3 Ways To Break Out Of The "All Work" Or "No Work" Death Trap

As I observed the debate ignited by Anne-Marie Slaughter's controversial "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" article in The Atlantic from afar over the past week, I witnessed person after person, including Slaughter, fall into the classic "all work" or "no work" trap." It's a death trap that immediately kills any productive conversation about creative, innovative ways to work differently. And that's the real conversation we need to have.

But we won't until we figure out how to avoid the "all or nothing" landmine that everyone seems to run into whenever a discussion about how to manage work and life in a modern, hectic world begins. Here are three simple steps to get us started:

First, understand what it looks like when someone falls into the trap. You'll begin to recognize what to avoid. Here are a few examples related to the Slaughter article debate:

The truth is that Slaughter did not leave her senior position in the State Department to not work. She went back to her very busy, very prestigious full-time job as a professor at Princeton. The difference was at Princeton she has more control over her schedule.

Unfortunately, in many of the responses to and interviews about her article, the conversation quickly devolved into the unwinnable debate "should mothers work or stay home." That's not what Slaughter did or what she was talking about. And yet, that's where we ended up.

Few were able to pull themselves out of the trap. It would have meant acknowledging that some people do choose to work all the time, or not work for pay at all, but what about everyone else? How do we take advantage of the countless possibilities in-between and do it in a way that works for us and our jobs?

Watch how Slaughter herself falls into the trap in this video from her interview at The Aspen Ideas Festival. She tries to explain how we should praise women who make work+life decisions in part to care for their families. But then assumes men can't be guided by family concerns because they have to make money.

Actually, men could and often do make tough work choices based on family considerations as long as the default assumption isn't that the only alternative is to "not work," but to work differently.

Again, Slaughter did not choose to work less. She worked differently. There's no reason a man couldn't do the same. But in the "all work" or "no work" trap it's impossible to stay in the grey zone of work+life possibility for all. What about the men who turn down promotions that would have required more work or take lower-paying jobs closer to home? I see it happen all the time, but because those choices don't fit our rigid "all or nothing" work dichotomy, we don't see or celebrate them. We should.

Very few people, men or women, can afford to not work even for a brief period of time; therefore, working smarter, better and more flexibly is the solution. Hopefully knowing what the trap looks like will help us avoid falling into it. And we can finally focus our discussion on the countless flexible ways of fitting work and life together.

Second, the issue is how to reset your unique work+life "fit" not work-life balance: If you have a few minutes, go back and re-read The Atlantic article. Everywhere you see the phrase "work life balance," substitute "find a work+life fit that works for me and my job." It's almost magical what happens. All of sudden the unwinnable search to find "balance," turns into a series of deliberate choices based on work and personal circumstances at a particular point in time. And much of the drama disappears.

For example, Slaughter could have inspired and empowered the Cambridge students she presented to with the story of how she flexibly managed the unique fit between her challenging work and very full personal life over the course of her career. Instead she focused on how you can't find balance and you can't "have it all."

She could have told them how a change in her work and personal realities caused her to leave her job at the State Department. How she would have lost her tenured professorship and her son began to struggle. That it was time for her to reset her work+life fit. And five years from now, when her sons are no longer living at home, and she can take another leave, maybe she'll reset it again.

That's the real story—how do you flexibly manage those resets as your unique work and personal circumstances change? But that fluid, changeable narrative can't survive in the "all work" or "no work" death trap. It gets lost in, what I call, the tyranny of balance.

Third, substitute "work differently" for "stay at home": Yes, not working in the paid workforce for a period of time is a very valid decision; however, it is a choice most people increasingly cannot make without putting themselves and their families at financial risk. Unfortunately, we haven't found language to describe simply changing the way you work. We tend to go right to "stay at home" which infers not working for pay.

