Balance is Bunk: Ditching the Search for Work/Life Balance

October 17, 2014 | Roger and Susie Engelau

It’s right up there with a good salary and benefits as the thing that most people—young people especially—are looking for most: work/life balance,wanting to “have it all.” It’s natural to want a professional life full of resounding accomplishments and a fulfilling personal life. Unfortunately, the idea that we can have both is a myth, and chasing for a balance that’s impossible to strike can result in a life unfulfilled.

Part of the issue is that the so-called “work-life” balance isn’t just about weighing two sides. It seems like such a balancing act would be simple enough, which is why so many people aim for it. The problem is that the “balance” we’re looking for isn’t just between these two ideas of “work” and “life,” but between the many different things included and within each: a spiritual life, community involvement, physical fitness, education, and more, depending on the given individual.

Stewart D. Friedman expanded the definition of work-life balance from two to four areas in the September 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review. In a piece called “Work + Home + Community + Self” (http://hbr.org/2014/09/work-home-community-self/ar/1), Friedman explained that when we shoot for this idea of “balance” in our lives, we’re actually trying to balance those four categories in the title of his work, and defines them as: “work or school, home or family (however you define that), community (friends, neighbors, religious or social groups), and self (mind, body, spirit).”

So there’s the problem;  finding a balance between four categories (and a near-infinite number of subcategories) is a huge burden to put on ourselves. More than that, though, a pursuit of balance in those areas doubles as a refusal to make decisions about the things that are truly important to us in our lives. Such indecisiveness can have a hugely negative impact on how successful and generally content we are with our lives. In coaching business owners, this is one of the most common issues business owners wrestle with… and once we get it resolved, its amazing to watch how it frees up the business owner to truly pursue success.

What’s the approach to resolution?  It’s different for each person, but it stands to reason that some people will care more about family and community than they will care about work. It also makes sense that other people will be so fiercely devoted to moving forward in their professional lives, with making money, or with making names for themselves that they don’t have time or inclination to build families. So each of us must choose which category, or subcategory, is most important, 2nd most important, and 3rd and so on.

Balance isn’t found within ourselves or our lives but in the world we live in. Just as our world finds balance because people with different aptitudes take on different jobs or roles, it also finds balance because those same people decide which things are most important to them and pursue those things with complete dedication.

Don’t worry about finding the work/life (or work/home/community/self) balance. Trying to split your focus between a wide range of different goals will only spread your available time and energy away from your other goals. So choose what means most to you in the world, be it love and family, success in the workplace, religious fulfillment, or any other pursuit, and make it your top priority.  Once you know which one is most important, it’s easier to make choices and decisions hour by hour, day by day. You have a reason to say ‘no,’ to turn down those requests and offers that don’t support your priority in any real way.

And don’t worry that you can’t live with the priority once you set it. It won’t stay the same forever and it shouldn’t.  Be prepared to re-examine your priority as life calls for change—people walk in and out of your life, job opportunities present, you absorb new chunks of information.

It’s time for many of us to ditch our goal of balance and having it all. We’ll be happier and have more success precisely because we decide to forego the misplaced belief that we need to live a “balanced life” in order to be fulfilled.