Why Work-Life Balance Is Bullshit

These days we hear a lot about the concept of “work-life balance”. Companies think it’s a magic wand they can wave over their burned out employees to suddenly make them more productive and stop taking extended periods of time off sick so they can have therapy to deal with their stress. This is really common in big German companies – I’ve seen it happen many a time. People work themselves into the ground until they can’t stand it a minute longer, then they have what’s called a “burnout” and take six months off work to recover and have intensive stress management therapy before returning to work part-time in a less stressful role.

The key idea of the work-life balance concept is that if people have enough time to focus on their “life”, they’ll be more relaxed and more focussed during the time they’re at “work”. Sounds logical. Sounds great. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. The problem is that there’s not just one kind of “life”. Think about it. According to the “work-life balance” idea, “life” is everything that’s not “work”. Most people assume it’s only about your social life and having fun outside of work. But it’s so much more. If “life” is everything that’s not “work”, it includes not only all your hobbies and interpersonal relationships but also important things like health and fitness, exciting things like creative, community and personal development projects, and all that mundane routine stuff like housework, food shopping, dealing with the mail and sleeping.

I visualise things not as a set of scales with “work” on one side and “life” on the other that need to balance out for you to be happy. Instead, “life” to me is made up of many, many different component parts. Not all are equally important, but the key is to work out a balance between them all so that you do just enough of each to feel a sense of personal fulfilment and happiness.

One day I sat down and wrote out a list of all the areas in my “life”. This is what I wrote, in rough order of importance:

  • Parenting
  • Friends and family
  • Financial
  • Fitness
  • Food
  • Health (including sleep!)
  • Creative
  • Paid work (freelance only!)
  • Minimalism
  • General admin and housekeeping stuff
  • Language learning (I’m a language nerd)
  • Community
  • Travel

Some of these things are obviously more important than others. For example, “Travel” will have to wait a while until the kids are old enough to appreciate it. Writing this blog is a big priority at the moment – I have so much to say and so many ideas, I want to get them all down at least in draft form so I don’t feel stressed about where my next post is going to come from. I’ve seen it on a couple of other blogs. It’s obvious that the blogger has run out of things to say and that writing the blog has become a chore for them. They keep going but their heart’s not in it any more. The articles become mundane and boring, and eventually I unsubscribe. I don’t want this blog to ever become a chore! It’s so closely connected with every aspect of my life and I have so much passion to put into these posts. Writing them helps me examine each aspect of my life critically and focus my thoughts. In the evenings I talk to Mr W about things I’ve been thinking about while writing. We have much more meaningful discussions about a whole range of things. While blogging could easily start to take over my life, it’s so closely connected with my life that the two are interwoven and a lot of the things I do in my life are things I then reflect on and write about.

The point is that all these things play a role in my life and I want to engage as best I can with each of them. It’s also important to understand that it’s not possible to completely separate everything into distinct categories. Everything is interconnected (for example, finding creative ways to pursue minimalism, cooking with the kids and having a conversation in Romanian with a friend would each fall into at least two categories).

The next step was to work out what I wanted to achieve in each of these areas. That’s easier for some areas than others. “Be a good mum” in the “Parenting” section is a lot more difficult to quantify and achieve than “learn conversational Romanian” under “Language learning”. But the aim here wasn’t to reduce my entire life to a set of measurable goals and targets. It was more about reflecting on each area and its role in my life. For most of the areas, I brainstormed a whole host of things I want to learn about or change or achieve. Simply reflecting on the direction I want things to take was an important step. It meant I was taking control of my own life rather than just trundling along on autopilot assuming I’d get some things done some day.

The thing I’m trying to work on now is getting the balance between all of these areas. Because if I spend a week focussing on one area only, I may feel great about that area but I’m very conscious of having neglected other important aspects of my life. My aim is to work out a system that allows me to give each area of my life the attention it deserves while not neglecting any area and not stressing myself out. I’m not sure how realistic that is but if I don’t try I’ll never know.

So at the moment I’m playing around with my schedule, trying to work out which areas of my life need what level of attention and when I can best focus on each. I’ve found that if I have a rough idea of when I’m going to make time for each type of thing, I can focus much better.

For example, at the moment I have a tonne of general admin stuff to do – answering e-mails, dealing with the mail and so on. None of it is really urgent. I’ve decided in my head that Thursdays are going to be my admin days. Today is Wednesday. Wednesday is a blogging day, so today I’ve been focussing on writing without stressing about all the admin stuff I have to do. Because I know exactly what needs doing and I’ve allocated time for it. Obviously if there were an admin thing that really needed my attention now, I would do it, but since there isn’t I’ve had the whole day to focus on writing. I feel productive. I feel relaxed. I feel in control. And when I go to pick up the kids, mentally I’ll be fully present with them because I have all my stuff under control.

