Debunking the Myth of Work-Life Balance
In the blue corner, weighing in at 47 hours per week, it’s the average American full-time job!
Why do we all seem to work so damn hard? Is this even a bad thing and, if it is, can we do anything about it? Do content creators and solopreneurs ever really stop working? One thing is certain: the debate on where to draw the line between work and life isn’t new.
Why it feels more like work-life imbalance
In the 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren,” economist John Maynard made the prediction that our generation might only be working 15 hours per week. His prediction was based on the effect of technology on labor productivity. Keynes suggested that the same economic output would, over time, require fewer and fewer human hours of input. And while improvements in machines and rising automation have driven greater efficiency, we haven’t exactly dropped down to two-day workweeks as predicted.
Keynes’s idea behind the 15-hour workweek was that we, human beings, would take the free time from technological efficiencies and fill it with leisure. Efficiencies came, but leisure (at least as Keynes defined it) did not. 2014 Gallup polling suggests that the U.S. full-time load is closer to 47 hours per week these days, and the clients I work with all seem to shoot for higher. Here’s a funny thing, though — it’s almost never about the number of hours.
I have clients who are miserable with lighter workloads and clients who are fulfilled by throwing themselves into work. I have clients that can’t wait to jump back into another hour of work, and others that dread the thought of it. Over time, my clients have taught me to appreciate this truth: balance is not about working less or even working smarter, it’s about our relationship with “work.”
Lines are getting more blurry
Work, and its structure in our lives, has evolved dramatically over the last two centuries, and it continues to evolve. These days and for a growing number of us, “work” is not simply pulling a lever from 9 to 5. Many of us are knowledge workers, for whom work means building expertise, fostering creativity, and facilitating innovation. Work is less traditional and hierarchical. Work can be a full-time job at a company, creating and selling content on your own, and anything in between.
The implication of this is that we’re required to really show up to our work and bring the best of ourselves to bear. We are invited to be people at work, with interests and emotions, not just employees. We are called to blaze our own trail and work for ourselves as consultants, side hustlers, content creators, and more. Life at work and life at home have begun to integrate, and technology — amplified by the global COVID pandemic — has only helped to further merge these two worlds.
Enough never is
The blurriness between work and life could be a good thing, and it is for some. But in my experience, most of us end up simply filling up that space with more work. It can be difficult to know when to “shut down.” Dispersed teams, remote working, and technology in general, which increasingly helps to automate our lives, can also make it easier to just be working all the time.
Growing access to technology means that our time is more easily fragmented. Although we may have access to leisure in new ways, we often fall into small, easy-to-complete tasks that make us feel time poor. Technological connection also means that it’s never been easier to compare ourselves to others and feel like we’re not doing “enough.” The one-percent is only a tap away.
Enough never will be
Sometimes, the idea of enough lives in the fantasy of a different place. We are not satisfied with “here.” But sometimes the idea of enough lives in the fantasy of a different time. We are not satisfied with “now.” As a side note: it can be powerfully helpful to identify which fantasy you tend to escape to most.
It’s a common idea. “Someday, I will have X and be fulfilled.” Or “Once I do Y, then I can rest.” We’re constantly sourcing value from the future and, even if we complete X and Y, we just move onto Z. We’re not really present for our work and there’s always a compelling reason to work more, because whatever we’re needing is “out there” somewhere, not here already.
What we can do about it
The good news is that awareness is half the battle! If you can see your blurry lines, you can either accept them or change them to your benefit. If you can see how you escape the present moment, you can, if you want, make a different choice. I have four recommendations for how to find a better relationship between work and life.
1. Make the line less blurry
There may be an argument for making the line between work and life clearer. Actions here look like having more strict transitional moments (e.g. closing your laptop and saying a mantra as an evening ritual to be done with work) or more distance spaces for work versus leisure. Ask: what can I change about my environment or routine? How can I make my work time more focused on work and my life time more focused on life? But for a more transformative approach, ask yourself if you could just…
2. Get rid of the line
Neo / Matrix moment: there is no line. What if work-life balance was a false construct for you and the type of work you do? If you’re a UX designer at a startup, a line between work and life might be helpful. But if you’re, say, selling wellnesses courses through Instagram, that line might not be helpful at all. Instead of work-life balance, you might need work-life integration or rhythm. Try ignoring the labels altogether and just ask yourself: what’s most important for me today? But that only works if you…
3. Stay in the present
Easier said than done, but like I said — awareness is half the battle. The frantic feelings we place on work can easily translate into “never enoughness,” with us always throwing ourselves into urgency and reactivity. Start noticing, even recording down somewhere, the things that are loudest, the things that are most demanding of your energy and attention. And get skeptical that these are things that “need” to be done. Ask: what if I already have everything I need? What if here and now is enough? The more you stay in the present moment, the more you can…
4. Love what you do
Doing what you love is great, but doing things with love is sustainable. Being present to the here and now can certainly make you more effective, but over time it can also help you feel more content and grateful. Step one is to choose a path that speaks to your interests and strengths, but step two — and, I think, the more important step — is to practice gratitude for the path you’re on. Ask yourself: what can I appreciate in the work I’m doing today? What am I learning, or learning about myself? Then, try prioritizing your daily tasks not only on value, but on the joy they bring you.
With the rise of the knowledge worker (and content creator and startup grinder and side hustler), there are fewer and fewer bright lines between work and life. Technology, remote working, and dispersed teams has made many of our homes our offices, too, at least part of the time. This makes the line between work and life feel more blurry and “made up” than ever before. This, in turn, can pull us into work and “firefighting” mode more easily than ever before. To get some balance back into your life, try to:
Make the line less blurry and set clear boundaries for what’s work and what’s leisure, each day and each week
Get rid of the line and get rid of the labels, especially if work is fulfilling and self-directed, and instead focus on what’s really important to you each day
Stay in the present to practice “enoughness” to accept that there will always be more work you could do
Love what you do, regardless of the path you’re on, and practice appreciation to make the work you do enjoyable
To close on that last point: it might sound like a throw-away suggestion to just “enjoy the work you do,” but I really have seen that, like any mindset, it can be built and practiced. Gratitude and appreciation can be built, like muscles. And who wouldn’t want to work in a job they enjoy? In your deep reflection, you may realize that you’re not in the right career and that’s okay too — you can do something about it! But I encourage you to search first for what’s here, not on the other side of the fence.
Good luck on your journey.
Originally published in Mind Cafe