The limitations of work-life balance and how to live powerfully in what balance means for you
It’s amazing how a simple phrase can shape how we think about an idea. “Work-life balance” is one that binds thinking into a binary pull between two opposite or competing priorities.
It conjures up an image of a seesaw, where one must stand precariously in the middle in order to balance both sides. If I move even slightly to one side, the opposite immediately springs upwards.
I came to challenge my own thinking around balance as I recovered from workplace burnout a couple of years ago. The demands of my job left little time to give attention to what was important to me.
I discovered a non-binary way of thinking that has been helpful to me and my coaching clients.
First, it’s important to understand some context about how we even got here in the first place.
Where it started
According to Forbes, work-life balance sprang to prominence in the 1980s as Generation X pushed back against the burnout and imbalance of their Boomer parents.
By the time the Millennials came around, the reprioritisation of life in relation to work put a stronger focus on healthy workplaces, leading to what became a new buzzword acknowledged by researchers at UC Berkeley as ‘work-life integration.’
The dangers of work-life integration
Professionals practicing work-life integration care less about what’s “work time” and what’s “personal time” and focus instead on what’s the best time to do these things. That could mean working later in the day in order to focus on a personal project in the morning, or checking email after hours but also checking and responding to personal email during the work day. In other words, work-life integration sees every activity in your day as a part of a whole, and is less focused on compartmentalising. — Atlassian
Work-life integration see the lines between work and life becoming increasingly blurred. The encroachment of work into the home during the pandemic saw more downsides emerge and balance harder to attain.
This can also be seen in the move towards a freelance or gig economy. Companies like Upwork evangelise the idea you can work anywhere, while employers can now get cheaper labour without the responsibilities of looking after the well-being of employees.
I share this not to get political, but to highlight how it is increasingly up to employees or workers to look after their own health and well-being.
To do so, it is helpful to let go of outdated models around balance. Instead, I use a different model in my own life and work as a coach.
Rethinking work-life balance (or integration)
Work-life balance has two major problems:
It assumes that work and life are the two most important priorities that need to be balanced.
Life is multifaceted, thereby “life” is not descriptive enough to be specific about what is needing balance.
In helping clients explore how to create more balance in their lives, it started as a conversation about values. Here’s the thing — “work” never once showed up as an explicit value. It was simply a means to achieve something deeper.
The Principle of Threes
Earlier I rejected the binary nature of the seesaw. When I think about strong, stable and balanced metaphors, the most consistent is the three-legged stool.
The three-legged stool is more stable than a four-legged one. Think about going to a cafe and getting the annoying table or chair that rocks. The problem with four legs is that as soon as one become uneven, there’s a persistent little instability.
Three-legged stools on the other hand have a stability that makes them inherently balanced. If one becomes a little uneven, the other two can provide the necessary support until the third is brought back into balance.
When working with clients on creating their own model for balance, I don’t impose my own thinking and values on the client. Instead, they identify what is most important to them.
Along the way, I’ve seen some consistent patterns of what makes up a three-way balanced life:
Self-care — What do you do that fills your cup? How do you most enjoy looking after yourself?
Growth — Where and how would you like to grow in your life?
Contribution —What do you enjoy giving or contributing to that brings you purpose and reward?
The answers to these questions will be different for everyone. Some may have one of these in abundance while neglecting others. I’ll explain how each works and why they are important.
Every person will fill their cup in different ways. Some people enjoy deep intimate conversations while others love to party. While I love being social in my day-to-day work, I like withdrawing to my cave in the evening for balance.
When I approach self-care as something I love to do rather than a necessary thing to offset stress, it becomes effortless.
One friend requires regular time in nature to feel balanced and connected. I have, for example, started scheduling in a spa day once a month as a treat for myself to look forward to.
2. Growth and learning
There’s an inherent human drive to grow that begins the moment we are born and is first seen in how we explore language and learning how to walk as infants.
As we move past our school years, growth and learning needs to become more conscious and proactively sought out.
For some people, work provides a mean for growth. There are times when our work can push us and other times where we stop growing in our jobs.
This is one of the most common issues clients have raised with me in starting coaching — they are no longer growing in their work and are looking for their next challenge.
This is not to suggest one must grow inside their jobs. Some people use work to provide the necessary financial security to support their other passions and interests. Nonetheless, growth is vital to living a happy and fulfilled life.
3. Contribution or giving
I work a lot with people who work in nonprofits and social businesses. In these situations, often their contribution cups are full or even overflowing.
The challenge for people who are naturally drawn to contribution is that there is never an end to the work that needs to be done. Cultures in nonprofits can often expect people to give more than is healthy.
On the other hand, there are many workplaces where employees don’t see how their work makes a difference to the lives of others.
It’s no wonder that companies create workplace giving and volunteering programs out of recognition of how important giving is to our psychological wellbeing. Again though, we don’t need our workplaces to create these opportunities to get our contribution needs met.
Doing more not less
Imbalance comes when we give more attention to any one of these things while neglecting another. At any one time we might have an abundance of growth and not enough self-care, or are extending ourselves in the way of contribution while feeling we aren’t growing.
In the old paradigm of work-life balance, it’s easy to think about needing to do less rather than more of something. Yet when we connect deeply with what matters to us, it’s amazing how much energy we find for the things we love.
My brother-in-law decided to not work any more than four days a week, always clocking off by 3pm. It’s not that he doesn’t like his job — he’s immensely talented and loves his work.
He wants to be present for and enjoy the childhoods of his two girls. It was less a matter of deciding against work, and more a matter of choosing a higher priority in his family. By making this choice, he becomes even more focused and dedicated to his work in the hours he is doing it.
Like I mentioned before, this way of looking at balance doesn’t intend to be prescriptive. Indeed, you may find other values or qualities to be more important than contribution, growth, or self-care. If you do, I’d love to hear what those are in the comments.
Find your Magic Middle
There’s a magical additional layer to this. It is possible to find things that help us to grow, contribute, and look after ourselves, which I place in the centre of a Venn diagram and call my ‘Magic Middle.’
Writing fills my cup. Something remarkable happens where no matter how busy I am, I still find the energy to write. Every piece of writing sparks more creativity and energy in me.
Writing is my magic middle. It’s a key way I contribute to the world while also growing as I explore new ideas. The process is therapeutic for me, now having been a key part of my self-care routine for over two decades.
I know people who found their ‘magic middle’ in dance, nature, travel, and more. It can be a powerful discovery and help to quicken progress to a more balanced life.