The Poisonous Quest for Work/Life Balance

It’s been a while since I had an inflammatory headline, so I thought I’d give it a go. Here’s the gist of this article: striving for work/life balance is not only a terrible idea, but likely to cause life long dissatisfaction in your legal career.

“But Chris,” I hear you saying, “isn’t work/life balance the ultimate goal of all lawyers in the industry? Isn’t it the pinnacle of success?”.

Nah.

Here’s the basic problem:

  1. Dwelling on work/life balance creates an arbitrary split in your daily functions, some of which are “bad” (work) and some of which are “good” (life);
  2. Many of the things thrown into the “life” category are actually really hard work, thus confusing our poor brains even more;
  3. Using the work/life mindset, we start to resent “work” and feel like it’s something that needs to be constantly rewarded with “life” in some way;
  4. Inevitably we end up striving constantly to do more “life” things, leaving us dissatisfied with and exhausted from everything considered “work”.
  5. The growing rhetoric that work is bad and life/rest is good can be ultimately damaging and unfulfilling.

I’ll show you how.

Work/Life Balance is an Artificial Split

The first massive problem with the concept of work/life balance is that it’s completely arbitrary and subjective.

Is mowing my lawn work or life? What about looking after the kids? Travelling to work? Getting a coffee with colleagues?

You see, life and work don’t really mean life and work – they mean “enjoyable” and “not enjoyable”, or possibly “work” and “recreation”.

Otherwise, work/life balance should be called “job/everything else” balance.

By splitting our lives into these two tiny mal-defined pieces, we inevitably set up a competition.

In the blue corner: work. In the red corner: life.

And then our problems start.

Work/Life Competition

And with the split, we have the competition.

Work becomes a chore – a burden that we are forced to endure in between times of “life”.

We start to feel like our hard work is not something to be enjoyed for itself, but rather something that we must reward ourselves for with a party, a holiday, a rest, or a glass of wine.

Gradually, the work that we might well have enjoyed starts to taste sour in our mouths, leaving a distinctly unfulfilling feeling – because someone told us that working hard wasn’t a good thing.

Working Hard is Good

The headline says it all, but for many it seems a tricky concept to accept.

Work is good. It’s good for you, and you’re supposed to be doing it. I’m not just talking about your job here – I’m talking about work and all its forms. On the house, with the kids, underneath the car, in the garden – work is distinctly satisfying and good for you.

At which point I should say this: rest is good too.

It’s not that rest is bad and work is good, nor that work is bad and rest is good.

They’re both good, taken in the right dosages. But the truth is that many of us have started questing after relaxation far more than we need, and far more than is healthy.

Ask yourself an honest question: is the only reason you work so you can rest as much as possible?

Lawyers Work Hard

#factsmatter

If you Hate your Work

And here we find a confronting truth that needs to be spoken. Many people simply don’t enjoy their work, their careers, or their colleagues.

While there might be many reasons for this, for today’s article let’s open up two possibilities:

  • you’ve embraced the concept that work is actually bad and the only reason to do it is so you can rest; or
  • you are in the wrong career and you should make a significant change.

The first requires an attitude shift, in particular towards your work and the necessary part it plays in your life beyond merely a source of funding.

The second requires some honesty and a lot of bravery on your part, to accept something that has probably been bubbling away under the surface for some time.

The Integration of Work and Life

We cannot foolishly separate work and life, as if the two are somehow even capable of being identified, let alone balanced.

Work is a necessary and beautiful part of life. It fulfills us, sustains us, and helps us use our gifts and fulfill our purposes. It provides our material needs as well as giving us a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Our goal should not be to alienate, separate and quarantine work from the rest of our lives, but to accept that work is an inevitable and excellent part of life.

Similarly though, we shouldn’t place false pride into the amount we work by wearing our busy-ness as some kind of ridiculous badge of honour.

Everything else is important too, of course. Rest is valuable, play is valuable, time with friends is valuable. But this article isn’t focused on those – this is focused on trying to identify the positive and excellent qualities of work for our lives.

That way we can go forward in our work without resentment, and without the feeling that somehow we need to feel guilty about working hard.

Work is a part of life, as much as everything else. Don’t treat it like the 3rd cousin twice removed that you’d rather not spend time with.

Happy Lawyering!

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