Work Life Balance — The Advice That’s Actually Hurting You

What does work-life balance really mean?

When you research the topic of work-life balance, depending on which source you read, you’ll find that there are somewhere between three and six dimensions or domains of human wellness. These dimensions include your social, spiritual, physical, intellectual, and emotional needs. The basic idea is, to achieve a high level of health and happiness, you need to regularly feed each of these aspects of yourself.

The term work-life balance came into prominence in the 1980’s. The phrase stuck, and it’s now a buzzword that’s become the subject of thousands of books and magazine articles ever since. Not coincidentally, the 1980’s was also a time when many women entered the professional working ranks, where work schedules are less defined by the clock and more by when you fulfill your core responsibilities. This semi-autonomous work schedule naturally leads to ever-expanding work days, in the name of “getting everything done” or even “getting ahead”.

The difficulty of maintaining balance between professional and family responsibilities is what drove the phrase into our collectiveness consciousness. This was especially true with the family paradigm of mother-as-domestic-caretaker that existed prior to the 1980’s. Even though that paradigm has changed significantly since the 1980’s, our increasingly-connected and instant-gratification world makes it almost impossible to truly get away from work, even on weekends and on vacation, keeping the topic of work-life balance at the forefront.

The problem is our definition of work-life balance

In the context of your basic human needs, when you work long hours day after day, it often means you’re neglecting one or more of your physical, social, spiritual or emotional needs. Everyone gets the same 168 hours every week, so when you spend 60, 70, or 80 of those hours working, there are by definition less hours left for other things.

I need to make an important distinction here. A lot of the information you find in books and articles on the topic of work-life balance talks about its importance in the context of making sure you don’t neglect your relationships or your health, rather than as a strategy to help you be more motivated and effective in everything you do. And while prioritizing healthy habits and time away from work are important things to consider, such advice is a broad-brush approach that doesn’t take into account your personality, your individual needs or your specific situation.

For example, you might be an introvert who really enjoys your work, so your definition of balance would be dramatically different than someone who has a wide social network and who thrives on spending time with friends and volunteering in the community away from work.

Why you should UNbalance your life

The point is, there’s a common misconception that you need to have balance between your work life and your personal life. When it’s used in that context, the word balance implies you should spend roughly equal amounts of time and energy in each of those areas, so you can meet you personal obligations, and maintain the health of your body and your relationships. But a more effective approach is to identify the things and the people who energize you, share your values and support your goals, and then purposely unbalance your life to spend disproportionately more time in those areas and with those people.

Doing so will raise your baseline level of energy and motivation because your are spending time doing things that give you a true sense of joy and fulfillment. The positive effect it creates on your health and relationships by making you a happier, more energized person is simply icing on the cake. So, basically, you get to have that cake and eat it too.

But there’s a catch

Of course, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that there is a potential downside to unbalancing your life in this way. Before making that kind of change, you must recognize that doing so will, by definition, mean that you are giving less time and attention to certain areas of your life. As long as it is a conscious choice, and it aligns with your values, then you will be happier and more motivated on a daily basis. The other thing you need to take into consideration when deciding how to structure your life is how it will affect those closest to you, particularly your family.

For example, let’s say you’re thinking about doing an IRONMAN triathlon or starting a company. The time commitment required for those endeavors would likely create conflict if you also value spending lots of time in the evenings and on weekends with your family. In that scenario, you would need to discuss it with them and figure out whether you can find a solution that meets everyone’s needs. This type of situation assumes that those closest to you support you and your goals and generally want you to be happy and fulfilled in life.

Of course, there could be situations where you want to take on a challenge or commitment that will require you to unbalance yourself in other areas of your life, and even though you are willing to make that change, those close to you are not. In that situation, you have a bigger problem to deal with. That type of situation is outside the scope of motivation, so I am not going to delve into it here. However, if you find yourself in that situation, it may be an indicator that you have a fundamental, structural problem with your life, and you’ll have to find a way to resolve it or taking on that new challenge will create problems that could sabotage your success.

Please check out my website, The Motivation Mindset.

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