The concept of work-life balance has received a lot of criticism recently, mostly from those who believe it is impossible to achieve. The prevalence of burnout and workplace stress supports the conclusions of these critics. Yet, the problem is not with your ability to achieve work-life balance.
When you take a literal definition of work-life balance and do some math, you find that everyone but the most aggressive workaholics is off-balance in the opposite way you would expect. Balance is the "stability produced by even distribution of weight on each side," according to Merriam-Webster. This definition implies that you achieve work-life balance by spending 50 percent of your time on life and 50 percent on work.
The Problem With Work-Life Balance
Let's see what that would mean. There are 168 hours in a week. If you apply a 50/50 split to this total, you could work 84 hours a week and remain balanced-- which is clearly absurd. If you're more conservative and don't treat sleep as "life" but as a third category, then you're left with just under 120 hours a week for work and life (assuming you sleep the recommended seven hours per night). In that case, you could work 60 hours a week and retain your balance.
But is working 60 hours a week consistent with the aspiration of work-life balance so many strive to achieve? No. In fact, the research is clear that working more than 50 to 55 hours per week leads to performance declines and health consequences. Further, to achieve this definition of balance, the average American would have to work 13 more hours a week at a time when Americans already work more than people in most other developed countries and experience workplace stress and burnout at unprecedented levels.
As a result, work-life balance is either a prescription for an even unhealthier relationship to work or a vague aspiration that lacks the specificity needed to guide your behaviors. So, what alternatives do we have?
Some have proposed work-life integration or work-life harmony as a better option, given our more blended and constantly connected lives. While an integrative approach may make more sense than isolating large blocks of time just for work and just for life, it is similarly vague and quite unlikely to provide real safeguards against burnout. If anything, it may encourage professionals to remain constantly connected to their work, which has real consequences.
A Simple Alternative: Defining Your Work-Life Equation
A simpler, more practical approach is to think of your work and life as an equation where the time you spend on important areas of your life must add up to 168 hours each week and you decide how much time goes to each area. To take this approach, you must first pick the high-level categories of how you spend your time. For me, I use 10 categories (which is probably the most you would want to have):
- Zarvana (my primary work time)
- Nonprofit I advise
- Company I advise
- My immediate family
- My wife (time spent just with her)
- Friends and extended family
- Household chores (e.g., washing dishes, paying bills)
- Personal time (time I spend doing what I want by myself, including exercise)
- Spiritual pursuits
After picking your categories, collect baseline data on how much time you spend in each area. To do this, you can use fancy stopwatch-like, time-tracking apps, but I prefer something much simpler: a spreadsheet with every half hour in the day for the rows and dates for the column headers. Before I start work, I fill in the last 24 hours.
Once you know how you spend your time now, decide how much time you would like to be spending on each area. The goal isn't to pick the perfect allocations from the start. Just start somewhere and then adjust the times to reflect your experience and goals. For example, if your relationship with your partner isn't as great as it once was, you may want to increase the amount of time you spend there.
The time allocations you first pick shouldn't last the rest of your life either. Instead, think of your life in seasons. It may be okay to work 60 hours a week for a season if you're assigned a career-defining project as long as the next season looks different. Start by defining your time allocations for the upcoming season. Halfway through that season, reflect on how you've spent your time and begin setting time allocations for the next season. Throughout the whole process, regularly check whether you're hitting your goals and adjust as needed.
Despite the issues with the term, the aspiration of work-life balance is wonderful and worthy of pursuit. If you want to experience this aspiration, embrace an approach that is practical, logically sound, and importantly, makes it more difficult for work to consume your life. Define and monitor your work-life equation.