The trip home from the childminder’s and the nursery are important transition points in the kids’ days. They’re happy to see me again. I’m happy to see them again. Miss W wants to tell me all about her day. I want to hear about her day. I enjoy being in the moment. Concentrating on what’s happening around me gives me a more intense interaction with my environment. Instead of staring off into the distance thinking about all the stuff I didn’t get done today or all the stuff I have to do tomorrow, I pull faces for Little W to make him laugh. I sing songs with Miss W. When someone helps me manoeuvre the buggy off the tram I look them in the eyes, smile and say thank you rather than just rushing on by looking stressed.

I used to really begrudge the time I had to spend on things like housework and cooking because I had a million other more useful, more interesting things I wanted to do. I’ve managed to turn that round by limiting my housework like I talked about above and about changing the way I see cooking. I used to just power through the recipes trying to get everything done as quickly as possible. But now I’ve decided I really want to learn how to cook, not just follow recipes. So I use the time when I’m cooking to learn about the ingredients, how to prepare them and combine them to create great flavours. Suddenly I enjoy cooking and it feels therapeutic. I’m learning new skills, slowly winding my brain down at the end of the day, and Mr W’s stomach is happy.

Ok, so I’m still not perfect. I’m aware that I look at the clock a lot because I’m very aware that my time is always limited. I also have to stop taking showers, doing housework and cooking while I’m supposed to be looking after the kids. It’s not fair on the kids, who get cheated out of spending proper time with me playing, reading books and singing songs. It’s not fair on Mr W who has to look after both the kids while I rush about doing things I could and should have done while the kids were out. That’s why I’ve started trying to prepare all meals in advance so that I can always have them on the table ready to eat with a maximum of 10 minutes’ preparation. I shower in the mornings once I get home from the gym or in the evenings once the kids are sleeping. I’ve stopped doing housework at the weekends and catch up with it on Mondays instead. We still have to work on our weekends. With two kids to entertain all day, there are always times when one or all of us gets grumpy. The trick is to identify the critical times and situations and have coping strategies ready. It’s a work in progress but I love it!

What are your thoughts on the dreaded “work-life balance”? How do you organise your time? Where is there still room for improvement?

  • Some years ago i really like the idea behind work life balance. Now i think it’s the wrong way. Balance sounds you need find a balance so like 50/50. Why couldn’t work be a fullfilment?

    Work Life Balance comes automatically if you set the right priorities.

    I organise my time with a lot of thing i learned from time managment. But at the top setting Priorities is my top tool. Like you did with your managment day, blog day. Every day i think about “What should i do today?” based on my bigger goals. That’s it.

    There is a lot of room to improvement. But i think the most room is at finding the right goals. At the moment i switch really often between goals. But at the end i coming back to the goal which i haved started with.

    • You’re exactly right – it’s all about priorities. Priorities change constantly and you have to be ready to totally change your plans at a second’s notice. At the moment I’m tending to get really involved in one thing for about a week at a time, then once that’s done I move on to the next thing. I realised trying to do everything at once ust makes me stressed.

  • Ex-Studentin

    For me, it takes time to find the right work-life-balance. I still haven’t found it yet. Sometimes I desire more freetime with no work. On the same time, I am very happy to have a varied job. I learn much and have a nice team. With kids it is easier to set the priorities because family should always be the number one. At the moment I live like: I am young and will see, what life has planed for me.

    • The thing is that there is no right work-life balance that will always hold true. What feels right now nay feel totally wrong in a few years’ time. It’s important to be flexible and to constantly reflect on whether what you’re doing makes you feel happy.

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  • amber tree

    Great title and article. I see the points you want to make.

    In my opinion, what people call work-life balance should better be called a balanced life. There are indeed many aspects that you value as a person in life. Work might be one of them, in my case, for the achievements I can get there and the cashflow that it brings.
    Other things I value: my family and kids: I do the morning shift. Thursdays pick them up at school. Add the weekends and I have what I need.

    As you mention in the comments: This balanced life has shifted throughout the years and will shift in the coming years. Being able to adjust my situation to this, is important.

    If it is this what we call work-life balance, than it does exists…

    • You’re right that a balance between work and life does exist, it’s just the term “work-life” balance that I don’t agree with, because it implies that you should spend an equal amount of time on “work” and “life”, which for me at least is too simplistic and not very realistic. It’s a question everyone has to find their own answer to and there can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, much as some big companies may want there to be.

  • Excellent post. I always laugh when people talk about work-life balance as though you simply add some extra “weight” on the life side to equal the work side 🙂 it is so much more complicated than that and your post captures it very nicely.

    • Welcome Mrs Smelling Freedom. Glad you liked the post! I spent years struggling to make my life balance with my work and gradually it dawned on me that no matter what I did, nothing worked so maybe the problem was in the way I was looking at the problem on a bigger scale.

