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Work-life balance: how people manage the time they dedicate to work and the time they spend on other activities.

Just the phrase alone can make people’s eyes roll or give them anxiety. For the latter, achieving any sort of balance between work and non-work life can be overwhelming and thus can create anxiety. For the former, eyes tend to roll because, they argue, it’s just one life that contains personal and professional aspects; attempting to balance that life pits the two against each other. It’s a fair assessment, especially when you consider that in the US, we tend to work upwards of 1,700 hours per year. That’s roughly one-fifth of a year, but adding that all up, the average person spends roughly *one-third* of their life working. Compelling, no?

Is balance the right word?

I’m a big believer in work-life balance. I gave a talk on it way back in 2013. But… I do think “work-life” balance is a misnomer. I tend to agree with the eye-rolling folks – we have just one life and for the vast majority of us, that life includes personal and professional aspects. Sometimes the two overlap, sometimes they don’t. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be balance. That said, I’m not sure “balance” is the right word either. Let’s take a look at one of the definitions:

balance (noun): a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions

Work-life balance isn’t about separating work and non-work areas of your life. It’s not about having equal, counteracting parts (i.e. work and non-work). And it’s certainly not about pitting the two against each other.

If we look at the last part of the definition, it mentions “correct proportions”. That seems more appropriate for work and personal lives, especially when you consider how much time we actually spend working.

For these reasons, I think the better term is work-life harmony:

harmony (noun): the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole

That just fits better.

So if we change the term from work-life balance to work-life harmony, how does that change the definition? I think Maryville University has a pretty good definition: “Work-life harmony involves incorporating work into the rest of life in a way that promotes happiness both at home and in the office.”

Yep, that makes way more sense.

Still, as great as the new term and definition of it is, it’s been shown over and over again overworking can be so unhealthy it can literally kill you.

230102 countries work life balance
US and the UK are not in the top 10 of countries with the best work-life balance. 😱

How do we lose work-life harmony?

On a very superficial level, we just want to get stuff done, achieve our goals, and make all our ideas come to life. But if we peel back the layers a bit, we can start to see where the work-life harmony starts to break down:

  • Thinking and saying you’re always available. News flash: no, you’re not. At some point you have to eat, use the bathroom, bathe, and sleep. Unless you’re a robot, your body can’t just work endlessly.
  • Working any time there’s free time I don’t care what hustle culture bros say. Working all the time and any time there’s an unplanned hour is a terrible idea. It’ll have detrimental impacts on your physical and mental health.
  • Setting unrealistic deadlines. It’s super tempting to tell a client you can get something done in a day or two. What will usually end up happening is you add more stress to your life and potentially cause that client to lose trust in you. Slow down and give yourself margin. The consequences aren’t as dreadful as you or your client think. Plus, if you get it done earlier it feels like even better.
  • Saying YES to everything. This just means you’re adding more and more to your plate, but something has to give. Instead, try saying no. In fact, I challenge you to say it more often.

Negative impacts

Losing out on healthy work-life harmony has very real negative impacts in various areas of your life. The three main ones that get affected are health, relationships, and work itself.

Overworking has an almost immediate impact on our health. From sitting or standing too long to headaches to sore muscles. It will all catch up with you one way or another if you’re not resting and taking breaks. You have to take care of yourself. You have one body; if it breaks down there are no exchanges, refunds, or replacements. As the saying goes, you can’t help others if you can’t help yourself. Plus, let’s not forget that in the US it is insanely expensive to have any sort of serious or chronic illness.

If you’re working more often than not, your relationships are going to suffer. Quality time with kids, your partner, family, or friends are important. They bring us immeasurable amounts of joy and enrich our lives in ways that we cannot replicate. But not only will overworking mean that you miss out on them, they miss out on you too.

It’s incredibly counterintuitive, but working more doesn’t necessarily mean better work. Your brain needs breaks more than you may realize so that you can continue doing brilliant work. Besides, without good health you won’t be able to work anyway. And if your relationships suffer, why are you working so much?

Achieving work-life harmony

Okay, here’s the thing: you will not always have work-life harmony. There are going to be periods of time when work and life are in perfect harmony. And there will be other times – hopefully few and far between – where something will get out of whack one way or another. Work-life harmony isn’t a destination. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but it’s a journey, a way of life. Yes, it’s trite and makes me gag a bit, but it’s also very true. The key is to know how to get back on track. Below are a few general tips in no particular order. As usual, your mileage may vary.

Get enough quality sleep
Our cognitive performance is highly dependent on getting more than seven hours of sleep every night. That’s according to Matthew Walker, Professor of Neuroscience at UC Berkeley and author of *Why We Sleep*. Here’s another tidbit from his book (which I can’t recommend enough): "Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer." So yeah, sleep is critical. Getting enough, quality sleep is probably the one change you can make to improve not just work-life harmony, but your overall health too.

I’m an organization nerd, so it’s easy for me to get into the deep end with it. I know though that not everyone is and some people just have a hard time with it. So the key takeaway here is that being organized is going to help you get things done with less resistance and more efficiency. Sticky notes, time blocking, digital calendar, analog task lists… it doesn’t matter. Just do what works for you.

Take breaks
Perusing Twitter doesn’t count (I say this mostly to myself 🤭). No seriously though, make it a habit to take breaks during your work day, especially those that don’t involve some sort of screen or device. It helps with relieving stress and helps your brain process and store information. Get outside. Stare out a window. Meditate. Have a good conversation with someone. Just make sure you take breaks.

Eat better
We should all be doing this no matter what, but often when we find ourselves in work-life disharmony, our diet or eating habits tend to suffer. I’m certainly no exception. My suggestion here is to do whatever it takes to get better in this area. If you’re not sure how to start, Google is your friend.

Set boundaries – and stick to them
Get away for a long weekend, implement Seventh Week Sabbaticals, or take a more “traditional” vacation. Or hey, do nothing. Just step away. And don’t feel guilty about it. Yeah, I know it’s far easier said than done. But stepping away for more than a day is important for our overall well-being and somewhat ironically, it will make work more enjoyable.

Spend time with those you care about and love

  • Partner / spouse. Quality time is more than some cheesy phrase to roll your eyes at. It’s critical if you want a deep, fulfilling relationship with the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with.
  • Kids. I don’t have any but I know how fast they grow. If you’re not around not only do you miss out on their growth, they miss out on you being there. This causes small fractures that become large and deep wounds for one or both of you down the road.
  • Friends & extended family. These are people that you likely care about. Nurturing the relationships you have with them is important.

Final thoughts

Life is meant to be LIVED. Modern day life also means we have to work. But that doesn’t mean that’s all we should do.

Being married to your job (or studies) can be unhealthy, whether you’re a single 20-something or a married mom of four. If you don’t have a healthy work-life balance or work-life harmony, refocus your goals and strive to achieve an environment that fits your vision. Set manageable daily goals, take breaks, and stay active. Remember — successfully integrating your work and personal life will not only improve your mental well-being, it can improve your physical health as well.

“Live moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
—Ferris Bueller