Work-life balance will make you miserable. Try this instead

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In my early twenties I embarked on a mission to find the perfect balance between work life and personal life. I knew first-hand what the lack of such balance does to a family. So I set a hard deadline for myself: the moment I would start my own family. That deadline expired three years ago.

The good news is, I found what I was looking for. The bad news is, work-life balance is a fraud.

If I would make a list of the worst life advice, this would be among my top three. It isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous. Let me tell you why.

Not all Ideals are Created Equal

According to Wikipedia, work-life balance is the state of equilibrium in which demands of personal life, professional life, and family life are equal.

We grow up believing that the perfect balance between our personal and professional obligations will make us both happy and successful. Both good lovers and good professionals. Envied by both our colleagues at work and the other parents at the playground.

It sounds impossible, right? Like an idealized version of life. Too good to be true, too hard for one person to achieve in one lifetime.

You know what else it sounds like? Bullshit.

Balance implies two things:

  1. an even distribution of weight, which means that both things have the same importance
  2. a situation in which both forces are in equal proportions. This means that you need just as much of each element

The first definition refers to quality, the second one to quantity. And when it comes to work-life balance they’re both wrong.

Here’s a more realistic way of looking at things:

Imagine life is a game in which you are juggling five balls. The balls are called work, family, health, friends, and integrity. And you’re keeping all of them in the air. But one day you finally come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls… are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.

James Patterson

After reading this I remember taking out my decision journal and making a new entry. It was my biggest decision yet. And one I’ve never regretted.

You may not agree with the names of the five balls. Your values may be different. But whatever responsibilities you’re juggling right now, I bet work is one of them. And it’s made of rubber.

Work and Family are not Equally Important

Let’s go back to the definition of balance. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear that word? For me, it’s a pair of scales with two equal weights.

But here’s the problem: your work life and family life don’t carry equal weight. I’m not here to tell you which one should come first. That would be too easy. What I am telling you is that they’re not equally important. Take the time, make the effort, and figure out which one weighs more.

This doesn’t mean can’t have both. You can. And you should try to have a nice family and a nice job. But you can only have one top priority in life.

Because sooner or later you will be forced to choose between the two — more than once. And if you don’t know what comes first, there’s a good chance you will wind up miserable.

The sooner you get your priorities in life aligned, the gentler your journey toward happiness will be.

Work and Family are not Equally Distributed

When I was about twelve, we had a riddle we liked to tell the younger kids, so we could prove how smart we were. It went like this: What’s heavier, one kilogram of feathers or one kilogram of lead? Of course, the nine and ten-year-olds would immediately answer, “One kilogram of lead!”. We older kids would laugh and then explain why that’s wrong.

Comparing the distribution of work life and personal life is a lot like comparing feathers and lead. Trying to make up for missing the big game or the school play is a lot like trying to gather enough feathers to outweigh a piece of lead.

The opposite is also true. Putting in an enormous amount of overtime and dedication will hardly compensate for missing that one pivotal board meeting. Even if it was your kid’s birthday. You still missed it.

Your work and family life are mined with key moments. Moments that can’t be replaced or recovered. Equal effort at work and at home won’t result in equal success in both areas. That’s why the whole idea of balance is wrong.

By definition, balance assumes equal proportions. It also implies a complementary relationship between the two entities. This leads to the false impression that if we can somehow distribute our time and attention evenly, we will find happiness. Just one more toy. Just one more week of overtime. Just one more stack of feathers to balance the scales.

It won’t work. Chasing the mirage of work-life balance will lead to burnout, an unhappy family, and an unfulfilled career.

Broken Things Stay Broken

Now that we both agree that work-life balance isn’t the solution, what is? Before I propose an alternative, let me tell you about someone who really liked to make dents — in the universe, and in his family life.

We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here? ― Steve Jobs

I admire Steve Jobs for a lot of things. After reading his biography I got to understand his drive, his obsessive attention to details, his unflinching quest for quality products. But even his hardcore fans will admit he wasn’t a family man. He was a visionary, a creator, a fabulous speaker. He shaped the world we live in and he did it more than once. Isn’t that enough for one man?

It would be, if that was a conscious and assumed choice. If Steve had sat down and decided that all the things I just mentioned were far more important than his family, that would be a conscious decision. And, considering all he has achieved, we would view him as the pinnacle of success. But if you study his life and read through the lines, you know that’s not the whole story.

I can’t possibly know what went on in Steve’s head. But I do know that he had a troubled relationship with his daughter. That he named a whole PC line after her. That he even created the iconic iPod for her. And that it all didn’t matter. He could never fully undo denying his paternity and not being actively involved in her upbringing. I doubt she ever fully forgave him.

That’s why I will say it again: stop chasing work-life balance. Stop believing they are both equally important. Stop dividing your time and effort equally between the two. Decide which one comes first. It’s a decision you have to make if you want to have a shot at a fulfilled life.

Stacking Instead of Balancing

Work-life balance is a fraud. The two concepts actively repel each other. Trying to combine them is like trying to link two magnets. If they are facing the same pole, you can apply as much pressure as you want. You will never be able to build a stack. But turn one pole around and they will automatically snap into position. Herein lies the solution to our dilemma.

We have to stop trying to balance the two. Instead, try to arrange them in sequence: first one, then the other. Fully focus on the one you’re dealing with now. But accept that one of them always comes first. Then watch them snap into position. Effortlessly, like magic or a miracle. Except it’s neither. It’s magnetism and common sense and the laws of nature.

When things flow effortlessly, that’s when you know you’re in tune with nature. That’s how things are supposed to be.

But which magnet comes first?

This is the million-dollar question. It’s the one that will decide how you will live your life. And it’s one I can’t answer for you. But I can share a few ideas that helped me decide.

Work is Like Rubber. Life is Like Porcelain

Work-life is a lot like rubber. It has elasticity. You can squeeze it, pull on it, bend it, and it tends to get its original shape back. You can bounce back from professional failures. Even if the project you’re working on bombs, you won’t lose the skills or the relationships you’ve gathered. The downside is limited.

But personal life is like porcelain. It has plasticity. It breaks, it cracks, it gets dented. You can try to mend it, but it will never recover its original form. There’s nothing to gain from broken promises, shattered dreams, or tainted integrity. And the downside is limitless. If you fall in the bottomless pit of bad parenting, there’s no ladder long enough to get you out.

That’s why “family first” is one of my core principles in life. It’s part of my identity. Your thought process may be different. But whatever you decide, make sure it’s aligned with your values. Choose wisely and, most of all, choose with intent. Otherwise, someone else will choose for you.

Putting it all Together

Knowledge without action is just intellectual masturbation. So here’s your three-step action plan:

  1. Sit down, grab something to write, and establish the top priority in your life. Think of pros and cons. Imagine your life in 10 years if you would focus solely on this one priority. When you like what you see, make a decision.
  2. Write it down. This helps ingrain it in your mind. Put a date next to it and keep it in a safe place. Revisit it once a year to add notes.
  3. Get off the hamster wheel of work-life balance. Whenever faced with a choice, stick with your designated priority. Watch your life change.

The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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