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Work And Life Don’t Balance

by Jonathan Raymond

November 28th, 2012

“What if caring and ownership were universal values that applied equally at work and at home?”

Work-life balance is impossible. In fact, it might be the most insidious and counterproductive idea in the business conversation today. Here’s why: 

Work-Life Balance Is Impossible

While it sounds harmless, it’s based on a troubling idea that isn’t often understood. Work-life balance has an assumption that those two things are “equal” – that you can balance a certain amount on one side against a certain amount on the other, like you could with apples and oranges. But your life and your work aren’t equal – your life will always be bigger than your work – so trying to balance them is a recipe for failure. In fact, the work-life balance concept reinforces a split that was never meant to be there in the first place.

Work-life balance implies you have two separate personalities – the you who you are at work and the you who you are “everywhere else.” This subtle but powerful assumption might have you scratching your head. We’re so conditioned to be different at work – to be efficient and productive (meaning: leave your values and heart at the door). At home, you’re supposed to be slower – more loving and caring with yourself and others (meaning: embody your real values there).

But what if caring and ownership were universal values that applied equally at work and at home?

What if trying to balance them is the problem? Even worse, what if it has the effect of deepening the problem – making you more stressed and overwhelmed – rather than less? What if the constant state of anxiety you feel (whether it’s high grade or low grade right now) is there not because you can’t drag yourself away from work – but because you haven’t yet gone all the way into it?

You can’t balance two things that aren’t measurable by the same scale. Apples and oranges can be weighed in pounds – a certain number on this side weighs the same as a certain number on the other side. But life and work? They aren’t measured on the same scale because one is a subset of the other.

Work is Inside Life

When you are at work you are by definition in your life. Right? When you are at home you are not necessarily at work (though sometimes you may be). Can you see how life can contain work – but not the other way around?

Your life is bigger than your work – no matter how passionate you are about it or how successful you become. In fact, the more passionate you are about it, the bigger your life has to get. It can feel, and maybe often does, that your work is consuming your life. That’s a real feeling – but it’s just not a real reality. Your work can not be bigger than your life.

Let’s be clear – you can work too much, and your personal life will suffer. Checking your email during dinner with your spouse is not an aphrodisiac. But being passionate about what you do definitely is. The point is that you can learn how to work smarter and move through the “inbox” of your day more efficiently with some training in self organization and the help of a business coach.

But there’s another way to think about it. Your business came from your life, it came from your choices, your vision, your financial dreams and realities. It came from you and it can never be bigger than you or “balanced” against you. It’s impossible.

You can’t solve a problem from inside of it. If you measure your success in hours or “down time,” you are using business measurements to solve a larger life problem. At EMyth, we love systemization and quantification – but the results are only as good as the standard of measurement you’re using.

If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution, choose to measure your progress by a different standard. How can you make today more meaningful than yesterday was? How can you bring more of yourself to your work (aka: a big part of your life) and improve the lives of those around you? Start by choosing to begin your moments – your meetings, your phone calls, your employee mentoring – from this place. You’ll automatically be more efficient, and whenever you go home you’ll do so with a clearer head and a less burdened heart.

Jonathan Raymond

  1. Christian N. says:

    Amen!

    Now, to make everyone see the truth of this, and take the full consequences … (Including myself.) :-)

    • Glenn N McBride says:

      What a wonderful refocusing of an age-old concept. Why certainly – our lives are much larger than our work (or works)! Thanks.

  2. Rick Cox says:

    Great blog article Johnathan. Thanks so much.

  3. Sean Beatty says:

    Loved it! Reminds me of Genesis 2:15 “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” This was paradise, and God gave Adam work to put his hand to. Makes sense that work should be rewarding and fulfilling, a part of who we are. That’s how it was in the beginning.

  4. Jonathan Raymond says:

    Thanks guys, appreciate the feedback. For me, this is the conversation we’ll be having for the rest of this decade and beyond …

  5. Bob says:

    I don’t know….maybe I’m missing the point but this is pretty heavy and it sounds like California dreaming.
    Are you suggesting we can sperate our life from our work or is this just a matter of setting priorities each day.
    After all “man is known/measured by his commerce”. If anyone believes that statement is inaccurate just go to a cocktail party and the first thing people ask you is what do you do. And then they want to know how big you are.

    • Jefferson Duval says:

      Bob, I think we’re in agreement with you. You can’t separate the two.
      I wonder if the heaviness you’re referring to has to do with what Jonathan is saying about each of us being personally responsible to develop a healthy relationship to work as it serves the bigger picture of our lives?

      When you’re at a cocktail party, do you start your conversations by asking about work as well?

  6. Mark Winwood says:

    Couldn’t disagree more.

    Balance is not about two or more things on a scale, it is about maintaining a center of awareness and mindfulness from which one is not pulled or tipped over.

    This is completely attainable.

