In recent years, a new ideology has emerged. It is this: work-life balance is impossible; therefore, humanity must embrace work-life blending instead.
I tried work-life blending for six years before we ever called it that. I’m here to tell you it stinks and is largely a pipe dream—nothing more than a new term coined by self-absorbed workaholics to justify their personal regrets, negligence, and imbalances in life.
Now let me tell you how I really feel.
The phrase work-life balance entered our lexicon when faxes reigned supreme, the 1980s. Knowledge workers, globalization, and computer networking went mainstream that decade, and, with it, the temptation to work ’round the clock on the Hedonic Treadmill (i.e., the misguided belief that the more money one makes, the happier they’ll be).
In response, first-world countries had a real first-world problem on their hands. The more connected their workers felt to the office, the more pressure they felt to “get ahead” by staying on the clock for extended periods of time. With only twenty-four hours in a day, something had to give.
That something usually involved personal health—since knowledge workers lead sedentary lives—but also strained relationships, lack of spirituality, forsaken hobbies or leisure that excite and recharge the mind, continuing education, and an inability to carry on a conversation beyond work.
Today, the so-called “boundaryless workplace” has become exponentially worse. We check email first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Our professional inboxes and to-do lists alert us wherever we go, often intruding on our free time. Leading corporate perks even include in-office dry cleaning, fitness centers, and three gourmet meals a day, which tempt us to rub elbows with work associates even more, helping everyone else’s bottom line at the expense of our own.
Enter work-life balance. Although poorly named—work is an important part of life, not a conflicting aspect of it—the term’s intent is right on the money: to balance regular demands on our time, including work responsibilities, loving relationships, physical and mental well-being, and individual pursuits.
At some point, however—perhaps because we’re so miserable at it—work-life balance became “work-life blending,” or integration. Instead of confronting the reality that our relationship to work is often at odds with sleep time and free time (which includes family time), some of us have embraced a fictional, consequence-free environment where anything goes. There are no trade-offs for the decisions we make. With work-life blending, we don’t have to sacrifice anything.
Of course, that’s nonsense. If you’re mentally at the office all the time, there will be consequences. Strained relationships, a shorter life, and one-dimensional thinking top the list. Do it for a lifetime, and you’ll likely die alone, according to regret researcher Bonnie Ware. Conversely, if you shirk work, you’ll likely end up fired, unmarketable, low-qualified, outdated, or with no income, all of which depress life.
You see, the work-life discussion is really just proof that we can’t have it all. Life involves trade-offs. Everything happens for a reason, according to a popular adage, and sometimes the reason is that we’re stupid and we make bad decisions.
Call it what you will, but ambitious professionals will always be confronted with imbalance, discord, competing priorities, compromise, and conflicting responsibilities. How we manage the boundaries of life determines whether we find equilibrium or become self-absorbed, relationship-neglecting narcissists unable to live in the moment and look down at glowing objects instead of into people’s’ eyes when they speak to us.
The day I finally reconciled my professional ambitions with personal obligations was the day I drew up specific boundaries for work, family, friends, health, and leisure. “Make time” is a phrase we often hear. To do that, I populate and consult an integrated life calendar with work, personal, and family activities side by side—ones that are as important as they are required of me. If the last nine years are any indication, it’s worked.
Since we’re all different, there’s no right way to lead a balanced, harmonious life. No silver bullet to overcome conflicting work and personal commitments.
Some people incessantly work because they only identify with what they contribute to the world: master gadget salesman (Steve Jobs), master physicist (Einstein), master composer (Mozart). Others enduringly work to provide for their families or to finance personal interests such as travel, amateur athletics, extreme adventure, or other passions.
And some do all of the above with just the right mix of passion and responsibility. You may not know them by name. But you can bet they have their sanity.
Originally published September 25, 2015 on blakesnow.com after first appearing on GoToMeeting