Throw The Idea of Work-Life Balance Out the Window - Teal Swan Articles - Teal Swan Jump to content

Throw The Idea of Work-Life Balance Out the Window

In today’s world, you probably have heard a lot and probably will hear a lot from other people about the importance of work-life balance. But is it really necessary?

The idea of work life balance is the idea that it is only possible to have a healthy lifestyle if you separate your work from the other elements of your life, such as your personal life. And after doing so, seek to establish a state of equilibrium where you equally prioritize the demands of your career and the other elements of your life.

Right off the bat, there is a problem with the philosophy of work-life balance that is easily visible in the term itself. It suggests that your work is separate from and not part of truly living. That truly living is everything else outside of work. It suggests that living is the time you spend with loved ones, your home, your hobbies, the vacations you take etc. 

If we look back over the course of history, there are too many reasons to list for why a person in any era decided to take a specific job or perform a specific task; not because they felt intrinsic motivation to do it, but because it was a “so that”. It got them something else they valued. Over the course of history as society evolved and experienced so many changes and different revolutions, societal needs and values changed. And with it, so did the lifestyle of its citizens. This was especially true when the whole of human society began to operate on the exchange of money. This was especially true when religions began to govern how people should live. This is also especially true in countries where societal evolution meant beginning to view a citizen as a part of a machine. 

In the life philosophy of these industrialized societies, one’s profession was divorced from one’s talents, values, intrinsic motivation and passion. Instead, it became the societal norm that you have to work (even if it is a job you don’t like) so that with the rest of your time, you can have money to have a home and personal life and have what you really love and do what you are really passionate about. In these countries, the idea of work-life balance originated as a key element of health. The main reasons that it was seen as a key element of health is that 1. It didn’t take much time to realize that if all a person’s time in a day is spent meeting the demands of a job that they don’t like, they will very quickly become depressed and their wellbeing will decline. And 2. These societies were set-up on the structure of a nuclear family. And if a person’s work is separate from their family and yet they work all the time and don’t have any time to dedicate to their family, the family falls apart. This spells instability of the societal structure. So, the short-sighted solution that arose was the idea of work-life balance.

We need to throw the idea of work-life balance out the window. It is an outdated concept that represents nothing more than a symptom fix. And it instills the wrong mentality in people’s minds about work. As a replacement for the idea of work-life balance, we need to focus on what any specific individual person needs to achieve a state of health and wellbeing. And this means there will be a TON of variability regarding how they manage their time, how they organize their life and how much energy and time they put into what in their life. People need to customize their life. 

Regarding the place that work fits into someone’s overall life, I want you to think of a scale. On either side of this scale, we have an unhealthy extreme. On one side, you have someone who has complete resistance to work and who believes that work is not life and who refuses to get a job or work because of it. On the other side, you have a workaholic. A person who spends all their time working as a coping mechanism and as a method of avoiding other elements of life. Everyone falls somewhere on this scale. For example, one person may do a job they hate only so that they can have money to have the basic necessities of life. Another person may not work for a livelihood because their livelihood is provided, so the only work they do is intrinsically motivated and for pleasure. Another may do a job they like and are intrinsically motivated to do some of the time, but they make sure to limit the time and effort they spend on it because of their other priorities. Another person may feel such deep purpose and meaning in their work that the vast majority of their time is dedicated to it and all the other elements of their life are integrated into it and organized around it. Keep in mind that where a person currently falls on the scale may not actually be the right place for them on the scale.

The vast majority of people who believe in the importance of work-life balance are coming from the paradigm on this scale that either: Work is only a thing you do so that you can do the other stuff, which to them feels like really living. Or work should be something you like, but you need to prioritize other things equally to or more than work. And they are arguing for work-life balance so as to defend the rightness of their place on the scale as well as to project what they think is right for them onto other people. Keep in mind that the place that is right for someone to fall on this scale is a big factor when it comes to compatibility in relationships.

The way to know if someone has arranged their life correctly for themselves with regards to how much time and energy they dedicate to what in their life, is that they will be thriving. Their life will feel good. If a person is feeling distressed because of how much time and energy they are putting into their career, that is your indication that more time and energy needs to be put into something else, such as leisure time. If a person is experiencing conflict in their relationships because they are so focused on their career and their partner or friends want them to prioritize quality time together, it is time for a re-evaluation. This indicates that a person needs to re-assess their own priorities. This could mean that an adjustment towards decreasing focus on work and increasing it on something like leisurely social interaction would lead to greater life satisfaction. Or it could mean that there is incompatibility between the two people regarding values and lifestyle choices. 

The concept of work-life balance tends to cause people to globalize about what is right for all people and by doing so, to lose sight of how individually customized life must be for people to experience satisfaction. I’ve got three examples for you to help illustrate this. The first example is Joe. Joe is a doctor who is passionate about solving endemic diseases. He is currently working for doctors without borders as well as a few other humanitarian groups. He finds so much meaning and purpose in his work that it is his absolute priority. As a result, anyone who enters into a romantic relationship with him cannot rely on him staying in whatever city or country he is currently in because he may be transferred. And they can’t rely on him to not cancel on things he has agreed to being present to, because he is always on-call. For Joe, his work is his life because for him, it is the most important thing in his life. 

