The Myth of Work-Life Balance and Why Chasing It is Making You Miserable

I have a tendency to think through and play around with big concepts. I can also be a rebel at times, as I like to turn common ideas that most people hold dear upside.

The common belief I’ve been thinking more about lately is the nature of work and life. And, the single most played-out and written about concept – the elusive work/life balance.

This idea that we all should strive for “a balanced life where we can have it all.” A life where you have an amazing career, make tons of money, come home everyday at 5:30pm, spend tons of time with your family and friends, go on several trips a year, and still fit in enough time at the gym every day to have the perfect beach body.

Sounds pretty awesome, right?

Now, reply to this question honestly. “Do you know anyone who actually has this life?”

Of course not. No one – no matter what they may lead you to believe – is Superman or Superwoman. You can’t have it all.

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Life is a series of trade-offs. You are making trade-offs every single day based on what you prioritize.

Yet, every single day, so many of us still strive for this “perfect, elusive work-life balance.”

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Here’s the thing.

I’ve shared before on this blog that I think work-life balance is mostly bs, and mainly used to try and make us feel better for all the time spent working.

Work-life balance is not only a made-up marketing concept to help us rationalize all of the time we spend working, but it doesn’t actually exist. In fact, what people are striving for is what Author Gary Keller calls “a balancing life,” in his book, The One Thing. You are always fundamentally going to be unbalanced in your life based on what you prioritize.

“In philosophy ‘the golden mean’ is the moderate middle between polar extremes, a concept used to describe a place between two positions that is more desirable than one state or the other,” Keller said. “This is a grand idea, but not a very practical one.  Idealistic, but not realistic. Balance doesn’t exist.”  

There’s two big problems with this approach.

  • By trying to pursue, “balance,” you will never reach your full potential at anything. You’ll always be living in the middle. The magic or real game-changing success doesn’t happen in the “middle,” it happens in the extremes.
    • If you want to be a C-level executive, it is probably going to mean working long hours. You’re probably going to sacrifice at least one of these things either time with friends, family time or your health.
    • It works in the opposite if you want to be the perfect parent and go to every single one of your kid’s soccer games and school performances, it is only a matter of time before it is going to slow your career growth.

  • Not to mention by simply striving for this elusive work-life balance, it automatically implies that one or the other is negative.  For the vast majority of people, it is that work is always negative.  

What I don’t understand is how many people blindly accept that work is the same thing as suffering. Even if advancing in your work isn’t your top priority, I don’t understand why you still would deliberate relegate it to something that you have to “suffer through.” The only time you are allowed to have fun is when you are not working.

I’m sorry but I don’t buy this concept of work is suffering. One bit. In fact, I find it incredibly sad.

At a minimum, we spend an average of 8-9 hours every day working.

We spend about another 8 hours every night sleeping. Or, we should at least. 

That leaves you with just 7-8 hours of “allotted free time.”  Depending on how many responsibilities you have, that time can easily be divided up into family time, friends / socializing time, chores, running errands, commuting, preparing food, eating, hobbies and maybe the occasional Netflix binge.

As you can see, we spend the vast majority of our lives either working or sleeping.

I’ll spare you my terrible drawing skills. Instead if you want a more detailed visualization, check out this Wait But Why post. I’ve probably shared this post with more people than any other with the exception of maybe Brene Brown’s first TED talk.

Side note- I’ve watched this TED Talk at least 2 dozen times and every time I get something new from it. 

So, this idea that you clock in around 9am to move papers and engage in endless busy work and then clock out around 5pm. Truly living and having fun is reserved for the weekends and holidays.  Not to mention, so many of these people get so sucked into the grind, that they forget how to have fun or even know what they want anymore. If you ask me, that’s the saddest and most fucked up way to live.

As Tim Ferriss put it so much more eloquently than me in The 4 Hour Work Week,

“This is how most people work until death: “I’ll just work until I have X dollars and then do what I want.” If you don’t define the “what I want” alternate activities, the X figure will increase indefinitely to avoid the fear-inducing uncertainty of this void. This is when both employees and entrepreneurs become fat men in red BMWs.”  

Not to mention when you approach work as a constant grind full of suffering, you are not only making yourself miserable but you also creating a breeding ground for unnecessary bad stress.

There’s good and bad stress. With the exception of family and health emergencies, a lot of the time the difference between the two is how you tend to view the situation you are in. Good stress is brought on by complications and unforeseen circumstances from challenges or projects – usually projects that you enjoy working on or that you are actively engaged in. Good stress makes our lives richer, happier and more meaningful. It energizes us and makes us feel more alive.  

Whereas bad stress is the kind that drains us of all our energy and makes us go to the habits and vices that are our worst. Like eating an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Brownie ice cream or spending an entire day in a blanket fort binge-watching really bad reality TV shows. Not that I’ve done either of those things before a time or few.

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We have enough stress in our day to day life as it is. Being overly stressed out is slowly killing all of us. It is linked to so many terrible chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, MS and so many other chronic ailments.

Why anyone would voluntarily invite more bad stress in their life is beyond me? But that’s exactly what you are doing when you relegate work to constant suffering. You’ll stress out about traffic on your commute, the incessant meetings or how you procrastinated a little too long on that report that you hate doing. Holy fuck- it is now 5pm and I promised this report at the end of day. Cue more stress about getting this all done.

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Unless you are in an incredibly privileged position where you don’t have to work, I think there’s a better way to view your working hours. Whether you are toiling away in a cushy, 6-figure job in an office that looks like it came right out of the Office Space set or making minimum wage flipping burgers at Jack in the Box, you have more autonomy over how you see your working life than you think you do.

If you are doing it right, work should be challenging and dare I say fun at least 50% of the time. (Note: I view anything that requires either thinking critically, being curious or creative as “fun work.”)

When you are in the zone (i.e. flow state) or you view the project or task that you are working on not as work at all but something that you enjoy doing or that’s fun to you – you are going to see better results and have more success in your career. Think about it. If you are actively present and like what you are working on, you are probably going to spend the time to get better at it. Over time, that’s going to compound and produce bigger and better results. 

Of course, you might still freak out periodically working through really hard challenges and you certainly aren’t entitled to enjoy every little task. But, challenges and solving problems make you grow as a person and it is the type of work where you finish the day exhausted and sleep soundly all night.

When you take control over the things you can control like your outlook on what you do for work, your work ethic, actively look to cultivate more moments when you are in the zone (or in flow), and find more of the challenges and problems that you enjoy working through, things will change. It won’t be immediate and will take a lot of effort on your part but I promise it will happen. Work is fucking awesome on the other side.

Before you completely dismiss my outlook, I’m not the only one that thinks the act of work should feel like “play.” Many business people and investors- that are much, much smarter and more successful than me – expressed similar sentiments including . . .

“There comes a time when you ought to start doing what you want. Take a job that you love. You will jump out of bed in the morning. I think you are out of your mind if you keep taking jobs that you don’t like because you think it will look good on your resume. Isn’t that a little like saving up sex for your old age?” – Warren Buffett

“I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” – Steve Jobs

Sure, you may still disagree with my outlook. And, it is easy enough to write me off as another entitled, almost 30-something Millennial that is talking about how to find the work that you are passionate about. Or, how there’s an inherent amount of privilege of being able to focus on your strengths instead of your weaknesses at work. I get that.

The real reality is I’ve also worked crazy hard to get to the point where I’ve found work that is hard but equally fun and rewarding. That’s something I don’t take lightly and am beyond grateful for. I think about that even more when I had months like last month where pretty much every project I touched was new, challenging or scary. 

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