The Myth of Work-Life Balance

Work-Life BalanceGuest Author: Susanne Skinner

Is there a more over-used phrase than this one?  I think not.  Yet it’s a discussion we never grow tired of—the notion that we can prioritize work (career) and life (family, friends, spirituality, health and fun) in a way that achieves a Zen state of harmony.  I googled this topic and found 44,200,000 results—what more is there to be said?  This is not a blog topic I’d choose, but earlier this week my colleague Erica shared the following quote from Gary Keller:

“Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls—family, health, friends, integrity—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed,
nicked, and perhaps even shattered.”

I was struck by the juxtaposition of our lives and what this phrase means to each of us.  I was forced to think about it, which led me to a self-induced retrospective of this very subject.

Erica is just beginning her career.  She will be starting an MBA in the fall; she is young, single, personable and ambitious.  She believes this in the way young people believe things—with optimism and enthusiasm.

Then there is me.  I am slightly jaded.  I am still an optimist but my enthusiasm has been tempered by circumstance.  I have spent many years in the business world and helped raise five children into adulthood.  Erica and I see the same thing differently.

I see all of these balls as being fragile—even work—and at the same time I believe they all have a certain amount of resilience.  I also find that one is missing—the one called time.   All of us must juggle time.  Without that, we can’t manage the others.  Our tendency is to assign them a uniform size, weight and value; then try to balance them.  We can’t.

Books, articles, workshops, blogs, life coaches, celebrities and now Sheryl Sandberg all vie for our attention, telling us how to live our best and balanced lives.   Three tips, five tips, ten tips … the keys to balanced living abound in these articles.  They encourage us to Lean In, Stand Out, Speak Up and Live Strong.   One of them encouraged me to complete my work during business hours.  Let’s pause here so we can share a laugh.

The most compelling thing any of them could tell me is that I will never achieve the very things they are writing about.  I noticed a lot of women writers telling me I would never have it all.  Hey, I knew that.  Some days I knock it out of the park and some days I am newspaper in the bird cage of life.   The goal of having it all is an outdated concept that sets you up for failure.   Those that say you can’t have it all are the same ones that were foolish enough to think they could and are left to write about it.


We are all in different stages of our lives; therefore we prioritize and juggle these balls differently.  Our juggling act is affected by whether we are entering, exiting or in the middle of these stages.   No matter where you find yourself you strive for stability, and you might find it – for a little while.  But long-term control is simply not possible if you are actively participating in this thing called life.  Sometimes organized chaos is the best we can do.

Even Oprah and Sheryl have to juggle these balls, but one thing none of these celebrities has to juggle is money.  They have plenty of it, and that makes a huge difference.  When you can outsource the management of your priorities, the ability to juggle them becomes different than mine.  For people like you and me, the challenge is to find What Matters Most.   Remember that time is a great equalizer.   No one has found a way to add another hour to the day.

If everything is important, then nothing is important. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.Ms. Sandberg is not wrong to suggest that it is easier to handle work-life integration when you are higher up on the career ladder.  No argument there, as the position on the ladder has a direct correlation to your income.  Unfortunately if we are leaning in to the degree Sandberg suggests, we become part of a culture that demands more work and longer hours just to remain on that ladder.  This type of manifesto creates a model where being all things to all people is valued above all else.   There is no balance to be found here.

From where I sit, work-life balance is at best an abstract model and at worst a complete myth.   Work is part of life, and we make work-life choices.  It’s really about integration. We should strive for aligning our priorities and life stages, and in the process make sure we live a meaningful life. 

Shift Happens

Family time, work-life balance, prioritiesWe’d all be better off if we could ditch the idea that there’s a state of balance out there that others have succeeded in achieving.  In reality, there is a state of happiness out there that results from choices we make.  Your priorities will shift with the stages of your life.  Difficult choices that favor work over something else should be made without guilt or the need to justify them.   The only person we should judge is the person staring back at us from the mirror.

Find what makes you happy and build that into each of your days.  When things are out of whack remember what matters and center yourself in that place.  Think life balance instead of work-life balance.

  • Develop a sense of humor.
  • Practice acts of kindness and you will be amazed at how quickly a difficult situation can right itself.
  • Learn the difference between must do and should do.  If you are looking for balance between work and the rest of your life, these two things are absolutes.
  • Discover the nuance between want and need.  This one will get easier as you get older.

There is no right way or magic formula since the balls we juggle vary on such an enormous scale. Each of our circumstances is different and their size and weight will vary according to the importance we give each of them.   No matter where you are on your journey, shift things according to the equilibrium that is right for you and do not apologize for it.

In my efforts to maintain my own balance one of the best pieces of advice I received is from my favorite writer-hero Anne Lamott:  “No is a complete sentence.”

With thanks to Erica for sharing the inspiring quote and the conversation that led to this blog.