Why Your Search For Work–Life Balance Isn't Working Out (And What To Focus On Instead)

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Wouldn't it be great if you could find a career with perfect work–life balance? Where your job never infringed on your personal life, and you could switch off all work-related thoughts at 5 p.m., like clockwork? Natasha thinks you could do a lot better than that. Here, she explains why.

Is this you?

At home, you spend your time thinking about work.

At work, you long to be with your loved ones, or resent the limited time and energy you have to dedicate to anything personally meaningful.

It feels exhausting.

So maybe now you sleepwalk through your work days in a kind of dissociative catatonia. You've detached.

Or perhaps you've let your friendships, relationships and personal time wither away, immersing yourself in your work, coming home late, losing touch with the things that ground you and keep you energised.

But there's another layer to it, too.

Work–life imbalance is far more deeply rooted than we're usually willing to admit

As Nigel Marsh points out in his (very funny) TED talk...

"I stepped back from the workforce, and I spent a year at home with my wife and four young children. But all I learned about work–life balance from that year was that I found it quite easy to balance work and life when I didn't have any work."

...the problem isn't just about how much time you spend at the office. It's not something that could be 'fixed' by eating your lunch outside, or banning e-mails after 9 p.m., or getting up ten minutes earlier each day to meditate. You've tried these things. They don't work.

It's deeper. More fundamental.

It's the sense of your Self being split between two places.

"We are each a river with a particular abiding character, but we show radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel." – David Whyte

You take on the identity of one person at work, and another at home.

There's a deep sense of loss to the imbalance we feel. A loss of power. A loss of energy and momentum and pride. And a loss of our own identity – our ultimate anchor – as we freewheel into under-indulgence.

And yet, it's all a construction. This exhausted, floating experience is the output of a fallacy.

The idea that work and life are separate worlds, to be balanced against one another, is not 'truth'

For you, an intelligent, successful individual, this needs little explanation.

You know, on a rational basis, that work is a part of your life; that you are just as much 'alive' in the office as you are rolling down a hillside in the sun.

It doesn't feel comfortable to admit, but it's the case.

"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." – Annie Dillard

The separation of work and life exists only in our minds.

But why? Why compartmentalise and cut off and shut down?

Simply put, because you don't want to be associated with your work.

If your work is misaligned with your sense of Self, you have an innate desire to push it away, to separate it from who you know yourself to be.

"I am not my job. This identity is not mine. Who I am is not what I do."

At parties, you cringe when someone asks you what you do for a living. Shrugging off your work clothes at the end of the day feels like emerging from a bad dream. You place photos of loved ones on your desk at work, so when you're elbow deep in a soul-sucking task, you can look at them and remind yourself of who you really are.

Push, push, separate, separate, box in, cut off. Exhaustion. Your life shrinks.

And yet, these exhausted symptoms of the work–life balance fallacy aren't inescapable.

All you need to do is reframe the conversation about work–life balance: let the fallacy go, and start focusing instead on something that might just be achievable.

What if, instead of chasing work–life balance, you began creating work–life congruence?

What if, instead of striving painfully to keep work and life at odds with one another, you began to see work as an opportunity for of self-expression?

What if your work was so wonderfully aligned with who you know yourself to be, you could cease to force the two worlds apart and instead take pleasure in their merging?

"I think that working is part of life, I don't know how to distinguish between the two… Work is an expression of life for me." – Orson Welles

When you go after work–life congruence, you're no longer seeking the ability to switch off one self at 5 p.m. and step smoothly into your 'real' persona, Superman-in-a-phone-box style.

You're creating an experience of Self strong enough that it can inform your work, so that the tension between work and life dissolves into a dance, each element informing, feeding and challenging the other.

You're consciously building a career that feels like you – that fits comfortably and easily and makes your life better because it's a part of your life, not because you've found a good way to shut it out.

That's easy enough to say. Not so easy to do.

If you've spent years working at being someone you're not, chances are you've lost sight of what really brings you alive.

In his book The Elusive Art of Inner Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes about what he calls "the gap between our onstage performance and backstage reality":

"Here is the ultimate irony of the divided life: live behind a wall long enough, and the true self you tried to hide from the world disappears from your own view! The wall itself and the world outside it become all that you know. Eventually, you even forget that the wall is there – and that hidden behind it is someone called 'you'." 

So, if you're at all inspired by the idea of stepping out from behind the wall, where do you start?

Start by stopping

"Poets have never used the word balance, for good reason. First of all, it is too obvious and therefore untrustworthy; it is also a deadly boring concept and seems to speak as much to being stuck and immovable, as much as to harmony." – David Whyte

The first step to creating work–life congruence is to give up perpetuating the fallacy of work–life balance.

If your primary goal as a career changer is to find a job ad that includes those words, you're already heading down a risky path. You're already shutting down the possibility of finding a career you actually want to talk to people about at the pub, that you love to share with your family and friends, that feels like a pleasure to wake up for in the mornings.

Don't be afraid to dream a little bigger.

Start thinking and talking less about work–life balance, and focus your thoughts on congruence, instead. What would it be like to get paid to be yourself?

Where would you start looking if it was possible to love your work so much that the distinction between work and life wasn't an issue?

Start there.

Switch your gaze

"Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you," – Anna Deavere Smith

Up until now, chances are you've been very outward focused in your search for a new career. You've been digging through job sites, talking to recruiters, scanning your CV for clues about what you could be qualified to do next.

If finding work–life congruence requires that you have a stronger sense of self, of who you are, you need to focus first on getting to know yourself on a deep level.

Observe yourself moving through the world as though you were a new lover.

What does this person get excited by? Where are they when they light up? What do they bring to the world that seems to be uniquely 'them'?

Take yourself on dates. Feed the little being inside you that craves a gallery visit, or an evening on the carpet taking the toaster apart and putting it back together.

Who is this person you spend every second of your life with?

Look for the urge to get unbalanced

"We should not, perhaps, underestimate our wish to lose our balance, even though it's often easier to get up than to fall over. Indeed, the sign that something does matter to us is that we lose our steadiness." – Adam Phillips

When your work and your life are in congruence, rather than kept in separate boxes, imbalance is no longer a frustration: it's a joy.

And, often, the best sign of true congruence between who you are and what you're doing is the desire to lose your balance: to get giddily, excitedly lost and immersed in something.

Throughout history, artists, experts and thought leaders have propounded the idea that great work – and, in fact, great love – is inevitably borne of a certain level of excess. A reeling, out-of-control pull that leaves you unsteady and breathless.

It's a sign of growth, of breaking new ground, of deep resonance.

Think back through your life. Were your greatest moments ones of perfect, extended balance? Or was there, perhaps, a sense of being off-kilter to them?

Where do you find yourself craving being off-balance? Where could you relish the sensation? Follow those clues.

How good could it get?

In a world where 'well-being at work' initiatives are being rolled out across cities, where mindfulness classes are run in office lunch breaks, and where T-shirts and jeans on a Friday is considered a serious perk-of-the-job, it's easy to get sucked into the idea that a reasonable level of work–life balance is the best you can hope for.

It's not.

What would work–life congruence look like for you? Let me know in the comments below.

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach, writer, and experience designer for Careershifters. When she's not working, you'll find her listening to neuroscience podcasts, learning pottery, and dreaming up her next adventure.