The Irony Of Work-Life Balance

Published March 23, 2022 by Sheila Anne Murray

“I’ve been scratching my head this week, Sheila. I can’t figure out this work-life balance thing my company and others are always promoting. Can you help me figure it out?”

My client went on to describe waking up early on the Pacific Coast to catch morning meetings with their East Coast colleagues, and signing off at 6 PM on a good day. Then, working overtime (unpaid, of course) before vacations because their team depended on them. Of course they were confused about this mysterious “balance” phenomenon – because there was no balance.

I empathize with the people who come to me, usually upset with themselves, because they can’t seem to understand the “work-life balance” line their companies boast about but haven’t defined. Meanwhile, they’re inundated with media that tells a story about how they should be achieving balance and satisfaction in every area of life – from the perfectly curated Instagram feed of adventure to LinkedIn career highlights to Pinterest-worthy home decorating. If your inner monologue has ever run rampant with thoughts like: “Wow, I must be the only one who isn’t succeeding in all these areas… but I’m already exhausted from keeping all the plates of life spinning. What am I doing wrong?” – know that you are not alone. This is a trend, and it’s one that’s unfortunately on the uptick.

Four years ago when I was working in a corporate office, this was true for me too. I thought that if I just worked harder, changed my routine, and constantly up-leveled my lifestyle, I’d arrive at “balance.”

This is why, though I have an aversion to the word “balance”, used in a general sense, I love to talk about how cracking the code to our own experience of balance can be deeply transformative.

It’s my hope that this article helps you take another look at the elusive balance and understand what it means for you. Let’s dig in!

Balance used abstractly is poisonous 

Hear me out…

  • Can you honestly tell me a time that your whole life has been in balance?
  • Do you know anyone who is genuinely living a balanced life?
  • Have you ever defined what “balance” actually means for you, for your work, and for your home?

We are chasing a version of balance that has never existed. This is why I’m constantly challenging clients that throw around the word “balance”. What does it all even mean!

The definition of balance is:

a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions

So going with that, what would this mean for work-life balance?

  • Equal hours working and not working? Highly unlikely.
  • Vacation time equivalent to working time? Even less likely.
  • Equal satisfaction in career and life simultaneously? Challenging to measure.
  • Simultaneously excelling in all areas of work and life? I’ve tried. Would not recommend to a friend.

In my experience, you can’t nurture all parts of life and be striving hard in every area at once. Attempting this is short-sighted perfectionism and leads to burnout. Instead of striving for balance in general, what if we instead focused on what will actually elevate performance and increase satisfaction?

This is what brings me to my own, current definition of balance – “A felt sense of equilibrium that accounts for life aspects, goals, and individuality.”

What we need to normalize about balance

Let’s put this into perspective. When you are up-leveling something in your life – be it a promotion, your love life, your self care or spiritual practice – you hone in on that area of your life and focus less on other aspects. There won’t be balance in every life aspect simultaneously. That’s good. This is how we as humans can focus and evolve.

It’s okay if you are in a time of your life where you are spending more time alone and less time socially. It’s equally okay if you are more community-oriented and less self-oriented right now. It’s normal if your movement practice is taking the back-burner because you are healing from grief or supporting loved ones. It’s normal if you are deep into personal growth and development and your house is a bit of a mess while you’re in that process.

Allowing the scales of your life aspects to be a little out of balance can actually create the feeling of being in balance as a whole in this journey of life. The key is to focus on your experience versus what others are doing. Even if your friend Tina seems like she’s mastered work-life balance, unless you two have identical lives, goals, and nervous systems, keep the focus on you!

Balance is an individual experience

There is no “universal standard” of balance. Balance is an individual experience that we can all be empowered to discover on our own. In doing so, we discover the feeling of balance even in the imbalance of our life aspects (career, fitness, home, community, etc…) because we are at peace with not doing all the things at once.

The wonderful thing about this piece – it’s probably nothing new. I’d guess you’ve felt balance in your very body before, whether you labeled it as such or not.

