The evolution of the Work/Life Balance MYTH

Work Life Balance.  For decades it has been the rallying cry of Human Resource departments, enlightened executives, and overworked employees alike, all trying to find relief to this pervasive stress. 

As technology changed, so has the idea of work life balance.  Originally it was considered as simple as making people go home at 5pm and turning off their pagers and phones.  “More time with the kids,” they’d say, “and, less time worrying about the office!”  This sounded like a simple solution but, unfortunately, the reality of many businesses in the global economy is that key personnel are needed to be ‘plugged’ in all the time. 

There was an unexpected side effect of trying to force the balance as well.  Increased stress and anxiety!  Ambitious executives would worry about what they were missing when unplugged and a social sub-culture of ‘always available’ became the norm instead. At least for anyone who wanted to go up the corporate ladder, those who sought the ‘balance’ were not considered hard working enough to get the corner office.

So, the simple solution didn’t work.

Part of the reason that the balance didn’t succeed was because of the segregation of work and life combined with the expectations of a 40+hour work week.  By locking in one of the two binary states of ‘working’ and ