Read This The Next Time You’re Desperately Longing For Work-Life Balance

by | Sep 11, 2013 | Achieving Balance | 23 comments

T owards the end of my previous career I became a master at work-life balance.

Having a baby made it easier. I told my boss I had to pick my daughter up from daycare at 5:30 PM everyday because they charge you extra by the minute after that. So he let me go.

But even before my daughter was born, I stopped taking work home. I might check email once or twice, but other than that I spent time with my husband, read books, and wrote poems.

Did I get behind on work? Sure I did.

That’s how I came to the startling realization that most deadlines are arbitrary–a truth I doubt is unique to government work.

If you don’t turn something in by the deadline, half the time no one ever asks you for it. I started making a habit of forcing people ask for things twice, unless it was obviously important or interesting, just to be sure it was work that needed to be done.

This was living the dream of the TGIF lifestyle.

And you know what? It sucked.

Balanced, but not happy?

For many people, but for overachievers in particular, I don’t think the solution to the stress that plagues us is simply to work less.

In fact, one of the most obnoxious assumptions of the work-life mantra is that work is something to be avoided or that people only work because they have to pay the bills.

So you need work you enjoy–you knew I’d say that.

But that work, whether joyful or irritating, is simply one part of life. Treating work like a cancer that needs to be excised isn’t the answer. Slicing and dicing your life into equal sized pieces will leave you exhausted–there’s only so much to go around.

For this reason, I’ve come to believe work-life balance not only isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, it can actually lead you in the wrong direction. This is exactly how overachievers were seduced into believing that if they could only learn the art of balance, they could finally “have it all.”

It’s a message, after all, we want so desperately to believe.

I’ve cut back on unfulfilling work only to feel a sense of disconnectedness, like I was still missing out on something important and precious. I’ve pursued meaningful work with passion, only to end up burned out and depressed.

At times I worried that being an overachiever somehow meant I was broken in a way that couldn’t be fixed.

A new balance that works

It was during one of these low points that I had my epiphany.

(As a side note, why must epiphanies always wait until you’re at your lowest? If I ever figure out how to speed those suckers along, I’ll be both rich and wise.)

I discovered that the balance I needed was between challenge and contentment.

At first glance, this may appear just another way of looking at work-life balance, where work equals challenge and the rest of life offers contentment. But as someone who’s experienced challenging relationships and blissful work, I can tell you it doesn’t always fall along those lines.

Nor should it.

What you want is the right balance between challenge and contentment in every area of your life, from work to relationships to travel and everything in between.

My husband, who is always the first line guinea pig for my ideas, recently put this to the test. He was getting frustrated trying to solve a problem for his organization that was outside his control. The challenge was too big.

The typical advice might be to take a day off or get some exercise. I told him to spend some time doing what brought him contentment at work: talking to people.

As the head of the office, it’s an important part of his job. For him, it’s also one of the easiest and most rewarding things he can do. It helped him to remember that while he can’t solve every problem at work, he can do something productive and personally rewarding.

For my part, after a completing a difficult project, I spent the weekend de-cluttering my office and reading articles on book marketing. I was nearly euphoric. Even accounting, something I thought I hated, turns out to be a real joy when I need to decompress.

In fact, I’ve found that if I don’t address the contentment/challenge issue within the domain I’m experiencing it, I find the relief I get to be short-lived. I could have spent that time reading books to my daughter, another activity that brings me contentment, but I suspect a sense of irritation or feeling unsettled about my work would have remained.

It’s not healthy to escape a bad work environment through your social life, just as it’s not a good idea to escape a bad relationship by working at the office all the time.

You can spend 60 hours a week on your job and still have a happy, healthy family. You can engineer a 4-hour work week and still feel anxious or bored.

But I suppose what always bothered me about the concept of work-life balance is that it stressed me out more than it helped. It held up balance as yet one more achievement I needed to add to my life’s to-do list.

And of course I couldn’t.

Because balance isn’t something you achieve, it’s something you practice.

Moreover, it’s not how much time you spend on any one activity that matters. It’s whether the time, however long or short, was well spent.

It’s quality over quantity. Better and happier over more or less.

The key is playing around with the right doses of challenge and contentment in each of the important areas of your life, the one you want to live, not some mythological dream life that no one is actually living.