junior high, when I took out the trash and mowed the grass at a cafeteria. The owner wanted me to do additional work in the kitchen, but I told him, no, I liked working outside more. The very next day he had me on a ladder with a paint scraper—and there I stayed for two miserable months. Lesson learned: don’t say if no if you don’t have any leverage.
  • Getting more help around the house makes it all better: There’s definitely something to be said for having someone clean the house or mow the lawn. In theory, it gives people more time to do what they want to do. In practice, however, what I’ve seen is that people often invest that free time in doing more work. And that points to another faulty assumption in the work-life debates—that everybody wants more time away from work. In fact, some people—and I’ve met many of them throughout two decades of working closely with leaders—don’t really want balance. Their identity is rooted in work, and that’s where they want to be. Outside of work, in the complex dance of family and community responsibilities, they lose their autonomy. Their professional expertise doesn’t mean much. They no longer have control.

And control, in my view, is what we’re really trying to get to with all the chatter about balance. We need better ways to manage work-life boundaries, understanding that we are subject to phases, often dictated by events out of our control, in which our work lives and personal lives ebb and flow in their demands. The more we assume actual leadership of our own lives, instead of waiting for someone else to do it for us, the better prepared we are to deal with this unending juggle.

Here are a few ideas for getting started:

  • Shore up the home front: A lot of stress in our lives, the kind that throws us way off balance, starts with relationship problems at home. Work on them. Get counseling, talk to your spouse and kids. If returning to your family after a day of work fills you with angst, that’s a situation only you can repair. Take ownership of the problem, and you’ll feel better for it.
  • Quit complaining: If you feel overworked to the point that you complain about it constantly, how do you think everyone around you feels about it? It’s trendy in many companies to run around with multiple, flashing digital devices strapped to our belts or spread out on the table, just so everyone can see how unbelievably busy and important we are. Reinvest that energy in reframing your career possibilities.
  • Say "no" strategically: The best time to take control of a job is before you accept it. Once you accept it, your negotiating power plummets. So set some ground rules. Be clear on how your performance will be measured. Test the waters. Does everyone in this organization work constantly? If so, don’t be surprised when that happens to you a few months later. If your boss loads you up with one more task, try to get an old one off your plate.

Forget about the even scales. It’s a really bad analogy. Take control instead.

Related: 

Craig Chappelow, who specializes in 360-degree feedback and the development of effective senior executive teams, is a portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership (www.ccl.org), a top-ranked, global provider of leadership education and research.

[Image: Flickr user vollefolklore]

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13 Comments

  • Adrian Pyle

    I know it seems a bit pedantic for some, but one piece of language I’m trying to reform is the use of the term “work/life balance.” If language shapes our reality even just a little bit, then “work/life balance” – although its meant to be have positive connotations – must be reinforcing some negative views of life for all of us. Work and life are not somehow distinct “realities” that we can balance. “Work” is surely not meant to be devoid of “life.” Equally, considered, engaged and relational work can surely be part of a highly connected, health-ful life (even potentially a very big part of it). I know the term is coined to try to get us to live in a more “balanced” way but I suspect it simply allows those who see “work” and “life” as mechanically disconnected realities, to continue with that problematic viewpoint – and to continue tinkering with work to make it a “bit more friendly” rather than reforming the notion of work and its part in a whole life..

  • John curran

    Hi Craig,

    You make some excellent points about work-life balance and what to do about it.Perfect balance is a myth as you point out. It's really an illusion. I think that creating harmony in the physical, emotional, financial, relational, and spiritual areas of life are very important to overall happiness and fulfillment. Our life not static, it is in a state of flux, and it is dynamic. In the end, we have to take responsibility and control of our lives. Thanks for sharing your unique perspective, and offering some strategies to take control of our lives, and assume more of a leadership role.

    Life Coach John Curran

  • Carolyn Higgins

    Hi Craig,

    I liked the example you used of the images of a bouncing toddler on our knees as the supposed image of work life balance. You're right - that's ridiculous.

    I like your idea that it's more about control than balance - at this state of my business there is no such thing as balance. I work A LOT. But I've also learned that I do need to take control and remember to take personal time; have fun, get out, and have a social life!  I've also learned that I need those things to stay sane and healthy - and to be able to continue to work, because without them I will burn out and there will be no Fortune Marketing Company. 

    Making work and life mix as an entrepreneur as been an ongoing learning process. You make some great points here. Thank you!
    -Carolyn Higgins
    Fortune Marketing Company

  • Ryan Jennings

    Work/Life balance can be hard especially when in our personal lives we expect US businesses we deal with to be available in real-time all the time and especially between 5-11pm. I noticed this growing trend when I was over in San Francisco in October and thought, hey these smartphones can easily interrupt family time, social time, leisure time yet turning off means losing customers. 

