Work/Life Balance Is Not a Thing




“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” -Dr. Seuss


According to the Center for Creative Leadership, business leaders with smartphones work 72 hours per week. That means they only have three waking hours a day to be with family, friends, take care of things around the house, etc.

However, those same leaders don’t blame the communication technology that tethers them to the office but rather their employers who they claim have created a culture that necessitates those long hours.

It’s the busyness of business.

We think that “if I just had more time”. Or we latch onto the latest app or blog post on time management hacks.

We’re scared and with good reason. Like never before in our lifetimes, we believe our job security is tenuous and, as a result, we work in fear. In our desperation, we think we can demonstrate our worth by spending more time connected to our jobs.

“Look at me! I work all the time! I must be indispensable! Please don’t fire me!!”

As a result, however, we lose the ability to relax because we’re worried about how far behind we’re getting when we take time for ourselves. Even vacations become a countdown until we go back to work.

I remember times in college when I’d feel guilty about thumbing through the new edition of Sports Illustrated. “I should be studying”, I’d tell myself (yes, I was a nerd). Later on in my life, that was exchanged for thinking my time would be better spent replying to emails on a Blackberry that were received after I left the office rather than watching a movie with my family.

Living in fear of being judged unworthy and being labeled a “failure”.


Complaining that things should be other than they are and that there just aren’t enough hours in the day.


Losing the enjoyment we once gleaned from the fun things in life because our minds are pulled back to what we think we should be doing.


And all the while feeling stress…Stress…STRESS!

Perhaps the answers don’t lie in new apps or time management checklists. Perhaps we just need to practice using a different lens to view all this. More on that a little later.


So Here’s What We Know

There have been lots of research studies that seek to find better ways to balance work and life. Not surprisingly, they conclude that

finding a better balance improves productivity and that successful organizations have policies and processes that support that balance.

Researchers have also observed that both mothers and fathers struggle with balancing job and family (slightly higher for moms).

Part of that problem is that between 10-20% of the work we do is uncompensated.

Giving away our skills, knowledge and talent is more likely when we don’t set boundaries with our technology connectivity when we leave the office. Less subtly, once in a while maybe you could TURN OFF YOUR DAMN PHONE! Sorry…I’m better now.

Additionally, when we don’t have support systems at work and home which help ensure that our actions align with our individual goals and values, we’re more likely to engage in activity that leads to burnout. Included in those support systems is a spouse/partner whose values are aligned with ours.

Fortunately, researchers have found also found that practicing mindfulness helps improve the work/life boundaries as noted here, here and here. In summary, that research shows that

the practice of mindfulness not only improves work/life balance as well as health and job satisfaction but it also reduces conflict in families.

They all agree that mindfulness should be taught in organizations.


A Different Lens

Yes, there are mindful solutions to time management issues. They have to do with staying present in the moment to work more efficiently and taking action on those items over which you have control.

However, I’m just not so sure that work/life balance really is a thing. It sounds too much like an achievable goal which, of course, it’s not.

“If only I had a work/life balance, my stress would go away.”

HR and training/education folks make it worse by telling new orientees that “our organization is committed to helping all our colleagues have a work/life balance.” That’s nonsense – they know it and you know it but, since it came down from “corporate”, we all nod like the good little bobblehead lemmings that we are during new employee orientation.

First of all, the phrase “work/life balance” doesn’t make sense.

Work is a part of life just like spending time with your kids, cleaning out the garage, vacationing at the beach or going to church. By making “work” and “life” two ends of a see-saw, we falsely enhance the importance of work while diminishing everything else we do.

But you say, “Yeah, but without work, I can’t afford all the other stuff.” That’s true to some extent but you have to take some accountability for purchasing all that “other stuff” (this is where I really miss George Carlin). No one forced you to get the heated seats or the weekly rental of the oceanfront condo. Put another way,

what percentage of time do you spend working to pay for that “other stuff” compared to enjoying it?

Of course, we like to place accountability for perpetuating the work/life balance myth anywhere but on ourselves. Look at our behavior: we have work clothes and non-work clothes and most of us even separate them in the closet like the peas and the applesauce on our kid’s Thomas the Tank Engine plastic dinner plate.

Some of us even talk differently when we’re at work than we do outside the office.

If you used buzzwords like “growth hacking” or “coopitition” with your wife, she’d either schedule you for a psych eval or simply smack you upside your head.

And what happened to the word “affected”? Why do we have to discuss how we’re going to be “impacted” by the new marketing strategy? Maybe I spent too long in the healthcare field but if you’re going to be impacted, a soapsuds enema may be in your future.

But I digress…

Have you ever gone to see a friend at their place of work and seen them interact in that environment? It’s weird, right? He acts differently, is nice to people that he’d ignore anywhere else and laughs at the stupidest jokes. It’s like dropping a giraffe into the arctic tundra to see how it fares. But that’s how much we change ourselves to meet, what we perceive to be, the expectations of those at work.

