3 Reasons Why Work/Life Balance Doesn’t Really Exist

by Emily Guy Birken · 18 comments


I’m a work-at-home-mom with two kids under the age of four. I’ve been doing the freelancing-from-home gig since my eldest was two months old. And despite nearly four years of evidence to the contrary, I still wake up every single morning believing that today will be the day I cross off every item on my to-do list – from paid work to exercise to housekeeping to errands to childcare.

And every evening, when I look sadly over the long list of things left undone, I shake my head and wonder if I’ll ever achieve that elusive “work/life balance” I’ve been striving for.

As it turns out, however, I’m probably worrying about work/life balance unnecessarily and making myself a little crazy to boot. That’s because our concept of work/life balance doesn’t really exist.

Consider the following:

1. We don’t have a good definition of work/life balance

When we talk about the importance of work/life balance, every individual is bringing a different interpretation to the table. My (somewhat laughable) definition is being able to get everything done and still have time for my kids and hobbies. Another person might define it as being able to turn off their email in the evenings. Yet another might decide they’re balanced when they have enough time to enjoy their high earnings.

Unless you have a clear definition of work/life balance, it’s impossible to achieve it. And in my case, even having a “definition” doesn’t help, because what I want is simply impossible unless I figure out how to clone myself. I would argue that the person who can simply turn off her emails in the evenings won’t have work/life balance either, because I bet she still spends some of her energy at night worrying about her job and what has to be done. Talking vaguely about needing work/life balance won’t help until you decide what it is you’re truly after. It’s also vitally important to think deeply about what a work/life balance actually is to you so you can come up with a solution that fits your definition of the holy grail.

2. We treat work/life balance as a zero-sum game

Part of the problem with achieving balance is the fact that we describe it as a competition between our work and our lives. We talk about work and life as if they’re two separate spheres when the truth is that all of our time adds up to our life. Not only does pitting “work” against “life” in this equation make it seem as though there’s no real way to enjoy your job even a tiny bit, but it also suggests that adding to one area will always subtract from the other.

That’s obviously not true though: Working harder doesn’t detract from your life if you enjoy your job. You almost certainly get a bit of joy when you get a promotion or the occasional pleasant water-cooler talk in the break room. And taking the time you need to care for a family member, exercise, or otherwise take care of your “life” often makes you more effective at work.

3. We think balance is a destination

People have a sense that achieving work/life balance is something they have to strive for and they will forever have it once they obtain the elusive goal. There’s the schedule/understanding boss/good babysitter/workout routine/dinner plan that works for them, and they’ll simply sit on that perfect confluence forever, having attained the coveted work/life balance.

But the fact of the matter is that balance is not a stable state. Think about walking across a tightrope: You may be able to stop in the middle for a moment, but you’ll fall unless you keep moving. That’s because you have to constantly react and correct yourself if you start to fall. Life balance is similar. You’ll constantly need to make adjustments to keep the various parts of your life in good order.

That means that not only do you have to change what has to be done in order to keep yourself balanced, you may also have to change your definition of what a work/life balance is. After all, your circumstances will change as you grow. Your expectation will also change as you grow.

Learning to Balance

Striving for balance in your life is something that will take intentional effort every day. Rather than seeking out yet another app or time management guru, take the time each day to ask which parts of your life need a little attention from you. Answering this question will naturally lead to a life that feels more balanced.

As I look at the list of things I want to get done. I realize that I don’t actually have to finish everything that’s on my to-do list. There is a list of things I want to do for my freelance career that is “nice to have”, but ultimately it’s not important if I truly want to achieve a work/life balance. Other things, such as exercise, can be combined with house chores. I can even take my kids out and exercise together. That way everyone gets fresh air, I get to excise and we all get to spend time together.

Do you think work/life balance is a myth? Why or why not?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • James Salmons says:

    This is an important issue for anyone working independently in any type of self-employment. Personally I have learned to look at it in a somewhat different way than most, but it has helped me to live more comfortably with life.

    The truth is, self-employed people tend to be people with a broader range of interests. You speak of having a long list of things that go undone only because you enjoy a lot of things and I am sure that if I talked to you a couple of minutes you could describe a few dozen things that you have neglected to even consider putting on your list!

    Just this morning I was speaking with someone who is bored with life because they “can’t think of anything to do.” In my wildest dreams I cannot even imagine it.

    Now what I try to do (and I acknowledge nothing is perfectly satisfying for this issue) is simply to see the dilemma as one where there are so many good things to do and I get to choose my favorites.

    Also, because I know I have a long list of potential interests, I acknowledge these as just options, not necessities. I will get by fine doing only my priority items and I only expect to get those and a few options done each day. I should add that I don’t allow myself to put too many on the “required” list.

    • David@MoneyNing.com says:

      It could very well be that self employed people have more time to think about other interests, and that’s why they develop the desire to do more things. When I was at a high pressure sales job, I was really just spending my time trying to keep myself from drowning at work so there wasn’t much energy to think of new interests.

