Balance is Bunk!

It’s the central myth of the modern workplace: With a few compromises, you can have it all. But it’s all wrong, and it’s making us crazy. Here’s how to have a life anyway.

This is page 5 of the article, “Balance is Bunk!


The Book of Life

Do we throw up our hands then? We can’t do everything, but neither can we retreat from the things that are important. How do we make work and life happen on our terms?

The short answer is, we don’t entirely. But there are saner ways to confront the problem. One is rooted in the short term. In their interviews and surveys, Nash and Stevenson learned that successful professionals who were also happy had found ways to “switch and link” — to switch the focus of their full attention with lightning speed among activities and people in different realms.

David Zelman, a psychotherapist and executive coach, sees this as a crucial skill successful people must learn. “Can you leave the office in the office? Can you give someone outside the office the same attention you gave your CEO? If you can give your children or your spouse 100% of your attention, even for a brief period, it goes way longer than compromising and giving them some time because you think you should.”

The other solution is more about structure. It forces us to take a long-term view. Give up on the promise of balance at any point in time. Instead, consider a life and career as a portfolio. In each chapter, we have different responsibilities and priorities: children, home, travel, aging relatives. We face a corresponding variety of roles and opportunities on the job: a big project, moving up the managerial hierarchy, consulting, a startup, a top leadership role.

Balance, for what the word is worth, then becomes a lifelong quest — balance among chapters rather than within each chapter. “It gets in people’s heads that the ultimate goal is a 50-50 split between work and life,” says work-life consultant Cali Williams Yost. “But there are times when I’ve happily devoted 80% of my time to work — and other times when I couldn’t.” The tough part is recognizing the chapters for what they are — just temporary episodes that together make up a coherent and satisfying whole.

“This is just one chapter in my life. I feel I have so much to contribute. I have to leverage myself and contribute in the way I can.”

That’s why Sharkey finds her current manic lifestyle acceptable — because, she says, “this is just one chapter in my life.” The opportunity to fix and build a business at AOL — and to create something that brings lasting value to women and families — is, she believes, worth the frenzy and the compromises. “I feel like I have so much to contribute. I have to leverage myself and contribute in the way I can.”


Consider it an exercise in continuous redesign, in adapting to ever-changing circumstances and priorities. For couples, this also requires constant rebalancing of roles and responsibilities: You got the promotion, so I’ll telecommute for now — until my next big opportunity comes up. Those who succeed, says Zelman, are “the people who learn to dance with change, who create and ride the wave.” They don’t make decisions once or twice, but all the time.

And here’s what’s crucial: With each decision, these people invest themselves, their passion, and their time in what is most important to them. They also agree to give up something important; a portfolio life doesn’t excuse them from the need to make trade-offs. The decision to reject the mirage of balance requires the discipline to continually prioritize and compromise.

Is that balance? Only in the sense that, over time, things more or less balance out. But that doesn’t make it perfect, or easy. In some ways, it’s counterinstinctual. It forces us to think differently about our careers and about the contributions we make in all realms of our lives. And it gives us a plan that’s valid only until the next baby, project deadline, layoff, or illness.

But all things considered, it could prove a lot saner.

Keith H. Hammonds is Fast Company‘s deputy editor. Additional research by Michael Aneiro, Maxine Clayton, and Melissa Korn.

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Discussion Guide

Interested in further exploring some of the ideas and issues in this article? Consider starting a Fast Company reading group. Here are some possible conversation catalysts:


Evaluate your work/life balance. Is it about what you expected given your age, career track, and salary? Where could it be improved? Design a guideline for how your company could improve its work/life balance. Are work and family always in direct competition? How can you embrace this imbalance?