If you’re reading this, you’re like a lot of people: interested in work-life balance and convinced that it can help you to lead a fuller, happier, more meaningful life. But do we understand what work-life balance is? Because, if we’re going to pursue work-life balance, it’s going to be important to know what it is. Otherwise, how will we know if we’re achieving it?
It’s often easier to understand ideas through pictures, so we’ve put together a few graphics to illustrate what work-life balance is and what it’s not. We'll end this section by combining elements of a few of these pictures to give a useful definition of work-life balance.
In this original definition of work-life balance, both are held as equally important and so equally deserving of our time and attention. This leads to the process of trying to clearly distinguish between which parts of our time and attention are being given to work or personal pursuits, and then divvy up that time and attention evenly.
As we’ll see in coming pictures, this definition leaves a few things to be desired. Even so, it’s a helpful image because it at least raises the idea as something for us all to consider.
Work-life balance isn’t a thing
Have you ever seen a toddler smash together two different colors of play dough? Once they’ve really worked over the dough, it’s impossible to pull it apart into its separate colors again. That’s the counterpoint this view is making to the “equal balance” view above: Work and life aren’t completely separate things that we can pull apart and precisely measure out. Rather, we need to think about them as one whole.
While this is a good corrective to the “equal balance” view, it goes a little too far: work and personal life may not be two entirely separate things, but neither are they one homogenous pursuit. We all say and do things in our work that we wouldn’t give time or attention to in our personal lives, and vice versa.
So, this take on work-life balance is helpful in that it brings a sense of holism to our thinking: work and life are not entirely separate things. We’ll take that insight as we develop our own working definition of work-life balance.
The ability to make choices between work and life
This might be obvious to some, but it's worth noting that work-life balance is something we have to do – not something that's being done to or for us. So it's important to recognize the role that decision-making plays in our work-life balance.
Even if our work-life balance could be decided and managed for us (by governments or technology or our employers), that wouldn't be an ideal situation. Because that balance would be imposed. Decided for us. And one of the important facets of being human is this very opportunity to creatively choose when and where and how we will engage with work and life.
Work-life balance has a creative and personal component to it, where we are navigating and deciding the sort of lives we want to lead. We will add this aspect of creative decision-making to our growing definition of what healthy work-life balance actually means..
The pursuit of satisfaction in both work and life
So far, we’ve recognized that work and life are separate, but intricately connected. And we've touched on the idea that a healthy work-life balance gives us the ability to creatively choose how we’ll engage with work and with life.
The important thing to note here is the idea of satisfaction. Because it’s one thing to be able to choose between work and personal pursuits; it’s another thing to look for satisfaction in both arenas. Again, it’s possible to devote equal time to each arena and call that a sort of balance. But if we view one arena as the one where we underperform and suffer so that we can do well in the other, that’s not really a healthy balance. Even worse, if we achieve a balance in our work and personal lives, but are unsatisfied in both arenas, have we really gained anything with our balance?
So, the idea here is that a healthy work-life balance isn’t pursuing balance for its own sake — it’s pursuing balance in order to foster satisfaction in both work and life.
Looking for ways to have work and personal life support – not compete with – each other
With this last picture, we want to introduce the idea that a healthy work-life balance looks for ways that your work and life can support one another instead of compete with each other.
Because our time and energy and attention are not unlimited, it's reasonable to think of work-life balance as a zero-sum game where every gain in one arena comes at the expense of the other. And this can be true – there are times when we will have to make sacrifices in one to support the other. But it is also true that gains in one area can foster growth in the other.
Think about it this way: if you experience growth in your personal life, isn't it likely that you'll bring this improved outlook and mindset to your work? So we want to reframe work-life balance to open up the possibility that we can make changes that will support work and life in turn (if not simultaneously). Rather than playing a zero sum game, we’ll be looking for creative solutions that help our work and personal lives to support and enrich one another.
Putting all the pictures together
Taking all of these pictures and the insights they give us, we have the following working definition for healthy work-life balance:
Work-life balance is an ongoing process where we creatively choose where to invest our energy so that work and life don't compete with each other, but support and enrich one another.
To see what we do with this definition and get other ideas for improving work-life balance, you'll want to check out this free resource:The Busy Person's Guide to Work-Life Balance.
What do you think of this definition of work-life balance? How do you see this playing out in your world? Let me know in the comments.