What does work/life balance mean to you? Most likely, it means something different to what it means to me.
There are many ways to define work and life, and the balance between the two, but I’m going to focus on two, that I’ll label, ungenerously to one of them, the “old way” and the “new way”1.
The old way
In the old way, work and life are clearly distinct, as night and day. Work is a curse (sometimes biblical), the time you spend toiling and sweating and bleeding to earn a living, and life is a blessing, the thing you work for, which must be distinct from work and much better than work, to justify all the toiling and sweating and bleeding.
You work (an activity that by definition you do not enjoy most of the time) to earn money, that you then spend on things that you do enjoy, during your “life” time. The work is an unfortunate necessity, something that you would avoid if you could. The ideal life is the infinite holiday. If you had millions of dollars instead of thousands, in this mental framework, you would probably go on an extended holiday, until you’re either ruined by unfortunate circumstances or you die.
This is still the dominant paradigm, and one that drives most of our discussions of work/life balance. In fact, the very term “work/life balance” implies belief in this old way of defining work and life. Whenever you say “work/life balance”, you imply to your subconscious that you believe in these two concepts of work and life and their contrast and the need to balance them.
How to balance them? Well, with the definition of work as something unpleasant and life as something pleasant, obviously work should be minimised and life maximised. So we have fixed working hours, 40 hours a week, then 35, then 30. We scrupulously “leave our work behind” when we go home. We take holidays where we make sure to disconnect. We look at people who work longer hours, take their work home and work on holiday as workaholics – a clearly, obviously pejorative term. Something to be avoided.
The new way
The new way of talking about work and life is from the point of view of passionate people doing work they care about deeply. The traditional view here is that only artists and vocational people like charity workers, priests or doctors can do that, but today’s reality is that many people engaged in a wide range of jobs can and do feel passionate about their work, and find personal accomplishment and fulfilment in them.
One obvious case of the passionate worker is the entrepreneur, but they are rare so let’s leave them aside. Another is people who work in open cultures, or at least in jobs that somehow have some mysterious characteristics like a sense of purpose and challenge and autonomy.
People in these kinds of jobs can frequently feel they are in an awkward place, because they feel that they enjoy working hard, but then the “old way” of thinking tells them that they’re working too hard. Adopting the language of the old way, they might end up “realising” that they’re workaholics and try to cut back, or go on holiday and deliberately disconnect from everything to try and recover some “work/life balance”.
The sad thing about this is that it is wrong and actually makes the passionate person’s life worse, not better. Being passionate about your work is not a curse, it’s a blessing. We can argue all year long about what the meaning of life is, and each person can and needs to come up with their own answer, but there is no argument that achieving a state of flow is a desirable thing. Being passionate about your work leads to being in a state of flow more often.
How tragic, then, when definitions imagined by people who worked in a state of pain rise up out of your subconscious to say, effectively, “hey, you shouldn’t spend that much time in a state of flow, you’re a workaholic with no work/life balance!” An exaggerated view of that is akin to interrupting Leonardo in the middle of painting the Mona Lisa to tell him he’s done his eight hours and needs to go home now.2
This conflict between working according to the new way but letting your thinking err along the old way is not helpful, and in my opinion should be avoided. I propose a new way of thinking about work/life balance, in terms of stages of work, with a clear, opinionated scale from worse to better. Each stage has different ways of thinking about work/life balance.
The new ladder of work
Level 1: Slavery
On the bottom of the ladder, I would like to put slavery – by which I do not mean wage slavery, but actual, real slavery. There is still an awful lot of this in the world. Some countries still have institutionalised slavery, and some high-profile international organisations do not bat an eyelid at using slavery to serve their goals, and most of humanity through most of history has operated at this level, sadly. As a slave with no control over your life, we can perhaps miraculously lift ourselves up to a higher level (like Joseph in the Biblical story), but most, by far, will not. The concept of work/life balance is irrelevant here: we have no life as a slave, our life belongs to our master.
