I think a lot about what the organization and productivity industry calls work-life balance, and the more I think about it, the more I hate the name. When I think work-life balance I see two opposing forces that need equal time and energy, but when I look at the things I do and attempt to categorize them and throw them into either the “work” or “life” bucket I wind up with problems.
Life encompasses everything we do, and that includes work. It’s not as though work takes place outside of life—if anything, the work-life balance equation makes all of our non-work activities extracurricular by definition. Trying to strike a balance between work and non-work activities hits a bit closer to the mark, but it still falls short. Ideally, our non-work lives encompass a wide variety of activities, and some of them are considerably more important than others. I consider time spent with my wife and children more valuable than time spent cleaning detritus out of the trunk of my car, and I’d be a lot more likely to prioritize the former over non-deadline work than the latter.
Work takes up a huge part of our lives. In terms of time spent on a given activity, it may be the biggest part of our lives. If you spend eight hours in the office each day and get somewhere around the prescribed eight hours of sleep you should get each night, that leaves eight more hours for “life.” That equation underlines the logic behind the thinking that drives us to balance work with everything else, as though the boulder of work sits on one side of the scales and the randomly sized gravel of our other activities weighs on the other side to keep things in balance. In practice, work itself comprises a variety of activities, some more important and more time-sensitive than others.
I overhauled my organizational structure over the past several years in order to gain a better focus on what I wanted to accomplish and to keep both long- and short-term goals moving more consistently. When I started the process, I made a distinction between paying work and everything else I wanted to do. That got my life in balance in regard to the things I was specifically paid to do, but vital pieces of my work practice like marketing, networking, professional development, and bookkeeping wound up in a gray area. These activities are clearly work, but nobody pays me to do them. I revised my definition of work to include both paid and unpaid activities, which then raised questions about activities like writing, music, and photography, all of which I do regularly, even though I may or may not get paid to do them.
It makes a lot more sense to think of life as the container for all these things. In order to find balance in life, I reasoned, I needed to level the playing field between work and everything else. I stripped away the implied value we give activities by labeling them things like work, paid work, extracurricular activities, and so on. There are still only so many hours in a day, so I need a plan for each day that takes into account the relative importance of everything I need to do in order to make progress and feel productive. That means prioritizing things in terms of their relative worth to me. That sounds selfish, but it’s essential. To do this successfully, you must be brutally honest about your priorities, especially where making money and financial peace of mind fall among them. It’s not about ignoring your employer’s priorities so much as it is bringing those priorities in line with your own to everybody’s benefit.
Some of the things you do that are not work will be more important than work. Recognizing that makes it a whole lot easier to prioritize your day, and it helps you get more done. It may mean waking up super early in the morning to accomplish your highest-priority tasks in order to keep them from interfering with work. It may mean taking time off to do certain things. It may even mean changing your job or career if incompatibilities exist between what you want in your life and what your employer requires. Achieving balance means finding a way to incorporate work into your life rather than the other way around. As long as you stay honest with yourself about the benefits of your activities, it can make you a lot healthier and more productive.