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The Philosophical Quandary of Work-Life Balance

Experts of all stripes offer tips on how to rethink the work-life juggle and escape stress. Here's why doing so is nearly impossible.
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Work-life balance is one of those problems that is so hard to solve in terms of concrete actions that we often try to get rid of the tension by creatively re-conceptualizing it. Telling your client that their project will be late because you didn’t want to tick off your spouse is probably off the table, as is rescheduling your daughter’s hockey game or dentist’s appointment, so all that’s left, we often sense, is mental acrobatics.

Instead of stressing about this occasionally painful juggle, we should celebrate it, recommend some experts, for example. “We don't necessarily talk enough about why leadership is so fulfilling. You work really hard, you become an executive, why is that worth it? Instead, we're very focused on the sacrifices,” Jennifer Allyn, managing director in the office of diversity for PricewaterhouseCoopers has said, chiding high-achieving women in particular to stop beating themselves up and start counting their blessings.

Or another common, purely mental solution to work-life stress: Love your work enough that it loses its distinction with your life and becomes one happy mélange of responsibility. Examples of advocates of this approach abound, but here’s a Business Insider post suggesting that “instead of creating neat little boxes for each area of our life,” we try to “eliminate the distinctions as much as possible.” The WorkSnug blog has called this the “work-life blur,” and a writer on the American Express OPEN Forum blog for small business owners is pushing “integration,” which in practice means, “I consult with my wife on my projects, and I bring in my kids to work alongside me in our pick and pack department. My daughter even does data-entry at the shop.”

Now, in addition to willing away work-life issues through sheer positive thinking and removing the problem by removing the distinction, there’s another mental strategy for tackling your professional-personal conflicts. On Fast Company recently Craig Chappelow suggests we re-jigger our mental metaphor of the issue, chucking out the balanced scales model and focusing on “control” instead:

When it comes to work-life balance, we often adopt a victim mind-set. Our lives are out of balance not through our own fault but because of something someone else–a preoccupied spouse, nasty boss, or needy kid–is doing, or not doing. Second, we want to believe there’s a quick fix that we’re somehow overlooking.… control, in my view, is what we’re really trying to get to with all the chatter about balance.

Stop trying to attain some perfect equilibrium and blaming others, suggests Chappelow, and instead “assume actual leadership” of your life.  Talk things through with your loved ones. Lay down the law when it comes to scheduling and workload when you start a new venture. Quit complaining.

No one would argue that there isn’t some wisdom to these ideas. Celebrating your achievements, trying to find work you enjoy and ways to integrate the different spheres of you life, and taking responsibility are all likely to help ease your anxieties. But will they really remove the pangs of work-life worry completely? Whatever way you frame the issue, the fundamental challenge of scarcity and values will always remain.

Work-life balance stress comes from the fear that there are not enough hours in our lives for all the things we need to and want to do. Not in the short-term and not in the long-term. So we have to make choices. What’s more important: an hour at the gym, an hour catching up with an old friend or a tick on your company’s to-do list? Does the excitement of starting a business beat the security of a cubicle? The only way to answer these questions is through fundamental values. What constitutes a good life? What makes our lives happy? What makes our lives satisfying? Are these always the same things?

If these sound like big philosophical quandaries at the heart of not just being an entrepreneur but also being a human then maybe that’s why most solutions to work-life balance issues seem a little inadequate. The problem isn’t work-life balance. It’s just life. That's why it's hard—and, guess what? It's going to be around for as long as you are.

Is there any definitive solution or is work-life balance a continual balancing-act?

Last updated: Jan 31, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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