📩 Letter #42: Against work-life balance
It's not an attainable (or desirable) ideal.
They call it “the Great Resignation.” Workers are leaving jobs they hate (or merely tolerate) for better ones. It’s “an expression of optimism that says, We can do better,” an Atlantic staff writer recently wrote. Workers are leaving in search of better wages, better benefits, better treatment, better hours. More power to them. Quitting isn’t lame anymore. It’s empowering.
Some are leaving because the pandemic has changed their priorities. Maybe (I’ll believe it when I see it) this last year-and-a-half has actually helped Americans obsess about their work less. We’re all going to die: maybe soon! So let’s choose life. Let’s retire earlier. A profession is not a personality, after all, and we should no longer value being special or important over being happy. Let’s pursue it, for real this time: work-life balance.
Ah yes, WLB. Something to strive for. The idea comes from industrial engineer Lillian Moller Gilbreth, whose family’s story is told in Cheaper by the Dozen. As a working mother, she made a connection between managed time and reduced stress. She realized that holding it all together, producing research papers and school lunches for her kids, would require careful intentionality, efficiency, and coordination.
Fair enough. But the phrase “work-life balance” has shifted from a radical tool of gender equality to meaningless corporate lingo. In job postings, it’s a benefit proffered alongside health insurance and 401(k) matches — as if our relationships, our time, our bodies, our very existence were equivalent to dental care and retirement savings.
We need a way to think about the labor we do for pay and the labor we do for free, our “productive” hours and our “time off.” But I don’t think work-life balance is the concept that will help us. Here’s why.
1. “Balance” is an illusion.
“Balance”: A perfectly weighted scale. Two equal halves, work and life. Or maybe, instead, a pie chart, segmented by activity. Eight hours of sleep, one hour of exercise, time allotted for TV and journaling and eating dessert and playing trains with your children. The proportions may change day-to-day, but at any given time, an ideal exists.
But is that ideal attainable?
I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly thrown off balance: by emergencies, by calls for help, by my own moods and limitations, and by delights, too. A friend gets sick and cancels plans. Someone I love dies. Something I read makes me sad. There’s a small jazz combo playing at the park, and so I stop to listen for a while. I thought I’d run today, but I’m grumpy. The broccoli I planned to make for dinner has spoiled. The neighbor brought over cookies! We chat for a while. I procrastinated, and so I’m working late. I got excited by a writing assignment, and I’m working late. I’m not always healthy, or optimized. Tomorrow is a new day.
“Work-life balance is a cycle, not an achievement,” write two academics in Harvard Business Review. To solve any imbalances, simply “pause and denormalize,” “pay attention to your emotions,” and “reprioritize.” Then, “make changes.” But what if making those changes is impossible, or unkind? What if the reason we’re pulled in so many different directions is because many important people and causes demand our attention, even our love?
We’re not in control of our lives. At least, not as much as we think. We respond to exigencies and needs and changing desires. We make sacrifices, and mistakes. We may not often feel like we’re at equilibrium, but hey: that’s life. No need to feel guilty about it.
In reality, balance “suggests a precariousness that isn’t helpful”:
The thing is, most days probably won’t look like an equilibrium. You might have to stay late at work and grab dinner on the way home one day or skip your work retreat this year because it coincides with your parents being in town. And there is nothing wrong with either of those choices.
I know we’re also supposed to eat a “balanced” diet — but does that sound very tasty? I’d rather have a nutritious diet, a delicious diet. When it comes to life, “balanced” shouldn’t be our cold, clinical ambition. “Full,” perhaps. “Abundant,” even better.
2. “Work” and “life” can’t be separated.
Now that I’m working from home, the distinctions between “work” and “life” are blurred at best. I log in to my job at a desk that’s just feet from my bed. On breaks, I get the mail or put in a load of laundry. On lunch, I’ll run around the block a few times. Sometimes, I mix cookie dough while listening to an afternoon conference call.
Physically, work and life are no longer separated, for me and many others. In my house, work is always impinging on life — a Slack message arrives while the electrician is here fixing the wiring. And life is always interacting with work — a phone call from home, the squirrels I can see out the window, the temperature of the coffee in my cup. Sometimes, this means I’m distracted. But not always. It just means that my days aren’t partitioned into segments —now I’m working, now I’m living. They’re fluid and cohesive.