For joe, the other elements of Joe’s life and his other needs have to be organized around his work. And we need to seek to customize his relationships to his work. He needs to seek compatibility with a woman who shares Joe’s values and who can support his career. For example, this woman might be someone who is very independent and thrives on having her own time away from a partner. Or this woman might be someone who wants to sign up to do this work with him, so that she can derive her own sense of purpose and togetherness from supporting Joe’s purpose and being together in the cause. In this case, she would go wherever Joe is stationed and lend her energy towards supporting Joe so that he can help people. 

If we approach Joe with the idea that Work-Life balance is important, we would make the mistake of encouraging him to reduce his work and by doing so, take him away from his purpose, his meaning, his passion, his motivations and his values. We will also lead him into an incompatible relationship with a woman who has other values and wants him to cut back on work to be with her doing other things… A relationship where the best he can hope for is mutual compromise. And Joe will feel miserable in his life because of it. 

The next example is Gabe. Gabe is feeling really insecure about the fact that despite incredible pressure to do so, he feels no drive to get a career or to settle down with a wife and kids. Nothing about the traditional life suits him. He feels passionate and lit up inside and motivated to learn new languages and to explore new cultures and places. He is an explorer and a traveler at heart. In fact, this is his reason for being in this life. His life-purpose if you will. People often look at Gabe as immature. They put pressure on him to settle down and find a career. They talk about the importance of work-life balance. Although they don’t mean to suggest that Gabe should cut back on work. He doesn’t really have a career. He simply takes a temporary job in a location to make a bit of living money and then goes onto his next location. Instead, what they mean to suggest is that they think that Gabe will only be fulfilled if he gets something productive and permanent to do for work and gets serious in his work building a family and reduces his level of ‘play’ around the world. But this is actually wrong for Gabe. Gabe was never meant to live a traditional life and Gabe is actually meant to make his life about traveling and exploring. If Gabe is honest, he does not really need predictable financial security. Part of the excitement that causes him to feel alive is trying out so many different things and experiencing so many different lifestyles through the opportunities he comes across for work around the world. Gabe should not try to find a relationship with a person who wants a traditional life. And the concept of work-life balance does not even apply to him and his life purpose.

Lauren is a human resources administrator. She also has a partner and two kids and three dogs and a mortgage and friends and extended relatives that she cares about. Lauren is living what we might call (in today’s world) a more traditional life within society. Lauren is currently distressed because it seems that by working eight hours a day, five days a week, the demands of her work and the demands of her personal life are in competition with one another. She is experiencing burnout. If Lauren were honest, she likes to do her job. She likes the security of the pay. She likes the tasks she performs. She likes her colleagues. But her work is consuming so much of her mental energy and time that she doesn’t feel she has enough to dedicate to the people in her personal life that she cares about. She is thinking about work even when she is at home. She doesn’t care so much about her work that this feels good. She really wants to be present and have energy to be a good partner and mother and friend. If we take the traditional approach to Work-Life balance, we may encourage Lauren to cut back on her work hours and work part time. Or if she can’t, to learn techniques to leave work at work when she goes home. However, what Lauren really needs is not balance. What she needs is the flexibility to be able to organize the many priorities in her life so that she is satisfied with her ability to give enough and to resource enough from each one of these priorities throughout the week. The actual solution to this conundrum is for Lauren to be able to telecommute. She is a self-disciplined person whose issues would easily be solved by working from home, even if that were only on certain days of the week. If she had control over what hours of the day she was working, she could organize her work around her personal life rather than organize her personal life around her work. And as a result, she would thrive.

Humanity is out of alignment with work. Work being an activity or task involving mental or physical effort that is done in order to achieve a purpose or result. Sit with that definition of work for a moment. It is as much work when someone plays a game of tennis as it is when someone pours concrete for the foundation of a house. A person may or may not engage in a specific activity or task regularly in order to establish a livelihood. A person may or may not be in alignment with their values when they engage in an activity or carry out a task. A person may or may not enjoy that activity or task and therefore may or may not enjoy expending the effort inherent in it. A person may or may not do an activity or task because it is meaningful or purposeful. But it is the meaning, purpose, value and level of enjoyment that a person finds in carrying out a task or doing an activity that dictates whether someone is in alignment with what they are doing. Therefore it is the meaning, purpose, value and level of enjoyment that a person finds in carrying out a task or doing an activity that dictates whether a person is happy doing what they are doing. 

Where the progression and expansion of humanity is headed, is towards each person’s purpose for being and place in society, being dictated by what their intrinsic talents, interests, motivations, values, and enjoyments are. When this happens, every person’s work will be purposeful and meaningful. Work will become play. Only one person’s play will look very different from another person’s play. One person’s play and therefore work may be cleaning things. Another’s may be designing rockets. Another’s may be caretaking children. And someone’s work may or may not be something that they do in exchange for money. 

Not every person’s purpose for being is about a “career” they are meant to have. But some people’s purpose for being definitely is. On top of this, the amount of time and energy that a person dedicates to one thing vs. another will be customized. This means for example that for one person it will be right for them to dedicate 80 hours a week to their career and the remaining time to sleep and spending quality time with a loved one. For another, spending the majority of their time connecting with people and only some time on other things will be right for them. For another, their life might look a lot more like the “balance” that we traditionally associate with work-life balance. And each person’s relationships will look different based on what life element prioritization is right for them specifically. There is no cookie cutter approach to human happiness. This includes how much time, focus, energy and effort is dedicated to a person’s career vs. the other elements of their life. How to know whether the prioritization, time and energy someone dedicates towards the different elements of their life is right for them is that the person will like their life and they will be thriving.


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