  • I love the idea of work is life is play is art. Or something like that. Meaning you like your work so much there isn’t any boundary between work and the rest of your life. A rare people I know operate like this, but for me it’s still not the case. Work is still work!, but I’m enjoying it more these days.

    Sounds like you are doing really well Mrs. W. It’s a lot of work to be a good parent, and if you are concerned about something (like cooking, or running around doing too much), it’s likely you’re not really doing those things as badly as you think. Where you put your concern is where you put your energy, which is where you improve. 🙂

    • Thanks for the vote of confidence! I think one of the “drawbacks” of being FI is that now I have lots of free time to think about and question everything. When I was a rat-race robot on autopilot I just didn’t have the time or energy to analyse any of this stuff too deeply.

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  • Chris

    Ok, I realize this is an older post, but the work/life balance debates never really seem to go out of fashion, so here’s a few cents…

    To be honest, I find it a bit provocative when people dismiss the work/life balance theory so easily without substantiated arguments (applied to a broader context). If you feel that it doesn’t concern you, and that this theory doesn’t really apply – good for you. But I’d say it’s still relevant for people in general; a lot of people have jobs that entail little to no flexibility in terms of when and where their line of work is carried out. It doesn’t automatically imply that everyone working strict schedules and long hours hate their jobs, but simply that work/life balance is a necessity to avoid long term health problems and having enough time to recuperate, have familiy time etc.

    A lot of workers (even skilled ones) don’t have the luxury to set their own priorities (They are set by their managers) and must often handle unforeseen requests and tasks, often including vasts amount of overtime on short notice. This may not always be a problem if handled correctly, but there’s only so much an employee can do. If the employer keeps pushing the employee to work long hours and/or in stressful environments over extended periods of time while offering little to no means of recharging or hardly any time off, it may eventually lead to burnout. In our competitive 24/7 society this happen a bit too often if you ask me. And even if people do love their jobs, burnout can happen to them too. Enjoying work usually imply better protection from burnout, but very few people are able to focus on work 24/7 indefinitely. I know a fair share of people (who loved their work) that eventually hit the infamous wall and now deeply regret that they weren’t able to spend more time exploring other aspects of life.

    So, why doesn’t more people take care of their health some may ask… A valid question of course, but to take care of a problem requires one to realize that there is a problem in the first place. You can’t solve it if you can’t see it, and much less articulate a potential problem at hand.

    • Hi Chris,

      First of all let me apologise profusely for taking so long to get back to you – I know kids and general Christmas busyness are no excuse. Sorry.

      No problem that you commented on an older post – I welcome comments and feedback on all my posts, however old. The post was intended to be provocative – my ideas and theories are just that – ideas and theories that are meant to be challenged and tested. I tend to write about things I’m turning over in my mind in the hope that you, the readers, will think about those things too and let me know what you think.

      I agree with you that it’s important for everyone to reflect on how much they work and how much time they have for other things – my problem with the work/life balance theory is many managers’ approaches to it and their ingenious strategies for dealing with it.

      In my experience, a lot of managers realise their teams are overworked and
      they need to do something about it, so they come up with a raft of short-term measures without really tackling the root cause of the problem, like “Next Tuesday we’re all going home at 3pm, and you’re not allowed to go home and work.” While
      everyone may have had a great Tuesday afternoon, the huge piles of work were still there on Wednesday morning when they got into the office and within 10 minutes they were just as stressed as before.

      In today’s fast-paced, ever-changing corporate world the pressure’s on to be extremely cost-effective, highly adaptable and innovative all at the same time. An example from the IT industry, because it’s the industry I worked in during my corporate life: many IT companies don’t feel they can afford to hire enough programmers to get the job done properly, wait to release a new software version until they’ve ironed out all the bugs, and slowly adapt to new technologies. Instead, to lower their costs they hire less experienced programmers (who mess up more often and take longer to get things done) or even as few programmers as possible, ship their new software release as soon as most of the bugs are more or less sorted, and suddenly decide to shelve a project that 100 people have been working 18 hours a day on for the last year and a half. This often ends up costing more money since bugs have to be fixed in emergency software patches, which also damage the company’s reputation and the trust their customers have in them, and wastes tonnes of money in failed projects.

      That environment does not provide a calm, relaxed atmosphere for workers. It may be exciting while you’re in your 20s – in fact many people in large companies seem to think that the more they cram their calendars with meetings and the more overtime they do, the more important they are. In this culture, people who minimise their attendance at pointless meetings so they can get their work done within their normal 8-hour workday and then go home to their family at 5:30 are often looked down on as not being as serious about their work as the others and get skipped over for promotions and pay raises. That’s not fair, but unfortunately that seems to be the way things are, at least at several large companies in Germany where I have first-hand experience.

      Things are obviously not the same at every company, and of course there are companies out there that are genuinely trying to make their offices nice places to work and to keep their staff from getting burned out, but from my experience this trend is
      taking quite a while to catch on. Hence the post…