Is Work–Life Balance A Myth? Or Does It Just Need A New Name?

We all know that finding the perfect work–life balance is elusive. So let’s start thinking about it in a different way.

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Your alarm goes off at 6 a.m. You sleepily reach over to turn it off and can’t help but check your email. Just as you feared, there’s a work emergency waiting for you; it must have come in last night after you passed out in front of Stranger Things at 10 o’clock.

But there’s no time for it right now. You have no coffee in the apartment, your boyfriend is monopolizing the bathroom as usual, and text messages about your best friend’s upcoming bridal shower are already coming in, waiting for your response. Sometimes it feels like you’re always on.

Or maybe your daughter is standing by your bedside, screaming about breakfast. Did you forget to wash her soccer uniform? Do you have time to throw in a load of laundry and make her some toast and pack her lunch before returning to your email to deal with this problem?

The sun isn’t even up yet and you’re already stretched to your limit.

If any of this sounds familiar, you might be asking yourself if this is really what it means to have it all. Is this what work–life balance is supposed to look like?

The Problem

We are living in a time when women are expert jugglers: working, parenting, socializing, volunteering. We’re managing our teams at the office and our relationships at home. We’re working remotely—from cars, coffee shops, playgrounds, the subway, on vacation, late into the night, on our phones and iPads. We’re feeling pressure to be great friends, good partners, even better mothers, and ever-present and available employees. Our iPhones have become appendages.

As the generation of women who have benefited more than any other from freedoms borne out by the feminist movement, we are trying to have it all, all the time. No longer are our roles dictated by gender or convention—hooray! But why does it feel so hard, and at times, downright impossible?

The answer: Because “having it all” is a myth—and so is balance. “Balance is elusive, ephemeral,” says Rachel Waranch, a Los Angeles–based attorney and mother of two. “Even if I were to somehow achieve some semblance of it for a moment, immediately thereafter someone would catch a cold, my iPhone would crash, or I’d lose my car keys.”

Here are some signs of the problem. Although many women are now working full-time jobs, we are still performing most of the household labor (according to one survey, 67 percent of household tasks are completed by women, whereas men do only 33 percent of the work at home) and spearhead most of the behind-the-scenes worrying and organizing (signing the consent forms, organizing playdates, grocery shopping). Even as we are being encouraged to lean in, the “other” stuff—childcare, meal prep, PTO meetings, helping with parents who are ill, volunteering, mentoring—doesn’t go away. And more often than not, it’s women who take responsibility for it.

In spite of changes to workplace culture, many employers still value employees who push themselves to their limits, who have no boundaries. The golden few stay late at the office and show up early. In other words, leaving at 5 p.m. to pick up your kids (even if your work is done because you work extremely efficiently) is frowned upon.

And many women are, as a result, wracked with guilt about not fitting it all in perfectly. “I feel like this is the thing I obsess over most,” says New York Times reporter and mother of two, Jenny Medina. “Am I giving short shrift to work or to family?”

Most women—mothers especially—can find any number of things to feel guilty about, and having it all (or the inability to) is often at the top of the list.

But don’t panic. “Guilt has a positive value,” explains Myra Strober, professor of business and education at Stanford University, who has specialized in work–family issues for 40 years. “It says, ‘Here are some parameters I don’t want to go beyond.’” These boundaries can be about the length of work trips, the need to be home for bedtime, or the desire to work out of the house for a few hours a week to bring in a little income.

These kinds of parameters work for Medina. “Partly by design and partly by necessity, I have to pick up the kids at school by 5:30 p.m.,” Medina explains, “so my whole day is designed around the fact that, no matter what, I need to leave the office at 5 p.m.” Medina doesn’t have a nanny, and her husband works late, so this is a hard deadline—and guilt helps her achieve it. Before having kids, there were no parameters around her work life, but now she feels awful if she doesn’t see her kids during the window between pickup and bedtime. Her solution? Designing her day to make sure that happens.

Stop calling it work–life balance. It’s all about navigation.

The first key to finding work–life balance is to stop calling it that. The term “work–life balance” is inherently problematic. Work is a part of our lives, and the word “balance” is misleading.

“Balance is not a good image,” explains Strober. “For most people, ‘balance’ brings to mind the scales of justice. You want the scales to be even, and nobody is saying that work and family should be even.”

We imagine work–life balance as somehow quantifiable—as though we are trying to weigh two or more elements just perfectly on a scale. Heaven forbid they tip! The moment they do—which is unavoidable—the whole system falls apart and you’re considered out of balance. This is just another way to wind up feeling like a failure.

“I now talk about navigating work and family,” Strober says. “Imagine you’re on a ship and you’re moving between work and family. Sometimes you’re in one harbor and sometimes in another, trying to figure out which harbor to go to next.”

The question to ask yourself is: How do I have a satisfying work life and a satisfying home life? What do I need in each to feel good about my choices?

How we navigate our various obligations will, of course, change as we age. How a single woman in her twenties navigates the myriad pieces of her life—work, friends, dating, finances—will be different from how a woman in her thirties with two small kids, a partner, and a mortgage will try to make sense of hers. The key is to allow that flexibility to exist and to accept that your priorities (and experiences of guilt reminding you you’re straying from your true desires) will shift along with it.

