Erase work-life balance: 5 alternative steps to create a better life

I want to erase work-life balance from our collective consciousness. In this article, I explain why I believe the phrase prevents us from living the way we truly want to.

Words matter

Whenever either of my daughters said someone or something was “so stupid,” I asked them to find more descriptive words to demonstrate that they were not “so stupid.” I suggested that the more articulate they were, the better they would feel about their complaints. And, in some cases, they would be more likely to come up with a solution.

I don’t recommend this as parenting advice–especially if you’re tired of receiving eye-rolls from your children.

But, words are important. They not only impact our speech, but also our thoughts, our mindset, and thus our actions.

If I had my druthers, I would erase “work-life balance.” I wish to remove this phrase–from our collective consciousness. I’ve been in this field (first as a researcher, now as a coach) for more than two decades, and I strongly believe the notion of “work-life balance” sets us up for failure for three reasons.

Three reasons why “work-life balance” is problematic.

First, the phrase is not balanced in and of itself. On one side you have work and on the other, life. In reality, work is a subset of life. Equating the two reflects our society’s bias toward and overemphasis on money, employment, and production. Even if we change “life” to “family,” the phrase is still problematic because it implies that family doesn’t require effort or work. It also suggests that work cannot be pleasurable or meaningful.

Second, “work-life balance” is problematic because the act of balancing is precarious. What comes to mind is a tightrope walker or a unicyclist; a slight shift in the wind or a bump in the road could lead to a fall with serious consequences. It, therefore, ignores the inevitable disruptions of life. Moreover, the perfect state of balance can be fleeting. Achieving balance requires too much effort for a single moment in time.

Third, “work-life balance” implies that when one side goes up, the other must come down. That assumption can produce the judgment that a woman who is successful at work must have a messy home life or vice versa. It perpetuates the belief that a career has to be at odds with a family. It ignores the fact that family life experiences can often inform and help improve a career and vice versa.

So what term should be used instead?

My beloved mentors at the Families and Work Institute, Terry Bond and Ellen Galinsky, devised the notion of “navigating” life. Galinsky describes it in her book Ask the Children: What America’s Children Really Think About Working Parents. It better explains what actually happens in life: we are each trying to manage what we care deeply about — whether that be career, family, hobbies, interests, or religion/spirituality.

As a coach, I have learned that we have to navigate consciously and continuously; it is a process, as well as a goal. My clients and I focus on the present as well as the future. We tweak what we do each day so that we feel a little less overwhelmed and stressed. Doing that helps us face the inevitable daily challenges and surprises that come along with a bit more grace. We find that over time we are able to navigate life with greater ease and joy. For some examples, check out some of my clients’ stories here.

How to start navigating life

My clients and I have discovered that successful navigation starts with how you talk to yourself:

  • Don’t beat yourself up because you haven’t already figured it all out. Start by telling yourself, “If it were so easy, it wouldn’t be such a challenge for all of us. It’s a process. I’m starting to navigate in a new way now.”
  • Take just one baby step. Tell yourself, “Let’s give this one small thing a try. I’ll get to the other stuff later.” It’s both daunting to revamp your life. Don’t be fooled by the gloss you see on magazine covers or the curated lives online. Break down a larger project into manageable steps. Remember tiny steps are far better than leaps untaken. If the baby step doesn’t work, again don’t berate yourself. Most likely, the task wasn’t small enough. Try again with something even smaller.
  • Remember that after steering comes to flow. Imagine you’re in a canoe. After you row a while, you can coast and enjoy the scenery. Breaks are important not only because we all need rest, but they can also provide solitude, or an opportunity to reflect or see what unfolds after we’ve tried something small.
  • Because the brain is wired to register what has been left undone or went wrong, make a conscious effort to recognize your daily accomplishments big and small. For example: “My child/boss had a meltdown that threw a wrench in my plans, but I dealt with it!” Better yet, make a got-done list each day. (And, while you’re at it, tweak your to-do list work so it does more for you.)
  • Don’t compare yourself with those around you. For example, tell yourself, “Her situation is different than mine. I have unique children, values, resources, and so on, so I need to find what works for me.” Or simply, “I don’t know her full story.”

I hope you’ll give these steps a try and let me know how things go. Or, if you’d like to receive more customized strategies to help you navigate your unique situation with greater ease, try this.

This article was first published in July 2014. This version includes minor edits and a new image.