  7. Joe Morejon says:

    As a Martial Arts School owner and Black Belt I often teach my students that life, like martial arts, is all about balance. Good balance; good martial arts, good life. Bad balance; bad martial arts, bad life. All eat, no exercise; bad balance. All work, no rest; bad balance.

    In Japanese culture there is a term “Kaizen”.
    Kaizen relates to the Japanese philosophy of self improvement; “better than you were yesterday, not as good as you will be tomorrow.”

    Most Americans think of balance as a scale. Likewise, they see time as linear; past, present, future. The Japanese see life as seasonal (it’s why they have so many seasonal celebrations).
    When they think of balance they think circular not linear. I think this relates to Jonathan’s point; the circle of life encompasses work, not the other way around. Jonathan’s point is merely a different perspective to what has become the norm in American culture that has come to define our lives by what we do rather than who we are.

  8. Cassie says:

    I have always thought that if you felt you needed NEEDED a vacation from tou work then you needed a different job. or to change something about your job such that you didn’t feel you NEEDED a vacation.

    I think you are saying something similar.

  9. R. Keith Whitt says:

    You can balance the quantitative. You can only integrate the qualitative.

  10. Slade Machamer says:

    That’s right Keith. The article is not arguing the validity of balance as a concept but saying that life and work don’t belong opposed to each other on that scale. This is true for all of us but critical for business owners. Creativity perishes when work and life are treated that way.

  11. john Baranowski says:

    Perhaps the real problem exists that many of us owners or employees are so wrapped up in work and financial stress that we cannot enjoy our time out of work. Perhaps we lose touch with our dream. My work as a business owner, teacher and technician is very fulfilling and is an extension of who I am. I love the work I do. I am more in touch with my primary aim as i make the cycle each year. Finding my niche and becoming more effective at using my time for what i love is the unfolding process. However, my financial position is not what i would like it to be. i have learned how to train people to do the technical work. I feel much less like a slave to my business as time goes on. Knowing where i want to go in the near and distant future is my guiding light. My whole life including the business part is involved in the process of developing that vision.

  12. Paul Bauscher says:

    This is a great post but one that will be resisted on a visceral level because it requires true introspection. My great employees are great BECAUSE of who they are as people, not because of what they do at work. They do what they do because they are who they are. The convenient disconnect used by many allows a soothing of conscience for those who choose to act without integrity at work or know their “job” is not their life’s work but don’t possess the courage to take the steps needed to move on, i.e. quit and find a new place to work.

    Just my humble opinion but a great post.

  13. steve capper says:

    When I see the words work/life balance I think of the word ‘life’ as a subset of MY LIFE, not as MY LIFE. More accurately as my ‘non-working life’
    This then includes down time, family time, exercise, sleeping well, fun time, social life outside of my work life etc.
    Work life/non-work life can definitely be out of balance and in MY LIFE is often caused by going to extremes, lack of self awareness and unconscious behaviour patterns and I suffer because of it.

    I would add self awareness to Jonathan’s comment about caring and responsibilty

    • Susan Wilhelmsen says:

      Hi Steve,

      You expressed that your life can definitely be out of balance, which is caused by going to extremes. I appreciate your honesty in sharing that your experience has been due to a lack of self-awareness and unconscious behavior patterns. I find with clients, starting with how their life lines up with their values and passion is the best place to start working. Life can be exhausting when we are not living according to what we say we value most.

  14. Jamison Hollister says:

    When I read this post, I thought of a time when I went out to dinner with a friend and our waiter was a bit rude, distracted, and inattentive. My friend said to the waiter sarcastically “You know, you could always go and get a job you actually like.” (I was amused, but thought it would have been better to say that to the waiter after he brought us our food!)

    For me, the question of work/life balance is indeed misleading, because the two cannot be opposed to each other. If they are, you’re either in the wrong business or you’ve got the wrong attitude.

    If you’re seeking work/life balance then you’re already framing the idea of ‘work’ in a limited way, as something less than or opposed to life, as a four letter word, so to speak! Our first and most important commitment is to be fully alive and engaged as much as possible-no matter where we are or what we are doing. This is what ‘going to work’ should really mean, whether you are a waiter or an entrepreneur.

  15. Amanda Horne says:

    This is so perfect and so completely true it made me have an ah-ha moment. Thanks – great blog :)

  16. Eric T. Brandt says:

    Like nearly everything I get from E-Myth, this one is right on target and couldn’t be better timed. I had a new business acquaintance comment to me recently that “people in my area are more focused on a work-life balance”. I assume it was a compliment, but I’m not sure if it applied to me. The daily challenges are increasingly overwhelming in work and life. I appreciate the chance to re-think via the E Myth articles and programs. With luck, resolution is close at hand.

  17. Flavio says:

    Great Point! It makes so much sense to remove that opposition. Work should be a big part of your life as long as we made the right choice and do the work we want to do. great stuff as always!