For example, last week I had an opportunity to listen to about eight hours of talk radio as I drove my daughter to camp. It was at the peak of the Slaughter article frenzy when she appeared on a number of shows (in my opinion, Tom Ashbrook of On Point on NPR did the best job). One caller after another kept talking about how they either "can't afford to quit and stay home" or how they "decided to quit and stay at home." Okay, but what about doing what Slaughter did which was work differently?

In fact, when you heard the details of the callers' stories, it became clear that most were working differently but they obviously didn't have the language to describe the change they'd made. Maybe they "can't afford to quit and stay home," but they were working from home two days a week. Or maybe they did decide to "quit and stay home," but they had started a business that they ran out of their house. However, they were stuck using "stay at home" because it's the only way they knew how to describe working differently. The conversation went nowhere.

The "all work" or "no work" trap will continue to stifle creative, productive problem-solving around the very real and urgent issue of managing work and life unless we break out of its limiting grasp. Know what it looks like to fall into the trap, focus on how to reset your work+life fit when your unique work and personal circumstances change, and talk about "working differently," not "staying at home." Then we will see and value the countless work+life fit possibilities that lie in-between the all or nothing.

Are you stuck in the "all work" or "no work" dichotomy? Do you see the countless creative ways to fit work into your life between the all-or-nothing? Would moving beyond limits of "balance" and talking about how you can work differently, not necessarily less, help to see the possibilities?

Cali Williams Yost is the CEO and Founder of the Flex+Strategy Group / Work+Life Fit, Inc., flexible work and life strategy advisors to clients including BDO USA, Pearson, Inc., EMC, the U.S. Navy, and Novo Nordisk for almost two decades. Her second work+life fit book, Tweak It: Small Changes, Big Impact—Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day, will be published by Center Street/Hachette in January, 2013. Connect with Cali at her award-winning Work+Life Fit blog and on Twitter @caliyost.

[Image: Flickr user Tommy Toner]

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  • JudyMartin

    Right on Cali!
    I'm glad you addressed this sensitive debate. You're right on target with the problem around framing the discussion. We need better language, a change in perspective, and a cultural shift.  Working differently, changing jobs or even careers to better manage what I refer to as the "work-life merge,"  is not tantamount to failure.

    Those decisions/choices are part of an individual and familial journey. It's a process. It's not constructive to talk about "having" or not "having it all." As a society, we're experiencing an evolution in the way we manage the intersection of the working and living experience - no matter the sector.  As you write, it's far more progressive to talk about an individual's best work-life fit.

    When I hear  "work-life balance" in terms of it being the elusive goal, it makes me cringe as that's not even the conversation we should be having. As the song goes "That's so 2008."

  • Alarna Rose Gray

    Fantastic post! So true. Why are we still not past the dichotomy debate? University was in some ways one of the most depressing times of my life, because it was full of all the negatives, and no solutions at all were being discussed. Creative solutions can and must be found - for men, too, who are trapped in a different way than women by the dichotomy. One of the most inspiring things I heard recently was of a man who went to a job interview and advised that taking time off fortnightly for his kids (either unpaid or as part of his annual leave) was non-negotiable - though it was flexible. The best thing of all was that he got the job :)

  • Nacie Carson

    Hi Cali - excellent article here and response to this dialogue about work v. home - from where I sit, this is what the gig economy can offer women especially: a way to continue their careers and earn/advance while finding a fit with their goals as a partner and mother.  great piece!

  • Cali Williams Yost

      Glad you agree we need a new model. So happy to hear you've found a flexible work+life fit that works for you and your job.  Hopefully more people will be able to do so.
     Yes, we need to highlight and celebrate those new models
      Thank you! 
     Yes, consistently I've found that implementing a more strategic/flexible approach to work+life fit unearths and eliminates all sorts of unproductive, unnecessary work practices.
     In fact, people who work from home can often be more productive with their work. 
     Amen, my friend! 

