There is no work-life balance

Work-life balance
One of the few moments in my life where I’m almost
guaranteed not to be thinking about work.
And that’s exactly how I like it.

The Work-Life Balance theme continues all week on the blog in honor of the Danish National Work-Life Balance Week. Previous posts on the topic here.

I previously reported on an an interview with Lotte Bailyn of MIT, who works to:

…rethink aspects of work in such a way that employees are able to live up to their highest potential in their work, and are also able to integrate their work with their personal lives. That is what we call the dual agenda.

That’s interesting work, and one of the most interesting things is that they specifically DO NOT talk about work-life balance:

We specifically do not use the term “balance” because it connotes that these two domains in people’s lives have to be equal; that it’s a balance scale – hence if one goes up, the other goes down. The underlying premise of our work is that this need not necessarily be so. We talk about “the integration of work and personal life” to show that work is also part of life. The term “work-life” implies that somehow the two are different, and of course they are not. Work is obviously an important part of life but shouldn’t be the only part.

That’s a very good point. Actually, I’d take it one step further. Looking at my own life, I certainly don’t see a work life and a private life. I just see one life, mine, being expressed in different aspects. And these aspects are so mixed and so mutually dependent, that it makes no sense to attempt to separate them. They are already as integrated as they can be, and there seems to be no time where I am 100% at work or 100% off work. I’m always just me, living my life.

If I could only work from 9 to 5 on weekdays and only “live” the rest of the time I would be much less happy than I am today. But then again, I’m an entrepreneur and self-employed. I have no demands on me, except for my own. If I had a boss (shudder) to report to, it might be a very different story.

That may be why some people who live like this find that work takes over and leaves little or no room for their private life. But that’s not integration, that’s more like disintegration :o)

What do you think? Do you prefer a clear separation between work and non-work? Do you want balance or integration?

11 thoughts on “There is no work-life balance”

  1. Wow.. you hit on something I’ve thought of for a long time. Until I was self employed, trying to maintain a “work-life balance” made me miserable! I felt like I was always shortchanging either my work life or my personal life. I actually recently wrote a blog entry on this too, called “You Have One Life.”

  2. I hate to say it, but you admitting you don’t have a boss and are self-employed really steals a bit of your thunder, even though I agree with what you say much of the time. Saying so much of this, though, is easy. Walking it is far more difficult when in the daily grind of a typical office job or something of that ilk when your coworkers, managers, and execs don’t necessarily share the same paradigms.

    I’m positive that if I were self-employed and my own boss such that I was financially taken care of due to it, I’d have an amazingly more optimistic outlook on workplace happiness. It would be very easy to talk the talk.


    In response to your questions though, I’m not sure what I want, work balance or integration. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at it semantically, and I don’t think that level of detail is really worth my time. I will say, however, that I work in IT and prefer to have a mix of work and real life in my days. This is because I am a geek at work and a geek at home; I just happen to get paid for what otherwise would be a hobby and something I enjoy. I also use technology at home and work, which means my daily duties and tasks and processes blend together nicely. In addition, IT work can take place at any time; computers and networks are not necessarily bounded by day and night or accepted work hours.

    I prefer a balance between work and life, yes, because there will always be times when I say, “enough work tonight, time for some personal time,” or vice-versa. Saying the term “balance” does not mean there must be a give and take and a rigid lever/fulcrum in the middle to force the assumption that here is no mixing.

    I think some people would similarly resist “integration,” because that may make people think they have to work all hours of day…they actually want that separation. Integration can be a good thing where the employer realizes that employee lives and work mix intimately, but it can also be an excuse to squeeze more productivity out of employees when outside where those separations might normally be…

  3. I completely agree with the fact that – ideally – there is no dual agenda.
    In a mentality of EITHER work OR private life, one will always lose out.

    The perfect way of integrating private life and work is without surprise by using a mentality of BOTH work AND private life.

    What it takes from the employee’s side is to take ownership of her own life and act responsibly, also at work.
    The employer needs to cut down on authoritarianism if work/life balance means something to the employer. It might not.
    The core for you and me is thus to mount the horse and ride it in stead of letting ourselves be dragged around by it.

