Call it an occupational hazard, but I often find myself having conversations -- with clients, with friends, with family, and with strangers on airplanes -- about work-life balance. Most folks I talk to seem to believe it's impossible. "There are only so many hours in a day," they say. "My work is never done," they say. "I'm on the clock 24/7," they say. And dude, I can totally relate to all of that.
There's no doubt about it -- professional jobs today demand more of us than they did of our parents. There are enough things to do and enough people expecting us to do them at all hours that, if we didn't occasionally pass out from exhaustion, we could literally work nonstop for as long as our laptop batteries hold out, and then a little more on our phones and tablets. How are we ever going to find anything like balance when the scales are so tipped against us?
Yep, I get it. I've beat my head against that same unyielding baloney stone plenty. But what if the trouble isn't the circumstances of our professional lives and our personal lives (what we imprecisely call "work" and "life), but the metaphors and mental models we apply to those circumstances? What if a different paradigm or a different metaphor could reveal options we hadn't even considered? I believe that's possible. In fact, I know it's possible. But first, let's understand the models we're working with.
What is work? What is life?
Don't worry; I'm not trying to get all abstract and philosophical. It's just that the existing paradigms tend to use the dichotomy of "work" and "life," so before we look at the paradigms themselves, we need to define these terms with a little more precision.
When we say, "work," what do we mean? We typically mean the thing we do for money. We sometimes mean, as Mark Twain put it, the thing we are obliged to do. At other times, we mean the thing we're called to do. And occasionally, we mean the thing we do that makes us who we are. Whether it's a job, a career, or a calling, "work" is the thing that constitutes our professional life.
Then what do we mean by "life?" Typically, we mean everything outside of our professional life. Life is our family, our friends, our community, and the worlds that exist within our bodies and minds. It's parenting, hobbies, passions, clubs, churches, volunteer work, dating, hanging out, a couple beers, karaoke, drugs, whatever floats your boat. Life is the thing we do when we're not working.
If we stick to those definitions, we're on pretty safe ground. On the other hand, if we make the mistake of believing that work is something separate from our actual lives -- if we start to think of our work and our lives as opposites (or oppositional) -- we can get ourselves into pretty deep trouble. Let's not forget, as we explore the work-life paradigms we have to work with, that work is an integral part of a meaningful, fun, and fulfilling life. Let's agree that when we say, "work," we mean "professional life," and when we say, "life," we mean everything else. Groovy? Good. Let's get on with the options.
Work-life paradigms and mental models
There are three primary paradigms (and endless variations on them) for thinking about the work-life problem. Let's look at what each one is, what their assumptions are, what's good about them, what's dangerous about them, and how to make each of them work for you.
- Assumptions: Life is a zero-sum game, and time is how we keep score. Whatever time you put into work leaves less time to put into non-work priorities, and vice versa. Tradeoffs and compromises are the path to a life that feels "balanced."
- Assumptions: Rather than carving your life into little slices for each domain and each priority, work-life integration assumes that the better approach is to blur the lines and look for opportunities for synergy between and among the domains.
This one's the new kid on the block.
- Assumptions: When you're clear about your values, priorities, and goals, you'll make decisions about work, parenting, community involvement, and all other life domains that are aligned with those values, priorities, and goals.
Which work-life paradigm is right for you?
As you can see, there are a few different options for fitting together the disparate pieces of your life that currently seem to be at odds, pulling apart, and determined to stress you out. Only you can determine which one works for you. Whether you're a balancer, an integrator, or an aligner, the important thing is that you find a solution that makes work an integral part of your meaningful, fun, and fulfilling life. You might need some help, but it ain't rocket science. You can keep your head and your heart -- while keeping your job. Eventually, you'll have --- the right stuff.
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