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Work and life don't balance


3 min read

Work-life balance is impossible. In fact, it might be the most insidious and counterproductive idea in the business conversation today. Here’s why:

Work-Life Balance Is Impossible

While it sounds harmless, it’s based on a troubling idea that isn’t often understood. Work-life balance has an assumption that those two things are "equal"—that you can balance a certain amount on one side against a certain amount on the other, like you could with apples and oranges. But your life and your work aren’t equal—your life will always be bigger than your work—so trying to balance them is a recipe for failure. In fact, the work-life balance concept reinforces a split that was never meant to be there in the first place.

Work-life balance implies you have two separate personalities—the you who you are at work and the you who you are "everywhere else." This subtle but powerful assumption might have you scratching your head. We’re so conditioned to be different at work—to be efficient and productive (meaning: leave your values and heart at the door). At home, you’re supposed to be slower—more loving and caring with yourself and others (meaning: embody your real values there).

But what if caring and ownership were universal values that applied equally at work and at home?

What if trying to balance them is the problem? Even worse, what if it has the effect of deepening the problem—making you more stressed and overwhelmed—rather than less? What if the constant state of anxiety you feel (whether it’s high grade or low grade right now) is there not because you can’t drag yourself away from work—but because you haven’t yet gone all the way into it?

You can’t balance two things that aren’t measurable by the same scale. Apples and oranges can be weighed in pounds—a certain number on this side weighs the same as a certain number on the other side. But life and work? They aren’t measured on the same scale because one is a subset of the other.

When you are at work you are by definition in your life. Right? When you are at home you are not necessarily at work (though sometimes you may be). Can you see how life can contain work—but not the other way around?

Your life is bigger than your work—no matter how passionate you are about it or how successful you become. In fact, the more passionate you are about it, the bigger your life has to get. It can feel, and maybe often does, that your work is consuming your life. That’s a real feeling—but it’s just not a real reality. Your work can not be bigger than your life.

Let’s be clear—you can work too much, and your personal life will suffer. Checking your email during dinner with your spouse is not an aphrodisiac. But being passionate about what you do definitely is. The point is that you can learn how to work smarter and move through the "inbox" of your day more efficiently with some training in self organization and the help of a business coach.

But there’s another way to think about it. Your business came from your life, it came from your choices, your vision, your financial dreams and realities. It came from you and it can never be bigger than you or "balanced" against you. It’s impossible.

You can’t solve a problem from inside of it. If you measure your success in hours or "down time," you are using business measurements to solve a larger life problem. At EMyth, we love systemization and quantification—but the results are only as good as the standard of measurement you’re using.

If you're looking for a New Year's resolution, choose to measure your progress by a different standard. How can you make today more meaningful than yesterday was? How can you bring more of yourself to your work (aka: a big part of your life) and improve the lives of those around you? Start by choosing to begin your moments—your meetings, your phone calls, your employee mentoring—from this place. You’ll automatically be more efficient, and whenever you go home you’ll do so with a clearer head and a less burdened heart.

Jonathan Raymond

Written by Jonathan Raymond

Jonathan was a frequent contributor to the EMyth blog from 2011-2015. His articles focus on marketing, branding, and organizational culture.