    Let me try to say the obvious in a very complicated manner:

    In reality there is only one thing which makes work and private life a difficult partnership.

    The tradeoff that all employed people make is that they get paid for depositing a part of their free will (along with time and energy, but that is less important) with their employer.

    The problem is one of compatibility: If the free will of the employed person is 100% compatible with with the wishes of the employer, then the BOTH work AND private life is no problem at all. Work IS private life in that case.

    So the issue can be attacked from two sides:

    The employer can stop deciding what you have to do. Not realistic here and now, but an interesting vision which deserves a whole book of its own.

    As an employed person, I can try to work with myself to accept my employer’s agenda. It might be quite easy if I have a boss or a mother company which goes easy on authority. And it might paradoxically be the only way short of quitting if the employer is very authoritarian.
    I can also work actively to change my job to become something entirely compatible with what I want for my life.
    This is the most realistic and pertinent option, really, because failure to realize this option means that I FREE OF CHARGE deposit EVEN MORE FREE WILL with the employer than I have to!

    You think your boss decides what I have to do, but in reality she doesn’t. I am the only person who can decide to accept what is imposed on me or not, and if I do that in respect of our interdependece – and with a view to creating synergies between us – work and life is perfectly integrated.

    Short: Getting a work-life balance takes a decision to use my own free will to make my job something I would like it to be – or quit.

  4. I think work life balance is a phrase that sets people up for a lot of disappointment. There is a myth that to be successful and happy, you have to be totally effective in all areas of your life. People are running themselves ragged trying to “Be-All” and Do-All”. I just don

  5. That’s really interesting, Dave. Kinda reminds me of how I view some of those “take control of your life” or “maximize your time management” people who spend so much time desparately trying to manage their time or be highly effective that they never end up managing their time or being effective like they envisioned. D’oh!


  6. Becky: I took a look at your excellent post, and that’s exactly my point. We have one life, not a work life and a personal life.

    LonerVamp: I see your point, and it definitely is easier to trust people who are living the reality day-to-day, so you avoid the whole “Those who can, do – those who can’t, teach” thing. I hope I can avoid that trap, based on my 10 years of experience from “real” working life, including applying the principles I talk about in an IT company I co-founded

    I like your point about not getting bogged down in semantics – what matters is how happy your work and your life makes you day to day.

    Kristian: It IS about choices and free will, and the ultimate realization that barring threats of violence, no one can make us do anything. That’s existential philosophy right there.

    Dave: The kind of give and take you dsecribe IS tough, but probably not as tough as trying to be perfect and 100% on the ball in every aspect of your life all the time. We’re happier when we allow ourselves to be less than perfect instead of always “taking control” and “maximizing” as LV writes.

  7. Manny: Thanks for the tip on the book – I’ll have to read that one.

    Kevin: I like that you work harder on your day off and are happier. Being able to plan your own time and not having anyone constantly checking up on you are key factor in happiness at work.

    I also think that compartmentalizing a bad job is a valuable survival skill, but not a road to happiness at work or in life.

    Sounds like you would make an amazing gardener – and at the very least you would enjoy it a lot more than your current job!

  8. Actually, I’ve been looking into the career opportunities that would come with a master gardener certification.

    Compartmentalizing a bad job is probably the best form of damage control, and maximizing available happiness, *given* the bad job.

    For most of us, though, I think your earlier recommendations for “low-rent living” would go a long way toward improving life *on* the job. An employer’s knowledge that you have the power to walk away can have an enormous improving effect on their attitude. The employing classes’ literature, back during the Enclosures, was full of complaint that it was impossible to get workers who would work on the terms the employer wanted to offer, so long as they had independent access to means of production and subsistence. The cottager with access to a common would meet most of his consumption needs through home production, and only work sporadically when he needed a bit of outside income to supplement his consumption. Nobody with independent access to land would work the 6-day weeks and 12 (or more) hour days the factory owners wanted.

    Ralph Borsodi’s advice is good. Most vegetables, clothing, etc., can be produced at home with less total labor-time than is required to earn the money to buy them. If we all produced for ourselves the stuff that we could make cheaper ourselves, we would reduce our overall labor time, and greatly reduce the amount of outside income we needed. And the power to walk away would create a massive shift in the bargaining power of labor.

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