The “Work-Life Balance” Fallacy

It should be no great revelation that you're the same person at work and at home. You have the same values, beliefs, attitudes, likes, gifts, challenges, physical body and spiritual core whether at the office, the club, the kitchen table or your daughter’s ballet recital. Right? If your core being values integrity, giving back, respecting others, and leaving the world a better place than you found it, then these same values will drive how you perform your job as well as how you behave and manage your priorities and relationships at home. If at your core you feel the need for excellence, being better than your peers, and always being right, you’ll demonstrate behaviors that reflect these ideas both at work and outside of your professional environment. While we might behave differently in different situations, these varied behaviors still reflect the same inner being. Who we are is independent of where we are.

This is why I am so turned off by the phrase Work-Life Balance. Suggesting the need for balance between work and life implies that they are different, conflicting things. It implies that if I focus more on one then I have less energy to devote to the other.  It implies that I should carefully choose what work to do so it allows me to live my life the way I want. Well here it is, folks:  Work-Life Balance is a fallacious idea born of a faulty assumption that work and life are different.  They are not different, because we are not different. “Work” and “Life” are simply different expressions of why we choose to be. Life is a continuum of experiences that includes what we do to survive (work) and what we do to thrive (recreation).  Work is a slice of the life pie. 

If your work seems unfulfilling or stressful, you have three choices.  You can do nothing and remain unfulfilled. You can change your work, in search of employment that meets your need for fulfillment. Or you can change how you think about “fulfillment.”

If your life seems empty, lacking purpose or meaning, you have the same three choices:  Do nothing, change what you’re doing (for example, do more charitable work, or start working out), or change how you think.

If you are in a transition, or if life has presented you with a challenge, the same three choices are there:  Do nothing, change what you’re doing, or change your thinking.

The fact that we always have these choices is empowering! But knowing how to choose can be a real challenge.

Transformative change requires not just action, but a new way of thinking. The only way to make transformative change is to bring your thoughts and the actions they provoke into alignment with your core values. Ask yourself, “What truly matters to me? What energizes me? What motivates me?” These are questions you ask about your life – not just about the work slice of your life.  The keys to your happiness at home are the same as the keys to your happiness at work. They’re the same things that affect your happiness and effectiveness as a parent, as a colleague, as a leader, as a learner, as a teacher, as a lover, and as a fighter. Why?  Because who we are is independent of where we are!

So if you feel the need to work on “Work-Life Balance” issues, here’s the good news:  There’s no real problem there! Balance is not the issue.  Change your thinking about that. The real issue is that, in the totality of your life, how you are is probably out of whack with who you are. Whether the effects of this situation show up as work-related stress, leadership effectiveness challenges, intimacy issues, or lack of self-esteem, the results you’re seeking won’t come from a balancing between work and life.  The results will come from a truer alignment between your life choices and your core values. 

Before starting that job search, or committing to losing weight, or politicking for a promotion at the office, give yourself the gift of introspection. Work with your coach or on your own to understand your values. Evaluate whether you’re asking yourself the right questions. Find out what really matters to you. Armed with that insight, and a clearly articulated vision for where you want to be, the path you want to travel will come into view. You’ll understand the right direction for your first step, and you’ll know that you’ll not just be “doing stuff” to change.  You’ll be changing how you think. You’ll know how to choose the actions that really matter. And choosing well will change your world – both where you work to survive and where you work to thrive.