      Now that I work at home, I developed so many new hobbies because a) my higher energy level has increased my desire to say “yes” to new things and b) I just have more time to think about what I really want to do.

  • Luca Segantini says:

    As an independent free-lancer, and the director of a small team, the work-life balance debate is a topic I always felt strongly should be further analyzed.
    Too many people think of it as a very neat separation between what you do “at work” (the bad and the ugly, you only need to be there because of the salary) and what you do “in your life”, meaning at home, or at weekends or with friends and family (the good). In reality, your work can be as fulfilling as your private life, or, put it in reverse, your private time as disappointing as your time spent at work (evenings spent on Facebook, without even talking to your partner, anyone?).
    So, without handing over our life to our corporate employer, we need to reassess if checking your work email in the evening or occasionally taking the odd-hours conference call is an unacceptable intrusion into our private life. If this comes with, say, the ability to take time off for a medical visit or even a visit to our favorite shop without the need to fill absurdly complex forms and ask for permission, I’d gladly take it.

  • Patrick says:

    So true, I’m working day and night, and it’s creeping into weekends. Thank goodness I’m planning a vacation with a hard reset so I can break the cycle.

  • Alexis says:

    Balancing work and life is extremely hard, especially when you had school to the mix. I feel like I’m constantly working on something and I need to give some time to catch my breath. I try to balance all of these together but sometimes it becomes overwhelming.

    • David@MoneyNing.com says:

      Hang in there Alexis. It’s hard to work and go to school at the same time, but a little sacrifice for a bigger reward later is often a good decision to make, especially when you are young.

  • Aldo says:

    I think people are just working too hard and not enjoying their lives enough. I’m not or will ever be a workaholic just to make a few extra bucks. Life is just too precious to be wasted working all the time.

    • David@MoneyNing.com says:

      I think everyone will agree with you Aldo, but it’s hard to break the cycle for some. I know many very wealthy business owners in their 50s and 60s who are still grinding it out for every little money making opportunity. They stress themselves out even though there’s no point because they have enough money that no amount of income will ever increase their standard of living.

  • debs says:

    I think we don’t have work/life balance because we are high achievers. We put too much on the list and push ourselves harder. In order to break this we have to know when is good enough and plan for good enough. A three item list would be reasonable, and by three items it doesn’t mean three items + email + returning phone calls + budget etc. Those items count as one thing each.

    • David@MoneyNing.com says:

      Part of the issue is that pushing away money making opportunities is difficult for all of us. Having a plan and knowing what is “good enough” is definitely something we should all strive to know for ourselves.

  • Gretchen says:

    Great stuff! I think part of it is realizing that you cannot do everything. No one can – it’s just how life is. Also, corporate american doesn’t really help with the work/life balance thing either 🙁

  • Kirsten says:

    These are excellent points – work/life balance should be more if a general feeling and not so much a definition of getting everything done. Not that I don’t struggle with that same problem myself, but I did switch jobs in between kiddo #1 and kiddo #2… I see a big difference in the balance I perceive. Trying to get “more” balance is impossible – only so many hours in the day, so I’m seeking “better” balance.

    • David@MoneyNing.com says:

      Great point about the goal of “better” balance being what we ultimately want. The other thing I notice is that when I’m happy and at peace, that I can internalize everything that needs to be done better and I naturally find that “better” balance in my life.

  • Ben says:

    Great points! I’ve learned that it’s definitely not a destination, but a process. Sometimes you have to focus on one more than the other, and it’s really hard to tell when you’ve reached the perfect balance.

    • David@MoneyNing.com says:

      You’ll probably never know what the perfect balance is.

      But Emily hit the nail on the head when she said “you just need to keep adjusting because it’s much easier to find the balance when you keep moving.”

      • James Salmons says:

        This is probably a lot like the Murphy Principle where there is no end to the possibility of corollaries being recognized.

        One factor that I see here that helps explains a lot of the various views (all of which seem to have merit) is that every thing you do changes the balance in one way or another. And many events and circumstances jump into our lives that are unpredictable and unexpected.

        I get a lot of my income from the state and just today I was hit for nearly $2,000 being reclaimed because that amount should have been paid by the family of someone we provided services for months ago and had been paid for by the state. With the person deceased and no funds likely available from the family I need to make an adjustment and also spend some time on relevant paperwork. I had other plans for my day.

        If I spend more time on my exercise and diet because it gets poor I may improve my health but get behind on something else. Perhaps there can never be a real balance, at least not more than for a moment.

        This is true of all areas of finance. If I increase my income or expenses in some area it means my emergency fund needs adjustment. Even if we feel “balanced” at some point it won’t last.

        But there is no reason to consider it a negative. It is not really a bad thing unless we fail to adjust regularly before things get out of hand.

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