The Illusion of Work- Life balance

In Time Management  I wrote about the value of time management as a tool but not as a way of life. In my 30’s and 40’s I applied the principles of time management to “work-life balance.” I reasoned I could balance work with lifestyle by defining compartments in my life and then use the management principles to allocate time and schedule.

I divided my life into various buckets — work, family, exercise and relationships. I then decided how much time I needed and wanted within each category and created weekly schedules in my head. Intermittent feelings of successful balance fueled my illusion that work-life balance was useful and achievable. I would feel “in balance” for a week or two until events disrupted the fragile equilibrium. Work might intermittently demand more time or my kids might be sick or I might sustain a running injury.

And even on the weeks when I felt balanced, I sensed gnawing dread that an event would upset my plan. Perhaps a patient would need to be seen late in the afternoon causing me to miss a soccer game or arrive late for a family dinner. I spent enormous energy creating and maintaining boundaries between the divisions I created.

At times I wanted to do something different than what was scheduled. What if I just wanted to watch TV or read a book rather than exercise or what if I wanted alone time rather than being with my family?

The more I chased balance the more I felt imbalanced and frustrated.

Fortunately in my 50’s I realized the chase was futile and built on misleading assumptions. The very phrase “work-life” pitted work against the rest of my life causing me to frame the wrong questions. In fact, most days I found work gratifying and even on frustrating days, work provided security for my family. In other words, work was inseparable from the rest of my life.

Most importantly, the work-life framework assumed a mentality of scarcity rather than abundance. Allocating time to various aspects of my life meant that time was scarce and I needed to carefully measure and guard how I spent my hours. Indeed, even the phrase “spent my hours” sprang from the scarcity of a limited budget of time.

Gradually I stopped running after balance and shifted from a sense of scarcity to abundance and passion. I found that inviting gratitude and compassion into my life filled me with a sense of plenty. I made certain my days included activities that flowed from my passions which made the concept of work-life balance irrelevant.

Instead of “work-life balance” consider the frame of connecting with the energy and abundance of self, others and meaning. Connecting with self may include regular exercise, formal meditation, walks in nature or simply sitting quietly for a few minutes. Connecting with others may occur by opening to genuine conversation, volunteering, finding community, love or compassion. Connecting with meaning may be expressed through being in touch with what’s just beneath the surface of your work, feeling a part of nature or through a formal contemplative or religious practice.

The passions of our hearts bring energy to the activities of our heads. Please use comments below to describe the passions at work that bring you energy. How do you cultivate the energy flowing from your passions as you put head and heart together?

5 thoughts on “The Illusion of Work- Life balance”

  1. Hello David!
    How are you my friend?
    When I was working, my work was separate from my non-work activities. My friends at work did not integrate my non-work life. That’s just the way it was. Sure, some of the fellows I worked with went hunting and fishing with me once in awhile, but our families did not hang out. This was not planned, but rather how it happened. These were the days before computers and cell phones.
    What I found out later on in my career, was that there were many folks where both their work life and social life rotated around the same group of people. In other words they had no friends to do things with in their non-working hours except the ones they worked with. They were all basically on the same schedule.
    Then came retirement! Not everyone can retire at the same time because of many different reasons. Bob decides to retire early and he does. The rest of the “gang” is still working, doing things together, working together and it is business as usual and suddenly Bob is alone because all his friends are still on the same schedule and he is not. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. You cannot put all your eggs in one basket. You would think that after several years when everyone eventually retired, that the old “gang” would get rolling right along again. Nope, it doesn’t happen that way. The continuity of all those years working and playing together was broken.
    Also as you get older you find your health changes eventually because that is how it works. Sure, you can be a fireball until you’re 95 and fall over suddenly. BUT, how many fireballs have been running along with you? Most have gone the normal way of aging.
    So, where am I going with all of this? Well, just enjoy each and everyday and treat it as a new adventure. Wake up, smile because you have made another sunrise. Do what you want to do. If you have to have a routine, you run the routine but don’t let the routine run you. Enjoy everything around you, especially young people. Their energy and joy is infectious. Don’t plan ahead too much, it can disappoint you. When you are in the winter of your years you have to enjoy the snowstorms too, along with the bright sunny days.
    Lastly, I believe this life is part of a journey/adventure. When I take my last breath, it makes no difference how much I had or leave behind. I am on to the next adventure and this present one is over. What folks thought of me is on them whether it be good or bad. I won’t know nor will I care. I look to the next adventure every morning I wake up.

    God bless you Sir,

    1. Don, thank you for sharing your wisdom. I appreciate the way you linked the theme of the blog to retirement in addition to work

  2. Hi David — Work. Life.Balance. Well, creating ART for me is NOT WORK. It happens to be what I do for work –but most times, the creative process is Zen. Time goes by effortlessly and joyfully. Doing “LIFE” is work. Bookkeeping, chores, paying bills, keeping on top of paperwork — trusts, taking care of family, is a time suck & can feel like a drag at times. Trying to make ends meet is a drag. Exercise for me is a chore because “I feel I should”. The thought process that goes into to “will I or won’t I” make the effort to walk on the beach,meditate go to a yoga class, do sit-ups is not initially exciting and doesn’t motivate me. I must force myself out of the house to go — and when I’m there sometimes I’m glad and sometimes my mind is counting the minutes to when the class will be over and only feel that I’m crossing it off a list as an “accomplishment for the day”. When I’m in FLOW in my life and all the to-do’s and chores are getting handled, I don’t like to leave the house at all. I do not like getting interrupted when I get into that state when I’m feeling “full steam ahead” as that head space is rare. I do go through a gratitude list nightly of all that I got done that day/week. I feel most in balance when I’ve gotten myself to Yoga, when I’ve cleaned my work space, not left dishes in the sink and handled things that were uncomfortable or tackled a big project. Occasionally, I can sit on the beach and meditate for 20 minutes until my legs start to get numb. It’s a daily conversation in my head as to what Work. Life. Balance looks like for me. At the end of the day I really look at how did I honored my own needs vs. the needs of the outside world.

    1. Don, thank you for sharing your wisdom. I appreciate the way you linked the theme of the blog to retirement in addition to work

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