What People Are Getting Wrong About “Balance”

Work-life balance is important, but there are times when the discussion about it becomes too binary. This recently came up in my life when I was telling a friend that she’ll know things are going well on her website when it’s the first thing she thinks about when she wakes up in the morning, where here mind goes when she showers, and what she dreams about before going to bed at night.

“Wouldn’t that be an unhealthy balance?” she asked.

I was immediately taken aback by this question and proceeded to enter into a rant about what people are getting wrong about balance in mainstream conversations. Luckily for me, she let me rant … and then told me to write about it.

Starting the Journey Towards Fulfilling Work

For starters, my take on work-life balance is directed towards writers first, but it also relates to anyone who has a pursuit either for work or outside of work that brings them fulfillment and joy. This is not a conversation about to-do lists; it’s a conversation about the things that put our minds into a flow state.

I’ll use my friend as the main example.

I met this person years ago at a full-time writing job that we both held. The job was a good one (great pay and benefits, remote work), but the workload was demanding. We had to write two articles of 800-1000 words per day while also attending daily meetings, working on quarterly projects, and spending at least an hour per day on revisions.

Besides the fact that the meetings were very disruptive of a maker’s schedule, we also had to do an extensive amount of research for each article. More often than not, we had to put in 10-12 hours days to meet our minimum requirements (and often time on the weekends as well).

This was a terrible work-life balance. It only took a few months for me to begin to dread the work I used to love. I would watch The Great British Bakeoff over dinner and feel jealous of the creativity the bakers were allowed to use, and I daydreamed about becoming an interior designer. I wanted anything with more creativity, more brain space, and a lot fewer work hours.

My friend went through something similar, but her daydreams consisted of building her own website where she could write about the topics that mattered to her, and that she thought would be beneficial to others. And she had some really great ideas to boot.

Years later, we’ve both moved on to freelance writing careers, and she saved up enough money to take time off to work steadily on her website. She’s finally created a platform in which she can write in her own voice, discuss the topics she thinks are important, and engage with her readers. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the work she’s dreamed of doing for years.

That said, it’s been tough for her to find the room in her life to work on her website (even as a freelancer) before she took this time off. She struggled to give herself permission to write in her own way after years of being told to write to a formula. Now that she’s on her way, I encouraged her to keep going.

That’s where the worry came in: “What about work-life balance?”

Pursuing Fulfilling Work Expands Our Lives

I’m guessing the reason that question was on her mind was because she still remembered the grueling days at our full-time writing job. Those were days when she, the mother of two small children, would wake up at 3:00 AM to start working before her kids were awake, and often had to spend Saturdays catching up from whatever couldn’t get finished during the week. It’s not a surprise that work-life balance is on her mind, as she had none of it for years.

But now she’s dictating her work, she’s dictating her schedule, and no one is commanding her to put in 12-hours a day or 10,000 words a week. She’s doing the work she loves — and she’s doing it on her terms. What’s more, it’s work that brings her joy.

When we talk about work-life balance as a society, we tend to refer to the kind of work that takes away from our lives. Work that involves conference calls and committee meetings, never-ending to-do lists and highly pressurized goals. We talk about it when our health starts to degrade, we miss time with our families, and we start to forget what we’re living for.

I don’t have to tell you that no writer feels this way about their personal writing.

Sure, sometimes we feel frustrated, angsty, and even angry about our writing. This is usually when it’s not going well. But there are also days when we feel joy in our writing or even relief. In fact, a lot of writers don’t know really know what they think about something until they write about it, and that can bring clarity and focus in a way that few other things can. The writing life isn’t an easy life, but it’s a full life.

Writing — or any pursuit that puts you in flow state — adds to your life. Therefore, when you carve out the time to work on it, you’re not degrading our work-life balance. You’re expanding your mind, talents, and, yes, your life.

Now, if we become obsessive to the point where we stop calling our friends, miss life events, and generally withdraw from the world, maybe then you could say the work-life balance has gone wrong. However, I’d venture to ask the writer doing that how they feel about their lifestyle before deciding it’s wrong or unhealthy.

Every time my friend works on, thinks about, or talks about her website, she’s prioritizing the thing she cares about. She’s proving that she thinks her desires are a worthwhile pursuit, and she’s taking that pursuit seriously. People talk about self-care a lot, and I would venture to say this is the greatest kind of self-care there is.

