Call it an occupational hazard, but I often find myself having conversations — with clients, with friends, with family, and with strangers on airplanes — about work-life balance. Most folks I talk to seem to believe it’s impossible. “There are only so many hours in a day,” they say. “My work is never done,” they say. “I’m on the clock 24/7,” they say. And dude, I can totally relate to all of that.
There’s no doubt about it — professional jobs today demand more of us than they did of our parents. There are enough things to do and enough people expecting us to do them at all hours that, if we didn’t occasionally pass out from exhaustion, we could literally work nonstop for as long as our laptop batteries hold out, and then a little more on our phones and tablets. How are we ever going to find anything like balance when the scales are so tipped against us?
Yep, I get it. I’ve beat my head against that same unyielding baloney stone plenty. But what if the trouble isn’t the circumstances of our professional lives and our personal lives (what we imprecisely call “work” and “life), but the metaphors and mental models we apply to those circumstances? What if a different paradigm or a different metaphor could reveal options we hadn’t even considered? I believe that’s possible. In fact, I know it’s possible. But first, let’s understand the models we’re working with.
What is work? What is life?
Don’t worry; I’m not trying to get all abstract and philosophical. It’s just that the existing paradigms tend to use the dichotomy of “work” and “life,” so before we look at the paradigms themselves, we need to define these terms with a little more precision.
Work-life paradigms and mental models
There are three primary paradigms (and endless variations on them) for thinking about the work-life problem. Let’s look at what each one is, what their assumptions are, what’s good about them, what’s dangerous about them, and how to make each of them work for you.
Work-life balance Without a doubt, this is the most common paradigm for thinking about how our professional and personal lives intersect. In fact, for many people, it’s the only one.
- Assumptions: Life is a zero-sum game, and time is how we keep score. Whatever time you put into work leaves less time to put into non-work priorities, and vice versa. Tradeoffs and compromises are the path to a life that feels “balanced.”
- Strengths: There’s an appealing pragmatism to the idea that we all have 1,440 minutes in a day, and that we have to choose how to spend them wisely because each minute can really only be occupied with one task or activity (we’ll save the problem of multitasking for another article).
- Pitfalls: This one makes folks really prone to either-or thinking — an approach that leads to a lot of internal debates that sound like the 1991 hip-hop hit, “The Choice Is Yours,” by Black Sheep: “You can get with this/Or you can get with that.” I call this “or” thinking, and it presents a pretty limited set of options for managing our lives and achieving all that we hope to.