Level 2: Survival
One level above, I would put the type of work that one does to ensure survival (of oneself or of one’s family). Throughout the industrial revolution, and still in many countries in Asia in industries such as textiles or manufacturing, much of the work is at this level. This is barely above slavery, the only difference being that we have a notional choice of working under equally bad conditions somewhere else. Work/life balance as a concept becomes theoretically important but is mostly out of our reach. We work (serve the curse) as much as we humanly can, and the rest of the time is a temporary interval between stretches of work. Much of the social progress of the industrial revolution was aimed at allowing people working at this level to live humane lives, and lifted much of the western world’s population to at least level 3.
Level 3: Balance
This is the level where the concept of work/life balance really has full meaning, and where most people are operating. In this perspective, work is undesirable but not oppressive. We have choice, so long as the economy is doing alright and our skills are in demand. We can choose to work reasonable working hours. We have control over the line between work and life. This is the old way done right. In this context, the concept of work/life balance is a good thing and it is important to balance the two, to stay in control of where that line shifts.
Level 4: Acceleration
Some fortunate people operating at level 3 may find that some aspects of their jobs are more engaging than others, and get caught up in those aspects from time to time. Another way to put it is that we may have work that is largely undesirable, that would not be worth doing if we weren’t paid for it, but there are some aspects of that work that put us in a state of flow, where we lose track of time and find ourselves working till silly hours or thinking about work on holiday, etc. This is where the level 3 way of thinking holds us back, by suggesting that this is a symptom of an out of control work/life balance. At this stage, the concept of work/life balance still makes sense overall, but it starts to lose its usefulness, and I think this is the stage where we must be careful not to let it hold us back from progressing to level 5.
Because at level 4, we start to get a glimpse of what life could be at level 5, since we begin to find out which activities are both productive (i.e. things society rewards with money) and put us in a state of flow (i.e. things we deeply enjoy doing for their own sake).
Level 5: Flow
Once we discover which activities we can do, which put us in a state of flow but are rewarded by society (i.e. are paid well enough), we have the option to start rebuilding our work (or finding another job or career) where we can spend most of our time doing the things we love and are passionate about. Of course, there are always going to be some unpleasant bits to any job, but because we see the bigger picture of what we’re doing (flow is impossible without a sense of purpose), we handle them without much effort, to get back to the bits we enjoy.
At this level, work/life balance makes no sense whatsoever. You wouldn’t put a time limit on flow any more than you’d put a time limit on any other enjoyable activity. Keep doing it as long as it’s fun! When it’s no longer fun, switch to another fun and productive thing. And so on, endlessly.
I don’t think it is possible to reach this level without letting go of the concept of work opposed to life, prevalent in level 3 thinking. A career/life where you spend most of your time in a state of flow is highly desirable, but it is not one we can reach while we meter out our efforts and keep thinking of work as something to be avoided.
A symptom of this state, in my opinion, is that we are constantly working: at home, during hobbies, on holiday, even while asleep! But much of that work is subconscious, thinking about how to do things even better or which things to do, rather than sitting down in front of a computer and “working”. The work is then just the natural outlet of the thinking, much like an artist’s work.
Whilst the shift from level 3 to 4 can happen accidentally without intention, the shift to level 5 only occurs if we really seek out this new way of working, which is why it’s important to embrace it rather than fight it.
Some final notes
There are a million objections to the ideas above. Some obvious ones are “what about if I have children?” or “what if my job sucks? no one could possibly enjoy my job!”. I believe that a careful reading of the article combined with some thinking will present answers to those objections though. Have a think before you disagree.
Life and work need not and should not be in opposition. When they are in harmony, both get better. But if you let the oppositional thinking of work vs life drive your thinking, it will impair your ability to progress from level 3 to level 5.
Don’t let old assumptions determine how you live your life today. Think for yourself about what makes sense for you.
Obviously, this is an artificial dichotomy and there is a whole continuum of definitions between the two, and there are of course other dimensions to the definition that I’m not exploring here! But for the sake of argument…↩
Another historical distortion is the concept that to matter in this way, work must be of great cultural or societal import. Actually, to put you in that same state of flow, work must simply matter greatly to you personally.↩