Why Work-Life Balance is Not Worth the Effort (and What to Aim for Instead)

When we hear the term work-life balance, we tend to think of it as a good thing. It’s doing great work, without overworking. It’s getting enough rest, without staying idle. But if we want to have a meaningful and productive life, striving for perfect workl-life balance is not often the right path. What we really want to aim for is Intentional Imbalance.

Do you struggle to maintain work-life balance?
Is there a better way to create a more fulfilling life?
What if you focused on just the vital few, instead of attend to a good many?

When we hear the term work-life balance, we tend to think of it as a good thing. It’s doing great work, without overworking. It’s getting enough rest, without staying idle.

But if we want to have a meaningful and productive life, striving for perfect work life balance is not often the right path. Here are a few reasons why.

First, work and life are not opposing forces. Work is a part of life – just like your family, relationships, hobbies, leisure & recreation, health & fitness, intellectual growth, spirituality, and financial & money matters.

Nonstop work overload can and often does lead to exhaustion and burnout. But if work gives you a sense of purpose, having more free time won’t necessarily make you happier. You have to be deliberate in how you use it.

While you do want a healthy mix, it doesn’t help to think of work as being on one side and life on the other.

Second, it’s not always ideal to have equal parts of professional life and personal life. Sometimes you do need to focus intensely on work and other times you need to fully engage in rest.

If you’re starting a new business or starting a new, challenging job, you could cut back on your social and recreational activities. Your work will be most critical in times like these.

If you’re preparing for your baby’s arrival or grieving the loss of a loved one, you should take time off from work and drop hard goals. Your creative project, spiritual life and rest could move to the front burner. Your health and wellbeing will be most essential in times like these.

Third, you really can’t achieve perfect work-life balance. Technically, balance means you have evenness in work and life.

Let’s say you have work on one side, and life on the other side of the scale.

We have 24 hours in a day. You have your basic activities: 8 hours of sleep, 1 hour of lunch, 1 hour of dinner, 1 hour for daily routines, like taking a shower, brushing your teeth, getting dressed, and preparing for your day. That’s almost half your day. And if you have a standard 8-hour work day, you’re left with 5 hours for leisure. This could be spent on consuming information and entertainment, or enjoying hobbies or deep relaxation.

Having evenness across all domains of life isn’t really practical or beneficial.

If you want to master your craft, meet high goals, be fully present, or be the best version of yourself, you’re not going to have balance.

Something has to give for you to succeed in any endeavor. Something either gets your attention or does not.

This is episode 52. Why work-life balance is not worth the effort and what to aim for instead. Welcome to The Incrementalist. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach who will help you make big changes in small steps.

What we really want to aim for is intentional imbalance.

Intentional imbalance has three key elements.

The first element is Alignment. This is synching your behaviors, choices, and actions with your highest priorities, values, and goals.

What really matters to you? What do you truly care about? What would be the highlight of your day if it happened or if you made it happen?

Having a sense of purpose includes a passion, a mission, a profession and a vocation, which do not always intersect.

Passion is what you love and are good at.
Mission is what you love and what the world needs.
Profession or your work is what at you’re good at and what you can get paid for.
Vocation is what the world needs and what you can get paid for.

It’s rare to have a single role or activity that combines all four. But the more you can combine all four, the more satisfying and rewarding the role or activity will be.

An easy way to live in alignment is to practice routines and rituals that fuel positive behavior.

A routine is a set of habits or steps you do in a certain sequence.

It creates boundaries between your personal and professional life, even when digital technology, remote work and the always-on culture have blurred the lines.

Keep a morning routine for when you wake up, an evening routine before you go to bed, a startup routine to begin work, and a shutdown routine to end work.

A morning routine jumpstarts your day. It’s your AM bookend for the day.

When the alarm goes off, you get up without hitting the snooze button. Or maybe you wake up naturally at a certain time.

Once you’re up, you do certain things automatically. It could be making your bed, drinking water, soaking in sunlight, stretching and meditating.

A startup routine could include reviewing your priorities list or daily plan or setting time blocks for when you will perform key activities.

A shutdown routine might be reviewing the progress you made and the setbacks you had. It’s shutting down your computer and calling it a day.

An evening routine is your “me time” to recharge, quiet your mind, and get ready for sleep. It could include journaling for five minutes, reading a fiction book, doing gentle movement, or listening to relaxing music.

A ritual is a set of meaningful activities you do deliberately. You give the steps mindful attention as you do them.

By being more present, you can turn a mundane routine into an enjoyable ritual. You can practice a tea ritual in the morning, afternoon or evening. You mindfully brew the tea leaves, pour the tea into a cup and take your first sip.

