The concept of work-life balance has been in vogue for years, especially recently, as mental health concerns grow among millennials and companies increasingly invest in programs to promote wellbeing among employees. In the pre-pandemic world, benefits like flexible work hours, telecommuting, and “fun” features like in-office ping-pong tables and stocked kitchens became commonplace. Now with fully remote teams, the push for work-life balance is, in theory, a step in the right direction for those concerned about burnout. And, really, everyone should be concerned about burnout—it’s a real thing.
The Fallacy of Balance
The problem is that the word “balance” is inherently stress-inducing. Its definition, “to keep or put (something) in a steady position so that it doesn’t fall,” evokes someone precariously stacking cards or simultaneously spinning a set of plates.
When you attempt to balance work and life, you split yourself down the middle, placing your “work self” on one side of the scale and your “real self” on the other. But this doesn’t quite work because you’re one human.
And as one whole, complete human, you’d ideally be the same person at work as you are in what we call “life,” or the time you spend outside of work. (Hint: It’s all life!) Trying to separate the two means acting inauthentically in at least one aspect.
It’s sort of like when stern, buttoned-up Mike on the legal team chugs 10 PBRs at the holiday party and belts Bruce Springsteen from atop a barstool—and everyone is shook. Where was this version of Mike all along!?
Strive for Harmony
Instead of balance, try aiming for work-life harmony. In music, harmony is “the simultaneous combination of tones, especially when blended into chords pleasing to the ear.”
In the concept of work-life harmony, it's “the simultaneous combination of all aspects of life, especially when blended into structures pleasing to the individual.”
Emphasizing harmony over balance allows you to integrate parts of your life and invite them to work together. Assuming you don’t work somewhere terrible, there’s no reason that the best of the values and culture that permeate your workplace should stand in dichotomy from the values and culture you bring into your home.
While there are specific places for both professionalism and play, and boundaries should exist around them, the things you do outside work can be used as tools to make you better at your job, and vice versa. They don’t always need to serve as escapes from one another.
Recognizing this can also help you be more present in both work and life, without feeling like you always need to be working. Ideally, you’re doing things that make you better all around.
Say you’re starting a daily meditation practice to become more patient with your family. That’s a skill that should also be used to approach colleagues when a project isn’t going as planned. If you enjoy painting on the weekends, you can channel that same focus and attention to detail into your day job.
Harmony in the Remote Work Era
This reframing is particularly crucial for everyone who’s continuing to work from home through 2021, and maybe forever. When your workspace becomes your home, it can feel like a collision of opposing forces rather than a meeting of kindred spirits if you view the two as entirely separate entities.
Think of it like this: In lieu of a remote-working space that looks like it was excavated from a fluorescent-lit 1990s cubicle, wouldn’t you prefer a workspace, separate from your living space, that still blends seamlessly with the vibe of your home and feels like a reflection of you? That’s harmony over balance.
Instead of evaluating the aspects of your life separately, think about how they fit as one. If there’s a part of your life that doesn’t fit well with the rest, or doesn’t feel authentic to you, it could be a sign that you need to rethink that part, whether it’s a habit, a relationship, or a job.