That’s hard work though. It’s stressful to spend that much time every week pretending to be someone that you aren’t (or at least alter some key characteristics).

It begs the question, what would be the worst thing that would happen if we acted the same way regardless of our environment?

Take it a step further – what is our real self? Is it our non-work self and we’re scared we’ll get hit with a harassment complaint within 10 minutes of exposing our real self in the work setting (pun intended)? Or are we able to be ourselves more around our work colleagues and the real stress occurs when we get home and have to play the role of adoring spouse? In most cases, I would think that we’re likely some sort of hybrid.

If we broaden this out even further, can your real self be genuinely happy in your current environment, whether it’s at work or not? How much salary would you be willing to sacrifice if you could lessen the delta between your real personality and the mask you have to wear in your current role? $5,000? $10,000?

Flip it around –

do you have the kind of support outside your workplace to truly be yourself or do you have to put a different mask on during your drive home?

The point is that we are more in control than we realize. By being honest with ourselves and looking inside at what we can control, we often find options we hadn’t previously considered. That’s because it’s been easier for us to blame our employer or family or friends for causing our stress.

[As an aside, consider the veteran who returns from overseas and is expected to blend back into society seamlessly (not to mention the convict who has finished serving his sentence). Talk about having to assume different personalities! It’s no wonder PTSD is so pervasive in this population and it’s no accident that mindfulness has been found to be so effective in treating it.]

But let’s return to that age-old fear that we all suffer from: the fear of failure. The fear that, if we don’t spend non-work time checking in with the office or replying to emails until we go to bed, we’ll be judged by those of importance as somehow less competent.

Of course, our “monkey minds” stretch this kind of thinking beyond credulity:

“If I don’t reply to this email tonight, my boss will think I’m ignoring her!


If she thinks I don’t care about getting her the information she’s requested immediately, I’m going to not do as well on my annual performance evaluation!


If I don’t do well on that evaluation, I won’t get the raise I planned on!


If I don’t get the raise I planned on, I won’t be able to take the family on that vacation I promised them!


If I don’t take them on that vacation I promised them, my wife will be pissed!


If my wife is pissed, she might divorce me!


If my wife divorces me, I’ll probably start drinking more!


If I start drinking more, I’ll probably miss a lot of work!


If I miss a lot of work, I’ll get fired!


If I get fired, I won’t be able to afford the crappy apartment I moved into after the divorce!


If I can’t afford the crappy apartment I moved into after the divorce, I’ll have to live under a bridge and stay drunk!


 If I live under a bridge and stay drunk, someday my filthy carcass will be found rotting inside a refrigerator box in the gutter and no one will know who I was.”

You went from not replying to an email tonight to your unidentified corpse in a gutter!

Obviously, I’ve exaggerated to make a point, but that’s the kind of chatter our minds indulge in when we’re trying to decide whether to check our phones one more time before turning off the light and going to sleep. And, of course, it’s that monkey mind chatter that won’t let us get to sleep!MonkeyLaptop

The bottom line is that we have to take accountability for how we are reacting to LIFE, whether it’s at work or not, and choose healthier responses to the challenges we face. We have to stop and be present in those stressful moments and remind ourselves that we’re not going to die alone in a gutter.

By bringing our attention to our monkey minds, we can lessen the effect of the stressors and become better able to manage them without the attendant anxiety.

In turn, we start to see ourselves relax in all environments and reduce the personality differences that may exist in various venues.

For comprehensive training modules on leadership development topics such as this, please visit our Solutions page.

By practicing mindfulness, we stay focused on whatever is in the moment, whether it’s the presentation we’re doing for the boss or watching our kid’s Little League game. We worry less about the increasing number of emails in our Inbox not to mention how we’re going to afford our teenager’s car insurance.

We meet each challenge in its own time and, as a result, we find ourselves deriving greater joy from each of those moments.

We aren’t owed happiness and balance. We have to choose them through our own mindful responses in each moment, no matter when or where.


Mindful Follow-Up Questions

  1. How often do you catch yourself working outside the office when you could be enjoying something non-work related?
  2. When you break it down realistically, what risk are you taking by leaving work behind when you’re away from your workplace? What can you do to reduce or eliminate that risk?
  3. How different is your personality at work compared to when you’re away from work? Why are they different? What level of risk can you accept that will bring those two personalities closer together? Do you feel like you have the support necessary from friends, family and/or work colleagues to be more like your real self regardless of venue?
  4. What kinds of stories do you tell yourself about the potential consequences of not attending to work issues away from work (e.g., replying to email)? How realistic are they?
  5. When your “monkey mind” distracts you, especially when you’re trying to go to sleep, what are you thinking about? How can you better accept unfinished business as the norm so that your anxiety level drops and you can allow your mind to relax?
Share This