    I'm based in New Zealand, which conveniently operates normal business hours between that cover 5 - 11pm US hours. So I've built a boutique operation called covermytime.com that helps stressed out executives and in some cases entire business functions serve customers after hours while restoring the work/life balance.  If you look at the stats about 5 - 11pm it's compelling:

    65% consumers access facebook.

    31.5% of US tweet activity occurs. 

    726 million Google searches are made.

    If you want to get control back of your life or help restore work/life balance at your organisation, talk to me about how we can help. 

    Ryan Jennings - President CoverMyTime.com
    covermytime.com
    @covermytime:twitter  

  • Andrew Norris

    "That being said, it's hard to be a rainmaker during a drought."You can use your resources and initiative and move yourself to where there is rain. There is always rain somewhere. Parts of computing for example are booming right now, inc. mobile, cloud and to a lesser extent the internet generally. 

    " Work at something where you are an A player and play "hardball" to have the balance that you really want."

    Exactly! And don't talk your self out of it before you even look. This article is about power and taking it. We can do it. 

  • NigelNewton

    Craig, you make a valid observation that feeling out of control of your workload creates work-related stress. While the "few ideas" that you present may contribute to a sense of control, time management is at the foundation of work-related stress. Assessing what tasks you have to complete, prioritizing and communicating to your colleagues what you are working on and where you need support will go a long way to reducing work related stress. It's an approach that will also identify problem areas that require change - staff, resources, client relations, reporting, information, support - in order to manage stress.

  • Luiz Gaziri

    That's why smart companies like Best Buy and GAP are managed by a ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment). Employees don´t need to show up at the office, meetings are optional, you can work where and when you choose to do it as long as you bring the results the company wants. This way, people are treated like adults. Productivity goes up, retention goes up, revenue goes up. Work is not a place you go, it is something you do!

  • Sean ML

    Mark, while that's very a valid point, it's also neither a law nor from the realm or psychology but rather sociology. I hate to be pedantic but as someone with a degree in psychology I get particular about these things. That being said, it's hard to be a rainmaker during a drought.

  • Peter Saddington

    I agree with Mark on this one. 
    Work for a company that's Agile. Why? Agile can improve work-life balance. I've seen it. 
    I wrote about it last week: http://bit.ly/zrYUi4

  • Mark Kiefaber

    In any negotiation, personal or commercial, the Law of Least Interest applies.  Psychology has very few laws, but this one is solid.  The least interested party has all the power.  Whoever is the least attached to a particular outcome will prevail in any negotiation.  Regarding work/life balance, if the worker is an A player and very much needed by the company, s/he has the upper hand in making balance demands.  A players have lots of options.  They don't have to stay in a place that restricts their happiness.  Of course, the opposite case is true, too.  A marginal player often feels s/he has to do whatever is required by the employer just to keep the job.  They care more about keeping their job than the company does.  So what's the answer?  Work at something where you are an A player and play "hardball" to have the balance that you really want.

  • Sean ML

    This article is just one big fallacy of composition. Really? Bouncing a toddler on your knee while getting work done is your vision of work/life balance? It's really more about being able to drop that toddler off at a nearby sitter, saving the commuting time, being able to drop off and pick up your grade schooler rather than having them spend 11 of their 14 waking hours with adults other than you or your spouse. 

    And who exactly is filled with angst at their family? You state that people take a victim role in these situations. I don't know anyone who feels victimized but rather challenged by the struggle that is work life balance. You paint such a caricature of people's lives and one would think you are basing your perspective on a sitcom more than real life. People for whom parenthood is an important aspect of their identity and who value time with their children only to watch the precious time slip away. Children who would like to see their parents more than the fleeting amount many of them do are not needy, they crave an emotional connection with the very people who brought them in to the world.

    Say no *before* you take the job? Right! I don't know how often my job description was expanded after the fact without compensation. Who really wants control is employers, and rightfully so, but they expect it without extending the leash to home even though the technology to do is readily available and highly affordable. Part of my work history has been opening up varying sized remote offices so I know how much or little you can put in to the infrastructure to allow remote or work from home.

    Your prescription to the harried parent who wants to make it to their child's soccer game once in awhile sounds more like "just learn to take it". Yours is not a prescription for how to deal with a lack of work/life balance, your thinking is endemic to the root of the problem many people have and that is that while just about every office job, from the small businesses to the enterprise, has the ability to provide more work/life balance they use that same technology to simply extend the leash of work once you do get home and with the economy in the state that it's in, we lack competition for the employed to alleviate that pressure.

    In closing, competition for resources provides control to the party with the leverage. With the global economy being in the stagnant shape it is and the US having anemic growth and now China is struggling with their manufacturing base and currency inflation. This gives the leverage to the employer. I say this in a value-free manner but is simply meant to illustrate that the employed have little leverage to take control.