Why Work-Life Balance Doesn’t Work

Updated: Sep 27, 2021

Work-life balance is a problem. Though maybe not for the reason you might think. The underlying assumption behind the idea of work-life balance is that you’ll actually be able to achieve a perfect balance between the two. Not having good work-life balance is bad because being out of balance makes you sick and unhappy. Work too much, and you have less time for life. Think about work too much, and your mind never really stops working, even when it’s supposed to be relaxing. Spend too much energy on work, and you’ll be too exhausted to enjoy life. So a healthy work-life balance is one in which you don’t work too hard or for too long. Ideally, for every hour of work you put in, you should have a proportional amount of time spent relaxing or recharging in some way. For you that balance might not be 1 to 1—it might be 1 hour of work to 2 hours of life. That’s okay because it’s not so important that you fit a particular mold of balance that might work for someone else. Perfect balance is slightly different for everybody. What’s important is finding the perfect balance for you and maintaining it. We’re told that this is the best way to make forward progress in our careers and life without burning ourselves out. That sounds pretty good, right? The only problem is that last part is a lie. This understanding of work-life balance doesn’t enable us to make forward progress in life, it prohibits us. It traps us in mediocrity and makes us depressed. If we treat having work and life perfectly balanced as an ideal to strive for, we’re going to struggle to make any real progress in life. But that doesn’t mean work-life balance is bad. It’s just missing something. Let me explain.

Balance, Progress, and Burnout

The thing about perfect balance is that, in order to maintain balance, you’re not allowed to put in any extra effort, anywhere, at any time, for any reason. No staying late at work, no putting in extra hours over the weekend, no spontaneous vacations—to do any of this would put you out of balance. The issue here should be pretty obvious. In order to achieve anything worthwhile, grow as a person, and make progress in life, you have to put in a significant amount of extra effort. That extra effort necessarily must put you out of balance. Anytime you give a particular part of your life extra anything—attention, energy, or effort—you must give less to every other area of your life. Think back on your life and you’ll see examples of this everywhere. If you had maintained a state of perfect balance for any of these examples, you wouldn't have been able to accomplish what you did. Nobody who ever accomplished anything worthwhile did so from a place of balance. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should give up on having an amazing life in order to be ultra successful at work. When it comes to work-life balance, having an either-or mindset is a bad idea. If you spend all of your time working, you’re going to get stressed out, burnt out, and ultimately less productive. So it’s important that you have time to break from work and relax. Likewise, if you don’t spend any time working, obviously you won’t be able to pay the bills. Being completely out of balance (for too long) is just as bad as keeping yourself in perfect balance forever. So if you need to stay in balance to be happy and productive, but you also need to be out of balance in order to make progress in life, what do you do?

What’s Missing from Work-Life Balance? Strategic Imbalance.

There’s a period of time when it’s okay to be out of balance. There are a certain amount of 12 hour workdays that you can do before getting burnt out. There is a certain amount of time that you can go without getting coffee with a friend before you become stir crazy in your personal life. Strategic imbalance intentionally uses these limits. As long as you stay aware and can recognize where your limits are, strategic imbalance allows you to focus your time and energy on one worthwhile thing thing long enough to accomplish it (or at least make meaningful progress). Then, when you’ve hit your limit, makes it okay to pull your attention back and rest for a time, resetting your balance to its ideal, perfect state. Or in other words, treat perfect balance as your default state, but allow yourself to be out of balance when it’s time to upgrade your life. When the upgrade is done, go back to your default state to recharge. This more active approach to work-life balance delivers what perfect balance promises. It protects you from the damaging effects of being out of balance for extended periods of time, while at the same time enabling you to make real progress in life. That’s why, in order to make your work-life balance actually work, you need to be strategically choosing when to break the mold and be out of balance.

Written by Wyatt Dalton

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