There is lots of talk about work/life balance. Work/life balance is an ideal that is frequently aspired to, but rarely achieved. However, I’m going to try and explain in this post why I think that it this is not a very helpful way to think about your life and why we need some alternatives.
First, and most picky, the idea of holding your work and life in balance is simply nonsensical. Work is a part of life, it isn’t an alternative to it. Life is a bigger concept than work and it can’t really be held in balance with something that is actually part of it. It is like talking about the apple/core balance.
However (picky aside) I do know what is meant – on one hand you have work on the other you have everything else. So work and non-work balance might be better. However that won’t do either as it suggests a particular type of accommodation that is probably unachievable given the current way we organise work. I spend more waking time at work than I do doing anything else. What is more neither work nor non-work are simply one thing and neither are simply good or simply bad. I have things that I like at work (writing, talking to colleagues) and things that I hate (filling in forms, sitting in meetings that I didn’t organise). Similarly I have things that I like at home (cooking, playing guitar, watching Everybody Loves Raymond) and things that I hate (cleaning, fixing our endlessly breaking house). So perhaps it would be better to talk about the love/hate balance?
The work/life balance rhetoric implicitly suggests that all of work is bad and all of life is good – but this doesn’t come close to describing my experience. However the love/hate balance is probably too extreme so it might be better to replace it with the interesting/boring balance. It seems a reasonable aspiration to try and organise our lives so that they are more interesting (whether in or out of work) and less boring. But once you start to think like this you realise that you don’t want a balance at all. I want all interesting and no boring please! However, I realise that some boring is necessary to make the interesting possible, the two things are related, but I definitely want to move ever towards the interesting rather than to keep them in balance.
But interesting/boring probably isn’t enough. Our lives are not simple enough to be a matter of balancing two things. I want my life to be interesting, but not at the expense of my relationship and family. I could spend all my time as an adrenaline junky throwing myself off bridges with an elastic band attached to my feet, but when would I see my family? Similarly I want to be a good husband and father, but not at the expense of my friends. I also want to have fun with my friends but not at the expense of being a good citizen. Gosh, there is a lot to keep in balance isn’t there. It is almost as if you can’t really do it all, almost as if life is a messy business with no simple solutions.
So I think that the metaphor of the scales just doesn’t work for our lives, it is too simple. We cannot aspire to be “in balance” all we can hope for is balancing. The Cat in the Hat knows a lot about that as the picture shows. It may not be elegant or ideal, but doing our best not to drop too many things too often might be about the best we can hope for.