Even when I was in an office, life and work weren’t separated by clear lines — even though I had an hours-long commute on buses and trains between the two. How I spoke to a coworker impacted how I spoke to my husband. The way I sat in my desk chair affected how my back felt on an exercise bike later that evening. The articles I championed at the magazine were determined by my experiences outside of the office — and the conversations I had on the weekends were informed by what I was thinking about as an editor. I couldn’t stop “work” or “life” on the train, as I watched snow flurries streak by the window. I couldn’t break up my experience, myself, that way.
I understand why we want to separate work and life. We (in theory: again, I’ll believe it when I see it) don’t want to get obsessed with our careers. That’s not cool. We want to situate our identities elsewhere. If not, we’ll tolerate low wages or bad bosses. We’ll have too-high expectations of work, insisting it will absolutely fulfill us. This will make us sad. Even worse, we’ll have disdain for those who work jobs for any reason other than ambition or passion. These are all good reasons to downplay what we do for money and emphasize other activities.
And yet, to divide work from life is an artificial separation. We are living while we’re at work. We are taking breaths, getting hungry, getting sleepy, telling jokes, fighting off a cold, using our fingers to type on a keyboard. Most importantly, we’re making choices — about how we treat people, how we approach problems — that impact who we are, that have real ramifications for our souls. This requires us to approach work — no matter what we’re doing, building a software program or fixing a pipe or delivering mail or caring for children — with more seriousness and intentionality, and with more respect for ourselves.
It may be a simple idea. But partitioning our days into “work” and “life” doesn’t make much sense other than at the most literal level — especially if we define the mission of our existence more expansively. If we seek to be compassionate, or resourceful, or wise, those initiatives seep into every facet of our life, no matter what task is at hand.
3. Distinguishing “work” from “life” puts too much pressure on “life.”
If “work” is dull and tedious, a required text on an economics syllabus, then “life” is supposed to be a beach read. What did you do this weekend? we ask, hoping for music festivals, fishing trips, lavish dinners, and alpine getaways.
Every minute not working must be spent having fun — or else resting in a way that can be consumed on the internet. Reading a stack of library books with a steaming cup of coffee. Observing leaves on a walk. Having a “movie marathon.” Playing with an animal. Accidentally sleeping past an alarm, rising at last on Saturday morning with your hair in tangled knots and period cramps? Not appropriate for “life.” How about doing something disappointing — paying too much for gluey pasta, seeing a museum exhibit you hated, running late? Remove it from “life” immediately! Forget it ever happened. Feeling angry, sad, jealous, insecure? Nope. No time. “Life” is only two days a week, Saturday and Sunday, and they must be happy.
In reality, much of my time away from “work” is spent also working. I am cleaning, paying my credit card bill, purchasing Christmas presents, defrosting chicken, picking up a prescription, and filling up the car with gas. These activities are unspoken, though all of us do them. It’s just that the strict dichotomy of “work” (hard, serious, professional) and “life” (festive, joyous, free) leaves no room for sweeping dirt off the back patio, or waiting in line at the DMV. It also doesn’t make space for all of the work — parenting, caregiving for the elderly and sick, serving in a church or at a food bank — that isn’t compensated.
Honestly: Our loss. Because if we imbue these things, too, with dignity — the rhythms of each day, the nitty-gritty of relationships — we’ll find that life takes on more dimensions than work and play, required and optional. Life is all of it. It’s messy. It’s out of our hands. It’s the things we can expect and the things that we can’t. It’s all the ways that we contribute and are cared for, no matter where we are, and no matter what we are doing.
My book recommendation
What I’m reading: The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
What I think: Just started this book. I’m enjoying the way Wang situates her own experience of illness within clinical categories: “A diagnosis is comforting because it provides a framework, a community, a lineage… It says I am crazy, but in particular way.”
Something cool: Wang is the founder of The Unexpected Shape Community, which provides “resources for ambitious people living with limitations such as disability and chronic illness.”