The work-life seesaw

Posted on August 12, 2015


I encountered this Alain de Botton quote in an article recently and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it: Work-life balance is impossible because everything worth fighting for unbalances your life. It’s so true. If you’re fighting for something at work (more visibility, a bigger pay cheque), then you’re going to have to do things that reduce the quality time you spend at home. And vice versa – struggles at home impact your professional life. But let’s step back a bit. Considering the definition of “balance” (“a state of equilibrium or equipoise; equal distribution of weight, amount, etc.”), is there anyone who can claim to have attained such a blissed-out optimum? Is such a thing even possible?

I did a casual Wiki lookup and found that the term “work-life balance” was “first used in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s to describe the balance between an individual’s work and personal life. In the United States, this phrase was first used in 1986.” That is, long before the digital age, long before smartphones and laptops and other modes of 24×7 connectivity shrank the distance between “work” and “home.” Back then, it was genuinely possible to “switch off,” because once you left your place of work, you couldn’t do much at home. Of course, there were exceptions. There were those who stayed back at the office and worked really late. There were those who brought home files. But I’m talking about the average person. You had until the following morning to do non-work things, even if you were just staring at the TV and paying little attention to the “life” around you at home. But now, that division is blurred. You stare at the TV and you have a smartphone in your hand.

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And I’m saying: Is that really such a bad thing? Isn’t it actually easier to catch up on a few emails on Sunday so that Monday becomes less stressful? In other words, instead of spending all of Sunday doing “life things” and all of Monday doing “work things,” isn’t it better to do a bit of both on both days? Of course, if you’re taking a trip with family or friends, for example, then yes, Sunday is a one-hundred-per-cent “life” day – but I’m talking about the average weekend. I suppose this also has to do with how much your work defines you. If you feel work is a chore and the only reason you do it is for the money, then I guess you’re more likely to feel you need “life things” on a regular basis. But if you enjoy work, then that itself becomes a “life thing” – “pleasure,” therefore, isn’t just watching a good movie or unwinding with the family but also the high you get from a job done well.

Here’s another thing: If you don’t want to be mediocre, if you want to achieve more, you’ve got to be prepared for (to get back to that de Botton quote) some amount of “unbalancing.” You have to accept that… it takes as long as it takes. I’ll talk about writing, a world I know well. If you work with an eye on the clock, if you “dash things off,” you are never going to produce really good work. Yes, the job might get done, but it won’t be something you’re going to be happy seeing under your name in a newspaper. So perhaps this is something else to consider: If you work in a “visible” job, where your name is out there, maybe you have to be prepared for a pretty porous wall between work and life

In general, concepts like “work-life balance” are designed to make us feel guilty if we, say, work for ten days straight and then take two days off, or go away on a vacation. But thinking about missed Sundays (instead of thinking about the things you accomplished at work during those ten days) can be more stressful. You keep thinking about what you didn’t do rather than what you did. It’s important to ensure you don’t burn out, but the answer is not constantly swinging back and forth between “work” and “life.”

The trick is not to think of “balance” – a mythical 50-50 concept – and think instead of what makes you happy. If work makes you happy, then you’ve really got it made – and you just have to take care that you check other boxes too. A bit of exercise for physical health. A bit of meditation (or whatever) for mental health. Some time with your loved ones. But always with the awareness that the skew isn’t going to be “ideal.” Something will always suffer – and that’s something you’ve got to be prepared for. You have to have your priorities right. You have to realise that by doing this you’re going to have to give up a bit of that, and decide whether that’s okay. That, really, is what balance is about, balancing the mind.

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