How to Avoid the Work-Life Balance Trap

And Stop Holding Yourself to Unreal Expectations

“We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard,” wrote philosopher David Whyte in his insightful book The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationship. And indeed, the idea of needing to maintain a continuous balance between the various demanding parts of our lives is a recipe for endless frustration.

Despite countless tips and hacks on how to manage it all within those precious 168 hours each week, there’s no easy answer. Sure, you could follow the example of Elon Musk and choose your companies over your children and your health, but that definition of success never really made a lot of sense to me.

And so for most of us, this concept of work-life balance implies that we’re always failing at something. When considered as a straight binary trade-off, an investment in one area also brings a counteracting neglect of another. Time spent being a good father and husband is also time spent being a poor manager and leader.

When this concept of balance becomes a zero-sum view of our lives and careers, is it any surprise that the market’s become flooded with self-proclaimed time management and productivity coaches? I have no idea what it takes to qualify for one of these professions, but I’m hoping it’s more than the ability to make a to-do list.

It’s this definition of work-life balance that needs to change. Because it’s not a balance. It’s more of an integrated system. Or as David Whyte described it,

“The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.”

“The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” — Aristotle

Complex systems are those where the collective behavior of the individual parts bring properties that couldn’t be gained from the parts themselves. The aggregate activity is nonlinear and dynamic, and cannot be modeled by a linear summation of its components.

Instead of trade-offs, each action builds off another. Instead of random or disparate directions, each action builds toward a common purpose.

The other aspect of a complex system is that turning off a critical part doesn’t increase the effectiveness of the other components. Which is one reason why The Four Burners Theory for prioritizing your life is so flawed.

At a high level, The Four Burners Theory considers our lives as a stove with four burners on it. Each burner symbolizes a major part of our lives — family, friends, health, and work. It then tells us that in order to be successful you need to turn off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you need to turn two off.

Yet neglecting a critical aspect of our lives rarely leads to long-term success. A series of career successes that you earn while your kidneys fail and your family desert you doesn’t really have a lot of allure.

It’s also ridiculous to suggest that these burners can be turned off for years at a time, ready to be lit the moment it’s convenient for us. The more likely scenario is that the gas line will have rotted out and the entire thing will be beyond repair.

When we’re aiming for balance, the natural impulse is to look for things to cut. But when we view these areas as components within a system, it’s easier to recognize that cutting out one part rarely leads to a more effective overall solution.

There doesn’t need to be a definitive balance. Because there’s no definitive separation.

Instead of viewing your time with work, hobbies, and family and friends as a bunch of disparate parts of each day, try considering them more like components within a complex system — each one playing a critical role towards your overall purpose.

At which point it’s not a question of hitting some prescribed balance, but leveraging each in pursuit of the overall system pursuit. As Charles Dickens put it,

“The best way to lengthen our days is to walk steadily and with a purpose.”

“The soul which has no fixed purpose in life is lost; to be everywhere, is to be nowhere.” ―Michel de Montaigne

Many people have pushed this idea of work-life integration. And it’s at this point that they would likely segue into the passion speech. You know the one — that oft-preached diatribe which says that unless we spend each day in a job that defines our life’s purpose, we’re wasting our lives.

This passion fixation encourages people to take work-life integration and turn it into modeling your life after your work. And while I doubt that this idea was originally put forward by an evil cabal of CEOs to get us to bias our time towards the work side of the equation, it does tend to have that affect.

Now, life is too short to spend our days doing something we hate. And for everyone who’s incredibly passionate about their career, that’s wonderful. But with 70% of employees actively disengaged in their work, maybe we ought to tone down the whole passion obsession.

Maybe, instead, we should consider the inverse.

Instead of integrating our lives into our work, doesn’t it make more sense to integrate our work into our lives?

Instead of considering what type of career should represent our purpose, doesn’t it make more sense to decide what type of person we want to be? Or what type of life we want to lead?

And then tailor our work to suit that purpose. Instead of the other way around.

When we recognize the type of life we want to lead — it’s easier to recognize the distinct role that work plays in fulfilling that purpose. It’s easier to forget about balancing two binary tensions and appropriately assign our time in the best way that fits our vision for the future. In the words of Margaret Young,

“You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.”

“To know what you like is the beginning of wisdom and of old age.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

After working for many years in palliative care, Hospice nurse Bronnie Ware documented some of the main regrets of her dying patients. One common to every male patient was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” In Ware’s words,

“They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship…All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

I don’t doubt that many of these people felt passionate about their careers and that their work was both meaningful and fulfilling. Yet when they looked back on how they spent their time, they still regretted allowing their work to drive their lives.

With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes much easier to recognize whether our actions aligned with our priorities. And whether we spent our time doing things we truly value.

We seem much more likely to start asking these questions once we’ve aged and gained the benefit of past wisdom.

Perhaps we should start thinking about them now — while we have the chance to make changes. As the great Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations,

“Let each thing you would do, say or intend be like that of a dying person.”

“Every day of our lives, we are on the verge of making those slight changes that would make all the difference.” — Mignon McLaughlin

I realize it’s difficult to pin down your life’s purpose. And it may not yet be clear exactly where your passions all lie. But most of us can largely describe the type of person that we want to be. And I’m guessing we all have a general idea of the type of life we want to lead.

So forget about planning the rest of your life. Just focus on today. And maybe tomorrow.

Did your actions today represent the life you want to lead?

And if not, what are you going to do differently tomorrow?

Forget about balance. Just aim for letting each day represent the person you want to be and the life you want to lead. Because as Annie Dillard reminds us, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Thank you, as always, for reading. Agree? Disagree? Don’t be shy, I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could help me share with more people. Cheers!

Writing helps me realize just how little I know.