The common wisdom goes that you have life and then you have work. Work leads to exhaustion, anxieties, depression, and you work only to get money so you can have life. That is why so many people talk about work-life balance. It is a transaction. I will work for you. You give me money. I can go and have a life. Even the word compensation indicates that it is an exchange. I’m being compensated for giving a portion of my life to you, the company. When you think about it, this whole concept of splitting your life into a life and work portion sounds ridiculous. If driven to extremes the harder you work, the more you sacrifice, the more money you make, so you can have more life that you are sacrificing for the work. You never really have time to have that life because you work so hard.
Work-life balance as the moniker indicates calls for some sort of balance. Not many people, however, achieve that balance. The real life doesn’t work like that. By striving to find this mythical balance, you are just making yourself unhappy. You are chasing a unicorn. And you are envious of those who you perceive as finding this balance, even though they may disagree themselves that they have a balance.
Nothing ever truly is in balance. I like to say that “universe needs to be in balance” when something bad happens that offsets something good. But in reality, the universe doesn’t shoot for balance, it shoots for maximum entropy, the maximum disorder if you want.
I’ve always been an advocate of work-life integration. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you work all the time, even when with your family. Far from it. Work-life integration means that you stop looking at your work as a necessary evil to support the rest of your life. You only have one life, and work is part of it so get the most of it. You spend most of your waking hours at work, so it is nonsensical not to consider it part of your life. I’m a big believer in focus. Work-life integration means that you start seeing your job more positively, but it also means you learn to live in the moment. If you are working then focus on work. If you are playing with your kids, then focus on your kids and forget about email.
Along with the ancient Stoics I suggest to forget about work-life balance and focus on eudaimonia, or life flourishing. You achieve that by integrating all your roles, desires, needs, and wants into one life. Only by taking a wholeness perspective of life, you can ensure that you live every minute of it in accordance with who you are and who you want to be and you achieve your life goals.
Wholeness is one of the prerequisites of having a good life. What I mean by that is that you need to feel complete. You need to feel that all parts of your life are just right. If you are feeling dissatisfied with a portion of your life, it will impact other parts too. You may try to overcompensate in other parts of your life, and that may have an even more negative impact on the problematic part.
It is closely related to integrity. Let’s say you want to be a good manager and a role model at work. You work hard on it. And then you go and cheat on your spouse. You don’t act with integrity, and you wouldn’t feel whole. The unethical cheating will not fit well with what you are trying to do at work. There will be a constant fight inside you about who you truly are.
Most of the truly successful people manage to integrate various aspects of their life in such a way that they feel whole. When talking about successful people, I don’t necessarily mean those with immense riches or lots of fame. Very often, those who are an incredibly famous struggle with living a well-integrated life and deep down are unhappy. They are not successful in the deeper meaning of the word.
When it comes to the time you spend at work, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, in their book Nine Lies About Work, tell you to focus on love-in-work. They spent years gathering data from many corporations and came to a simple conclusion. They suggest that only finding love in what you do leads you to the highest satisfaction. Read again, finding love in what you do, not finding what you love.
According to research done by Buckingham and Goodall, employees who spent at least 20 percent of their work time doing things they loved had a significantly lower risk of depression and burnout. Curiously, the 20 percent seems to be the threshold, and spending more time than that doing what you love won’t bring an increase in happiness. This means that you don’t have to love everything you do. It is fine to have tasks you dislike or find boring. But you need to ensure that 20 percent of your tasks fit into your love category.
Those who figure out how to incorporate things they love into their work and do it every single day will learn to love their jobs and will flourish. This means taking responsibility for your job definition and tweak it, so it fits you. The way you do it is to focus on your strengths. You can learn to love things when you are good at them. Cal Newport talks about this in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Stop trying to find your passion. Instead, focus on what you do and become good at it. The better you are at something, the more you enjoy it. The more you enjoy it, the more you will work to become even better. It is a virtuous cycle. And it leads you to fall in love with what you do, become great at it, gives you the liberty to tweak your role so you can use your newly found strength.
Morra Aarons-Mele in her book Hiding in the Bathroom also refuses the idea of work-life balance and talks about Work+Life Fit instead. It was a concept originally developed by Cali Williams Yost. It is based on the idea that no two people have the same needs. Therefore we shouldn’t strive for the same balance but rather for the right fit for us. This is an important concept that feels right, though it is not easy to map to the workplace on your own. And it ties back to the idea of wholeness and integrity.
Only because you have specific work habits and patterns it doesn’t mean other people around you have or should have them too. If you are the boss, be cognizant of the effect your habits may have on your team. If you are one of the team members, have a conversation with your boss about what the true expectations are and whether they are fair.
As Buckingham and Goodall found out analyzing ADP Research Institute’s global engagement studies, less than 20 percent of workers feel they have a chance to use their strengths at work every day. But at the same time, the vast majority of workers claim that they have the freedom to modify their roles to fit their strengths better. So people feel they have the freedom to modify their role, yet they don’t. This is something we have in our power to do but somehow chose not to. Possibly because we don’t give it high enough importance, or because we like the feeling that we can blame someone else?
When you look at successful people around you, you will notice that many of those who seem to truly enjoy what they do have a slightly weird or non-standard job. They took a standard job description and tweaked it, so it fits their strengths and learned to enjoy it. Stop wasting your time looking for the perfect job. Take whatever role you have today and tweak it. Create your ideal job.
As a result, you get more of those activities you love and are good at. Volunteer for initiatives where you suspect you can use your strengths. Figure out which of the activities you and may not like, do help you to use your strengths and figure out how you can get better at them to start enjoying them.
Putting it all together
Forget about work-life balance and go for work-life integration and flourishing. Look at your life as one integrated system that is based on your strengths and that reflects who you are as a person. Forget what the lives of others look like, learn to live in the moment, and design your life so it fits you.
As you are building the puzzle of your life, some pieces are crucial to orient you. They can be used to anchor the other pieces. These special pieces are your strengths. The more of them you can get into your life, the more you can use your strengths, the easier it will be for you to build the puzzle. Just make sure you have the right definition of what your strengths are. It is not enough to be good at something to consider it your strength. It should fill you with energy when you are doing it.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you believe that work life balance is important? Do you believe that each of us has different needs and therefore not everyone may find balance the right thing for them? If not work life balance, then how do you ensure you live a good life?
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