The legendary former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, famously said: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, you make them, and they have consequences.” Mr. Welch’s words seem to run counter to one of the most popular ideas in the modern workplace, the idea that it is possible to achieve the perfect balance between workplace and personal life. The assumption is that if people can strike the perfect balance between their personal and work lives, they will be happier and more fulfilled. Happier people not only make more productive employees; they are also make better members of a society. So, the idea of a work life balance seems beneficial all round. The only problem is that work-life balance is an often unattainable ideal. As such those who go in pursuit of it often end up getting frustrated. They end up feeling guilty, powerless and angry. In the end, the pursuit of work-life balance often leads to frustration, unhappiness and stress, the opposite of what it is intended to achieve.
A Narrow Definition
The problem with the idea of work life balance begins with its very definition. In most cases, the definition is too narrow to cover the complexities of modern life. When talking about work-life balance, most people focus on attaining a balance between one’s career and family life. A few throw in social life as well. However, focusing on career, family and social life fails to cover the broad spectrum of what composes modern human life. This actually creates the possibility of someone remaining unfulfilled, even if they attain some sort of “balance” among these narrow spheres. In his provocative essay, “No, You Can’t Have It All”, the President of Axcess Worldwide, Eric C. Sinoway, identifies seven dimensions which make up the life of a typical modern-day citizen. They are:
- Family (parents, children, siblings, in-laws and so on)
- Social and community (friendships and community engagement)
- Spiritual (religion, philosophy or emotional outlook)
- Physical (health and well-being)
- Material (physical environment and possessions)
- Avocational (hobbies and other nonprofessional activities)
- Career (both short- and long-term perspectives)
A Complex Balancing Act
When all these dimensions are considered, the idea of balance becomes incredibly difficult. Sinoway uses the analogy of walking on a beam balance, while attempting to juggle an egg, a knife, a crystal glass and other fragile or hazardous objects. To maintain a balance, it is inevitable that some objects will have to be dropped. The same applies to real life. When attempting to juggle career, family, social life, health, spiritual life, material pursuits and hobbies, it is inevitable that some things will fall through the cracks. The real issue is how they fall through the cracks. Do they drop off accidentally because someone is distracted by more immediate concerns or does the person make a calculated decision on what to drop, and what to keep juggling? For most people, things fall through the cracks by accident. For instance, a company executive promises his 8-year-old son that he will be present at his first soccer game. However, upon reaching the office, he finds a full-blown emergency which causes him to forget all about the game. When he remembers (long after the game has ended), he is consumed by guilt. This may seem like a single incident, but for most parents such incidents pile up. They are therefore left with feelings of inadequacy and remorse. To avoid things accidentally falling through the cracks, one needs to make a calculated decision about what to drop and what to keep. To do this, it is important to have a clear idea of a one’s priorities. The starting point is understanding one’s purpose in life.
To some people, the idea of a life’s purpose sounds rather grandiose. However, in this context, the term isn’t used in the mystical and spiritual sense. It is used to underscore a basic undeniable fact that people find fulfilment in different ways. Let us take children, for example. There are some people who find incredible joy, happiness and excitement in nurturing and raising children. To them, having children and watching them grow gives them an incredible feeling of fulfilment. It is about the best thing that can happen to them. For others, raising children is about as exciting as a visit to the dentist. Even if they find themselves having children of their own, they minimize contact with them. For such people, children aren’t a source of fulfillment at all. The same applies to almost all the other dimensions in life. The amount of fulfilment which a person will get from a career, social life, material possessions, spiritual life, family life, avocational pursuits and even physical health will vary from one person to another. Therefore, attempting to balance them makes absolutely no sense. It is much better to rank them in their order of importance, and then prioritize them accordingly.
Prioritization is a more effective approach than the so-called work life balance. It is more realistic because it forces people to identify what is more important to them and to easily drop the nonessential things from their life. However, prioritization isn’t just a matter of eliminating clutter. It is also about knowing what to do, and when. There is a time and place for everything. Focusing one’s efforts and energy at the right time and place is critical. Prioritization is giving maximum focus to what is most important at any given moment. In a nutshell, the idea of work-life balance is an unattainable fantasy. Those who try to attain it are more likely to end up frustrated, guilty and burnt out. A smarter approach is to identify what is most important in one’s life, eliminate any clutter and then use prioritization to focus their time and effort. This will increase one’s chances of attaining success, fulfilment and happiness.
Eric C. Sinoway (2012) – No, You Can’t Have It All (https://hbr.org/2012/10/no-you-cant-have-it-all)