Even tending to and watering your less-than-perfect houseplants can be a ritual.

With strong anchors to ground you throughout the day, you can minimize external pressures that pull you off track and cause misalignment.

The second element is Introspection. This is taking time to look inward and reflect.

Without introspection, it’s hard to know what brings you joy, fulfillment and satisfaction.

You could keep a journal, review your calendar and to-dos, look at photos you took over the past few months or year, and track your daily progress to build self-awareness.

It’s only through looking inward that you can understand why you feel, think and behave the way you do. You won’t know how to live intentionally if you always rely on external metrics to make plans and decisions.

Step back and objectively observe your actions.

Through reflection, you discover which actions and rewards are most satisfying. You negotiate around that what’s most critical to you, instead of try to match what the good life means to others.

Maybe what’s most important is not more money or a big promotion, but more flexibility and autonomy.
With introspection, you decide to do your deep work in the early morning or early evening because this is when your focus and energy levels are at their peak.

Remote work tends to make this more feasible. No one cares where or when you do your work, as long as you get it done.

You can engage in indoor play in the late morning.

Or hang out at an outdoor park and enjoy the sounds, shared energy and pleasant weather on a sunny Friday. You do the make-up work on snowed-in Saturday.

Or you go grocery shopping on a weekday afternoon, when the store is less busy.

When you’re introspective, you’re open to boredom, which triggers new insights and creative breakthroughs. You’re not constantly working or consuming information to stimulate your mind.
You set a limit on your screen time and shut off notifications. You stop binge watching Netflix shows and mindlessly scrolling YouTube videos. You make time for deeper relaxation or active leisure.

You can be alone with your thoughts as you reflect, ponder and wonder. You sit, walk or run with no music or podcast playing into your ears. You’re free to follow any thought or idea that arises.

When you’re introspective, you learn whether you’re willing to go through the actual process to get the promised results. Maybe you learn that working out at the gym is hard to sustain because you don’t enjoy it.

So, you join a racquetball club at the rec center instead. Or you decide to ice skate three times a week at the community center. You build up your leg muscles, increase the heart rate, improve your balance, relieve stress, and socialize with friends while you’re at it.

Introspection helps you to be more deliberate in where you invest your time, energy and attention.

The third element is Momentum. Taking consistent steps to build energy and keep moving on what you need to do. Through the compound effect, your small actions and decisions add up over time to create big results. You learn, grow, make neural connections and reinforce existing ones.

Newton’s law of motion says any object at rest stays at rest until an external force acts on it. The object accelerates in the direction of the force acting on it. For every action, there is an equal yet opposite reaction.

Inertia is resistance to changes in motion.

The Law of Momentum is mass x velocity: p = mv. When you exert a force on an object, it gains momentum. In a collision with another object, it strikes a force and transfers the momentum.

Figure skaters use angular momentum to go from skating on a curve to spinning with no external torque. Skating on a curve builds angular momentum to rotate quickly.

Angular momentum is moment of inertia x angular velocity: L = Iw. When the skater changes position, the inertia shrinks. Then in the spin, velocity increases and momentum is conserved.

When a rocket is launched, the exhaust pushes it forward in equal and opposite measure. Once the rocket moves out of the earth’s atmosphere and moves into orbit, it needs less fuel to keep moving.

Intense, focused work for 2 to 4 hours is more productive than 6 to 8 hours of scattered focus on a project.

Take real breaks. You could go for a walk outdoors and interact with nature for 30 minutes. Then when your energy rebounds, do some creative work.

What’s right for someone else might be wrong for you. Priorities also shift as circumstances, conditions and seasons change. What really matters is to make deliberate choices and take the best action. Try not to overthink. You can always course correct or make tweaks in the process.

There’s nothing wrong with having a comfortable and balanced life. But if you want to do something great or extraordinary, you will need to focus on one thing at the expense of the other. This means setting boundaries, shifting expectations, and saying no to requests that don’t fit in your current areas of focus.

If you’re going to have imbalance, you might as well be intentional about it. When you’re intentional, there will be trade-offs. You remove the stress, guilt and regrets that come with lost opportunities. And embrace the gains that come with moving forward on what’s most important.

For more on how to create a productive and well-designed life, check out my book, The Incrementalist at leanpub.com/incrementalist.

If you found value in this episode, hit the like and share buttons. And if you want to keep learning on how to make big changes in small steps, be sure to subscribe. Thank you for being with me and join me again on The Incrementalist.

Join our newsletter

Sign up to get updates on blog posts, online courses, bonus tips and exclusive access to Empower Toolkit

checkmark Got it. You're on the list!
© 2021 Dyan Williams