The Pressure to Achieve Work-Life Balance

When media outlets talk about work-life balance, they often refer to getting home from work at a decent hour, cooking dinner, making time for the gym, and getting eight hours of sleep per night. I don’t know how this makes you feel, but the very idea of fitting all those things into one day stresses me out.

How can I possibly cook, go to the gym, work, spend time with my family, and get eight hours of sleep every day? And what about the other things that matter to me? When do I get to work on my personal writing, for example, and when can I read? 

And since when does adding all the things to a day symbolize balance

We all have to create our own picture of what a healthy work-life balance looks like. I believe the easiest way to do this is to define all of the things that take place in your life into two lists: Things that contract your mental and emotional state and things that expand your mental and emotional state. Here’s my list, for example:

Contract

  • Paid work

  • Social plans

  • Taking my dog to the vet

  • Adulting (doctors, paperwork, household chores)

  • Meetings

Expand

  • Paid work

  • Social plans

  • Spending quality time with my husband, family, friends, and dog

  • Personal writing

  • Reading

  • Running, dancing, yoga

  • Interesting conversations with colleagues

This is not an exhaustive list, but it should give you enough of an idea of what I mean to make your own list. Note one important thing: Some items show up on both lists. There are days when my paid work brings me boredom and frustration, but there are also days when I get an assignment that totally lights me up. Like most jobs, mine is good sometimes and bad sometimes — nothing is perfect.

The same goes with my dog. I love feeding her, walking her, and playing with her. I hate taking her to the vet. It means taking her across town in a cab, getting kicked in the stomach repeatedly when she suddenly realizes where she’s going and tries to jump out of my lap, and it often means spending a lot of money. I adore my pup but taking her to the vet is a pain in the ass. The same goes for taking myself to the doctor.

Even things that always sound fun, like social plans, can make both lists. Depending on the day or week, those events might add more pressure than value. Birthdays, dinners, and parties can either be fun or a total drag depending on what else went on that week. Plus, I’m the type of person who prefers quality time, so I’d rather have spontaneous at-home dinners with family and friends than go to big events that require getting dressed up and going places where we can barely hear each other.

As you think about the things you have to do in life that contract it (or restrict it, drain you) compared to the things that expand it (add value, bring joy or fulfillment), you can start to get an idea of the balance you want to create. What do you want more of, and what kind of things do you think should occur less frequently. What kind of things can you get help with, and how can you find room in your life for the things that bring you joy?

Here’s what I’m getting at: The only way to create a solid work-life balance is to find the balance that speaks to you. Instead of pressure, the idea of your own balance should make you feel happy and relieved. It should be a breakdown of time that you look forward to, not yet another to-do list in our already overly busy lives.

Shaming People Into More “Balance”

To finalize my rant on the common discussion around work-life balance, here’s my biggest beef with it: Shame.

We shame people for their “lack” of work-life balance before we bother to ask how they feel about their lives. We assume someone who clocks a ton of hours at work must have lost themselves along the way. We pressure people who spend their weekends writing instead of brunching into “stopping and smelling the roses” more. We decide that there’s something wrong with people who enjoy their work.

When we do this, we’re placing our values on someone else’s life. We’re also assuming their lives mirror our own. If we hate our jobs, we think it’s kind of weird if people spend a lot of time at theirs — because, naturally, they hate their job too, right? Why would they want to be there for so long? If we love weekends at brunch or bars, we think people who stay in to work on their writing or art or whatever else are missing out, without imagining that they might actually prefer being at home working on their hobbies.

It’s not up to us to decide how anyone else should live their lives — and it’s also not up to others to decide how we should live ours. If you want a solid work-life balance, you have to decide what that means for you. And you certainly shouldn’t feel guilty if you happen to be in the lucky group of people who enjoy their work or have a hobby that fulfills them.

After all, what could possibly be better than a life of joyful, purpose-filled pursuits? It’s what we all want; we just tend to forget that those pursuits look different for different people. 

Some might find joy in spending time with friends, taking care of their kids, or going out on the weekends. Others might find joy in creating something or working on certain projects at the office. We should never shame people for creating a life that looks different from our own.

Finally, since most of you reading this are probably writers, I’ll leave you with this quote:

“A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

If you’re lucky enough to live this kind of life, don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about it. Go out there and do your thing, the world will thank you for it in the end.

Photo by Harry Brewer on Unsplash