Forget about Work-Life Balance

Hold on a moment, humor me.  I have something better, and actually attainable, to propose. 

Search “work-life balance” on Google and you get 1.65 billion hits.  How to achieve it, tips and tricks and lifehacks, what it is and what it isn’t.   It’s a myth! It’s a dream! It’s about time and prioritization—no, it’s about purpose!  Whatever it is, nobody ever feels like they have it. 

That should be no surprise when you consider that the concept is, fundamentally, illogical.  Whose idea was it that work and life are somehow commensurate?  (Hint:  follow the money.)  In what other context do we try to “balance” a part with the whole?  Work and life aren’t apples and oranges, they’re apples and fruit.  What, then, can balance Work?  Elementary, my dear Watson:  Not-Work.  Life is made up of Work and Not-Work.  (How MECE!*)  And I propose that you’ll feel better, more human, and more like your true self if you can practice Work – Not-Work Balance

Wait—isn’t that the same difference?  Work – Life, Work – Not-Work; you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to?  Only if you’re conflating “work” with your (paid) job.  The problem is we all have a lot of work to do outside our paid jobs, whether we’re single or in families or households, whether we have children or parents to take care of or not.  So much of the “work-life” struggle is trying to get all­ that Not-Job Work done.  Clean the house, plan meals and shop, make appointments, feed the dog, call the super to fix the dripping sink, organize the congregation picnic, bathe the child, supervise homework (or virtual school!).  You may enjoy them.  You may outsource them.  Regardless, they’re still work.  Even if you’re just thinking about work, it’s still work:  it’s not uncontaminated time.  You can run yourself ragged juggling your Job-Work and your Not-Job Work, and the accomplishment still leaves you exhausted.  What’s missing?  Not-Work. 

This is where people usually talk about sleeping, and working out, and eating well—as if it’s a triumph to carve out enough time for self-care and maintaining your physical health.  Come on!  That should go without saying!  Is your work really worth sacrificing your health?  Do you want to work for someone who would expect that of you?  Go read Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker. 

Self-care is necessary, but not sufficient, Not-Work.  As a human being, you need play, and joy, and love, all of which occupy time.  Everything else is a body doing work; but this is what makes you, you:  your family (the not-work part), your friends, your community; your hobbies, your creativity, your inventions, your art, your adventures; your silence, your music, your daydreams, your puttering, your rest.  And all this is what we relinquish first when the pressure spikes.  It’s what we put on hold when we’re trying so hard to achieve, sometimes so long we forget what it is.  I remember once when I went to a big-deal midlevel training program, the managing director of my firm brought a couple of engagement managers to the stage.  “Tell us about yourself, who you are outside of work,” he invited.  I remember one of them reverted so quickly to the self-promotional patter of professional passions I was kinda embarrassed for him.

It took me an episode of burnout, a leave of absence, a lot of sleep, a week at Kripalu, and a lot of reading and reflection to realize this, and to see myself in the mirror again.  Here’s what I learned:  there’s no Work – No Work balance without legit joy.  It’s simple math:

Life = work + not-work

Work = job + not-job

Not-work = self-care (eat, sleep, run) and play/joy/love

You have 168 hours a week. 

Get enough sleep and make time for your joy. 

You might have to work less.


Work – Life Balance vs Work – Not-Work Balance


* MECE: consultant-speak for “mutually exclusive and comprehensively exhaustive”

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