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Desperate for nirvana: Cut yourself some slack about work/life balance

October 31, 2017
By Camille Khodadad
Camille Khodadad is a principal in the labor and employment and litigation and dispute resolution practice groups at Much Shelist. She is a frequent speaker on current trends in employment law and issues pertaining to women in the workplace.
ckhodadad@muchshelist.com

We all seek it. That elusive, magical utopia where we achieve “work/life balance.” Books are written about it. Seminars are dedicated to it. Social scientists study it. Despite all of this attention, I rarely meet anyone who thinks that she or he has achieved it. Why is that? Are we seeking a state of being that doesn’t really exist? And by making “work/life balance” the goal, are we setting ourselves up for failure?

I talk with so many women who view themselves as “failures” because they do not believe they have achieved this idyllic state. Women who to the outside world appear to have it all — great job, family, friends and hobbies. Why do they see themselves as failures when all of the evidence contradicts that? Perhaps there is something wrong with the way they define what they are seeking. Here are some of the things I see wrong with making “work/life balance” the goal and why we need to change the dialogue.

First, the term “balance” implies equality. When I think of balance, I picture someone walking on a tightrope or the scales of justice. Balance is achieved when the forces on the right side are the same as the left. A slightly greater force on either side and the balance is destroyed. In the case of the tightrope walker, she will come tumbling down unless she can immediately adjust.

The problem with seeking such balance is that it is unrealistic and, in fact, undesirable. When in our lives do we reach a point where everything is perfectly balanced? And if we were to reach that point, why would we want to stay there? Balance implies stagnation, not growth. Isn’t the goal of life to move forward and develop?

Second, when we talk about “work/life” balance, it suggests that work is somehow separate from life. There are many components of life — work, family, friends, community service, interests, etc. Work is just one of them. Moreover, the term suggests an inherent conflict/competition between work and life and that they somehow are mutually exclusive.

A healthier view is that work is a component of life that can complement the other important areas. This is not to suggest that there will be times when there will be actual conflicts between the various components of our lives. Of course, there will be, but looking at the bigger picture can help us get through them.

Third, the dialogue around this concept suggests that we should always feel completely fulfilled with everything we do in all areas of our life. While that would be ideal, it is also unrealistic. Sometimes we do what we do because it is a means toward satisfying a priority in our life.

Finally, work/life balance implies a one size fits all approach and does not take into consideration that priorities change. Everyone has different values and will see the ideal integration of their lives differently. Top that off with the fact that what a person sees as a priority today is not necessarily a priority tomorrow or next year. The integration that we seek constantly changes and evolves.

I am not suggesting that it is easy to work toward this life-integration (that’s for another column). However, I believe we need to redefine the traditional concept of work/life balance to something that is more evolved and realistic. Instead of focusing on obtaining an equal balance, we should think about how we manage and integrate the competing demands that we all face. Below are a few ways to help us begin to change our mindset:

  • Have a clear vision of your values. Keeping your big picture in mind will make finding ways to integrate your life easier.
  • Redefine the objective. Instead of seeking equal “balance” between work and life, seek to integrate all areas of your life in a cohesive way that is consistent with your values.
  • Realize that seeking integration is a constantly evolving and ever-changing process, not a goal. Get comfortable with this flux.
  • Recognize that there are many seasons to life. There is a time for everything and priorities change and evolve over time.
  • Be easy on yourself. Do not see yourself as a failure when everything in your life is not perfectly aligned.
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