Take a pause right now in your reading, sit back, close your eyes, and call to mind a time in your life when you felt balanced. Maybe a time when things felt easy, fulfilling, vibrant, soulful, aligned, etc. Notice anything you feel in your body and mind.

You’ve been in balance before. I would guess that during the time(s) you’ve just pulled to mind, not every single life aspect was a 10/10. Because this actually is not what matters about finding balance.

What if instead of talking about balance, we talked about finding a feeling of balance within the imbalance? Feels like freedom to me.

It’s not just about the active working hours

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how easy it is to bring work home. Even after you close your computer for the day or if you’re bold enough to not check notifications after working hours, your work-mode may stay mentally switched on.

What’s at stake with continuing this pattern:

  • There is no separation between the role you play at work and in life.
  • You bring your best self to work and your exhausted self home. Belgian psychotherapist Ester Perel calls this “bringing the leftovers home.”
  • You don’t have the time and space to recalibrate for the next day.
  • You practice numbing habits to turn off your brain.
  • You become resentful of your work, employer, and colleagues.

The first point was definitely true for my client. In our session we learned that their responsibilities to think critically all day at work had created a habit of thinking critically about themself. They would pull apart aspects about themself and poke holes in their own visions and goals. I often work with clients on understanding their “Inner Critic,” but it wasn’t until that session that I saw clearly how a work role that you practice the majority of the day, 5 days a week, can hugely impact the self outside of work.

This showed me that we cannot just cross our fingers and hope balance will find us. We have to define what is within our control and start practicing the work/life habits that will help us be refreshed and fulfilled. This is where boundaries become key.

Along with balance comes healthy boundaries!

It’s not your fault you’re burning out from lack of balance if the people at the helm of your company are not practicing boundaries, if it’s a company culture norm to work overtime and weekends, and if your workspace is also your bedroom and your partner, kids, pets, etc. are integrated with the flow of your office. Don’t get me wrong – I love the flexibility of working from home and I do sometimes work odd hours and weekends – but I know that boundaries are an essential piece of the puzzle if I want to build a sustainable business and lifestyle.

If you hear the word “boundaries” and immediately associate it with pushing people away, building walls, being mean, or restriction, you’re not alone. Though I love boundaries now I was not always that way! It’s a matter of perspective. I’ve found through my own practice that boundaries create structure, and structure allows for freedom!

Boundaries can look like:

  • Spaces and blocks of time reserved for not checking notifications, emails, etc.
  • Required vacation time and “clock out time” ie. nights/weekends off
  • Not overworking before / after vacation to make up for time “lost”
  • Work culture norm of appropriate hours to communicate
  • Sticking to a bedtime and wake up time that makes you feel good
  • Sharing a virtual calendar with your partner / family to create transparency and expectations
  • Communicating when you need alone time to decompress from work or re-calibrate for the next day

There are so many ways to integrate boundaries… so even the process of creating boundaries can be freeing versus restricting!

Intentional boundaries are key to creating a more balanced and satisfying life because you’re no longer available for doing and being all the things for everyone and everything. Your time, energy, and life is precious – treat it as such!

So to close up the story with my client, together we identified key areas where their work life and work mindset was creeping into their personal life and well-being. We established themes of restrictive thought patterns they had been practicing and co-designed actions they could take to create new ways of being. Finally we looked at how this theme of boundaries and balance fit into the larder picture of their life and vision.

The irony of work-life balance is that it’s so often thrown around, but rarely does it exist. Balance is not a destination, it cannot be earned or forever achieved. It’s not about excelling in every single life aspect, bullying yourself into creating a picture-perfect life, or using the word in a general/buzzwordy sense. What is it then? Finding balance is about finding the feeling of balance (and often the feeling of balance within the imbalance), taking an individualized approach, and being intentional with your energy and boundaries.

I leave you to ponder these two questions:

  • What does balance feel like for you?
  • And what would be possible in your life if you truly experienced balance?

Feeling jazzed about balance and boundaries? Don’t miss the Spring Cleaning For Your Lifestyle event I’m hosting on March 31st!

Sheila Anne