  • Mom Corps

    Cali, a very insightful take on the issue at hand. Why are we focusing on whether we work or not, versus talking about the evolution of the concept of work. “The "all work" or "no work" trap will continue to stifle creative, productive problem-solving around the very real and urgent issue of managing work and life unless we break out of its limiting grasp.” Absolutely. We are seeing this from both the employee and employers side. If the workplace (and women) would begin looking at all professionals, regardless of gender, in the same way, we would likely be able to skip these polarizing debates and jump right into solutions. It is about addressing an evolution of work and how we can adapt to work differently, because all or nothing just won't work for most professionals.--Allison O'Kelly, founder/CEO Mom Corps 

  • Claudia Wittek

    The problem is that if you decide to work differently - e.g. open your own business and working from your office at home - all is ever heard - home. All value of working self employed is gone with the wind. Society has to change in a different way which is acknowledging the contribution to society when raising children. Where else do you learn, train and use all the social skills we have so badly need off. And here it does not matter who is doing the care for the kids - mother or father. It should be a huge bonus in one's CV and employers should seek it as such.

  • Eileen McDargh

    I have long written that "balance is baloney". The metaphor we  see with the word balance is a pan scale of justice. The implication is that balance is about equality. Life is never equal and nor can the segments of our lives be doled out in equal fashion. Work-life fit is indeed a better term and one that also matches the weaving and bobbing strands of our life and its complex phases. Additionally, to assume an either/or posture negates the fact that workers need to flag wasteful work, bad work, outdated work, and just plain silly work. I am constantly amazed at the reluctance of managers to cancel time-wasting meetings and long-winded email streams that become busy. When one clarifies what is a valuable work activity and what are life priorities, then one will begin experiencing work-life fit.

  • Neha

    This is really a much needed perspective. We have become victims of defining "having it all" in one way - Climb the corporate ladder, get a sexy title and a lot of money. There are many unique and creative ways of having it all and as you say we need to highlight and celebrate those models. 

  • sue

    I think the Slaughter perspective was highly influenced by the fact that she has gone through the academic route and worked in positions that only become available for a very small number of people - like I always say - we need someone to die to get an opening...it changes your perspective because you're in this "fight" for such a small amount of positions with men who don't bring "mommy baggage" and the mommy issue gets amplified.  If you have lots of ways of following your career when it is broadly defined as "Engineer" or "Nav Arch" etc then it is possible to carve a new path but when the only way to be a professor/teacher at the uni level is within the rigid boundaries of produce x number of papers with x number of grad students and x number of successful grants in x number of years it becomes incredibly frustrating.  
    We need to redefine the role and job of a professor to include the various family needs but there's no motivation because why bring on a mom with her stuff when there's an excellent guy right there who has a cooperative stay at home wife.  Of course once people have tenure they do what they want but it's the years getting the job and the years getting tenure that co-incide with family starting time that is the big obstacle.  So the issue for me is fine - you don't want the hassle of me and my mommy-ness then the number of women role models in teaching is always going to fall short because so many women do want to have families.  And does anyone care!?  Do they really want those role models?  The changes have to happen at the educating level in order to get women into engineering and sciences so that they can in turn "work differently".  The trickle down impact is important.

  • Katya Kotlyar

    This is hopefully a great start for changing the stereotypical narrative that has been putting so much pressure on people who need to make changes in their lives but have no courage or understanding how this fits in for them. I have a flexible work that allows me to stay at home sometimes, leave early, or start early, take some time off, and it makes me very happy at this moment and leaves me my precious asset - out-of-work time, which I can re-invest in other things, literally and figuratively. 

  • Melissa_t_n

    Thank you for reframing this discussion.  I think we are just caught in the slog of the "old way" of doing business.  The tech revolution has shaken up the established traditions and it's now time to move forward into a work + life fit methodology.  Frankly, women deserve better and we are too important for the future of this country to have to deal with the stresses that come from the "either or" debate.  I also encourage men to become the standard bearers for the 50/50 economy (aka: shared responsibilities).