Instead of balance, look for harmony—and meaning.

Strober isn’t the only one who finds the term “balance” problematic. Professor Steven Poelmans, academic director of the International Centre of Work and Family (ICWF) at IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, argues that the term “balance” is limiting.

“If balance is defined as equal amounts of time spent in a particular domain,” he says, “a woman who is spending 50 hours a week in both work and non-work domains could very well also experience work–life conflict.” It is vital, he explains, to differentiate between work–life balance and work–life conflict. In other words, quantifying success by the number of hours we clock doing this or that is not a fair—or meaningful—assessment of how happily or joyfully the pieces of our lives are fitting together.

Poelmans prefers the term “harmony,” because it “suggests a state of mutual compatibility, satisfaction, and well-being, even though balance may still be lacking.” But he goes beyond this, arguing that what we are really looking for is not only harmony, but meaning, and that most of us can tolerate imbalance in our lives—at least for a while—if we are choosing to spend our time in ways that feed us.

Think of it this way: A young working mother choosing to temporarily sacrifice her career in order to stay home with her newborn might not be making a “balanced” choice—and certainly the division of labor at home won’t be balanced. But if the situation feeds her and gives her the meaning she desires in her life, who’s to say the imbalance she’s opted for is wrong?

Likewise, a woman working 120 hours a week as a surgical resident will have little balance in her life, but she is willing to live this way for a while if she feels that becoming a doctor gives her purpose.

8 Tips for Achieving Work–Home Harmony

1. Define your priorities.

In her TED Talk, author and time management expert Laura Vanderkam urges us to rethink time management. Time is highly elastic, she explains. “It will stretch to accommodate what we choose to put into it.”

Vanderkam advises us to prioritize this way: Imagine it’s the end of the next year and you’re giving yourself a performance review. List three to five things that you did that made it a wonderful year, both at work and at home. Once you have the list, you now articulate six to 10 goals. Do you want to run a 5K? Take a Latin dance classes with your partner? Enroll in a fiction-writing workshop?

These priorities should fit into three categories: career, relationships, self—and at least one goal should make its way into each category. How will you make this happen? Put them into your schedule first.

2. Figure out what gives you energy—and what doesn’t.

“Get to know which of your skills and tasks use up your energy and which refill your energy,” says Emily Anhalt, PsyD, “and then limit the responsibilities you take on at work that drain you.” This will obviously be different for everyone. Introverts need more solitary time; extroverts love collaborative enterprise. Anhalt argues that dedicating time to the things that recharge you goes a long way toward finding more ease in and out of work.

3. Do not skimp on you time.

“If you don’t make time for you,” explains psychologist Vanessa Katz, PsyD, “you end up resenting the other things you have to do.” That can mean giving yourself a mere 45 minutes on a Sunday to do as you please. Sleep in, take an extra long shower, or go to the gym. Couples with small children should switch off. “Everyone needs a moment,” Katz says. “Then, when you return to your children, or to your work, you’ll feel reinvigorated rather than resentful.

4. When you’re home, put away your phone.

This advice is particularly important (and often controversial) for parents of small children who are getting limited face time and feeling guilty about it. “I’m really emphatic about the fact that for the two or three hours between pickup and bedtime that I am not on my phone,” Medina explains. She leaves her phone on in case an important work call comes in, but sets it aside so she can give her kids her full attention.

5. Use your power.

If you have influence in your workplace, can you change policies, procedures, and expectations for others? Can you make work–home harmony easier on everyone?

6. Learn to communicate.

We live in a time when most of us think it’s necessary to work after hours, especially if we are leaving work early to pick up kids or fulfill other obligations. But this isn’t always great for maintaining a social life, because when do you have time to just hang out?

The key is achieving clarity—with everyone. If this is a problem in your relationship, reflect on what you want and summon the courage to say to your partner, “I’m happy for you to work X number of hours a week at night”—and then agree on the details. How many nights a week? How late? How often? These same kinds of conversations can be fruitful at work and in other areas of your life—with the head of the PTO, the neighborhood association, the babysitter, a colleague—in short, anyone who is pulling on your time or feels confused about how you use yours.

Strober explains that being able to talk about these conflicts can go a long way toward building a good partnership.

7. Think about life–life balance.

“It’s not only about finding a balance between work and life,” Katz says. “It’s about finding balance when you’re not at work.” What is most important to you? Time alone? Family? Friends? Working out? Use the hours when you aren’t at work—say, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.—for putting those activities front and center.

8. Don’t forget to smell the roses.

“Sometimes you have to just stop and be happy,” Waranch says. “This is true about navigating the complex web of work, family, and life. There will never be perfection, and there will never be balance.  And sometimes you have to just stop and say, ‘This is OK. This is good.’”

So go ahead and throw away the idea of balance. Instead, think about deftly navigating the various elements of your life. Not only will this reconceptualization give you a more realistic goal, but it can actually shift the sense of anxiety around it–affording you more harmony wherever you go. There’s no getting it exactly right. It’s about finding a system that works for you—and allowing that system to change as your very full life does too.

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