“Work-life balance” is so popular that some of my clients list it as a core value. Yet, I have never heard a satisfied person mention it without a yawn. Overworked people aspiring to success, on the other hand, love discussing their “balance”.
In fact, balancing is a tiring act, which only circus performers should do for a living. If you spend your work balancing and can only be yourself at the weekend, you are probably neglecting some of the best talent you have. You may even find that off-balance is the key to your wellbeing.
My friend Boaz runs a global solar energy business, looks after three kids and plays guitar for several hours a week, including stage performances. When I commented on his stamina to find time for his passion, he said: “Business is great, but guitar is the real stuff.”
A major flaw of the work-life balance concept is assuming that we have two things to balance: the way you should be (work) and the way you really are (life). In my experience, people attempting to “improve their work-life balance” are driven by two basic negative emotions. One is the fear of missing out at work. The other is guilt for missing out on life.
The tragedy of modern business is the myth that this balancing between fear and guilt is part of success, a side-effect of growing up. Happy and successful people disagree. The secret of their success is focusing on what they are good at without fear, guilt and yes, without balance.
One of my professors at CEU left work at 6 every day to put his kids to bed. But at 8:30 he was back again. It is a well-researched fact that people who leave employment to start up on their own end up working more and being much happier. If someone is truly passionate about their work, you can hardly get them to eat. They do all this with a smile.
That is why think-tanks like Gallup have replaced “balance” with “wellbeing”, an overall indicator of satisfaction at work and life. You can feel great and look after others without balance as long as you find meaning in what you do. If you don’t, you can feel miserable even with “the right balance”. Consider these examples I encountered during my consulting work.
Flexible work time, a popular work-life balance measure, makes some happy and annoys others. If your core talents are order and discipline, feel free to ignore the flexies and go to work as usual.
Family time is a relative term. Whether you want to drop everything at 6pm, stay in until midnight or take your spouse to industry events is up to you as long as your loved ones happily support you.
Cleaning, gardening and the like are joy for some and hell to others. I would rather work than pull weeds, but cleaning makes me relax. I gave up balancing them long ago – and moved to Shanghai, a city without gardens.