Whenever I hear the term work-life balance, I picture a giant, old-fashioned scale. On one side, there’s work: a desk, a computer, a phone and customers. On the other side, there’s life: a house, a television, a family and friends. The two sides tilt back and forth precariously. (And if you did something like add a dog to the “life” side, you could lose your balance entirely.)
This notion never seemed like a game that I could win, and lately it has become clear that work-life balance, as a concept, has a couple of flaws.
First, despite everyone’s good intentions, work-life balance has become polite code for working less. As a phrase, it is never used to signal, “Hey, I have way too much leisure time, and I would like to balance that out with some more challenging work.”
And the problem with focusing on working less is that it makes work the bad guy.
For a great many people, work is not just something we do to earn a living. Work is far more than a paycheck or a means to an end. It is, rather, an expression of one’s gifts, talents, strengths and an important anchor for our place in the world and relationship to others. And when we relegate work to the role of a necessary evil, that’s when it starts to be become problematic.
It’s sort of like food. We all have to eat to stay alive, just like most of us have to earn money to keep a roof over our heads. But what if there was a problem with the food? What if it didn’t taste good or wasn’t nutritious? One response to flavorless food could be to eat less, or to only eat the minimum amount you needed. But a different response could be to fix the food.
So if work doesn’t feel good, remember that you have options. Yes, you can set boundaries around your work or seek to work less. But you also can strive to fix the work. Whether you are a bartender or a building inspector or a business owner, it is possible for your work to feed both your bank account and your soul.
The second problem with the concept of work-life balance is the underlying assumption that less work will automatically lead to more life. In actuality, what I’ve seen time and again with my coaching clients is that having a life takes work. So many people focus on the “stop working at 6 p.m.” part of the equation, and not enough people focus on the “meet friends at 6:30 p.m.” part.
If you’re feeling in need of work-life balance, chances are, what you’re really saying is that you want more of something, not less of something. More fun, more relaxation, more connection, more joy, more meaning. What would you choose to have more of in your life? The trick is to name it – for example, “I want more energy.” Then figure out a specific action you can take to go get it.
The good news is, work tends to be elastic. It will stretch or retract around other things in your life. And while it may seem like a leap of faith initially, go ahead and sign up for that 6:30 p.m. Zumba class. You will be amazed at how your work will find a way to flow around that appointment, once you put it on your calendar.
By the same token, if you’re looking to dedicate more of your working time to a particular area of focus, remove some things from your calendar and watch how your chosen activity expands to take advantage of the extra space.
So stop thinking about balance and throw away the scale. We weren’t meant to approach our work or our personal lives as bookkeepers. Picture instead two beautiful gift baskets, both overflowing with good things, including learning, serving others, positive relationships, and good health. Picture instead “work-life abundance.”
Jennie Wong, Ph.D. is a Charlotte-based executive coach and the founder of www.CartCentric.com, a friendsourcing tool for online shopping.
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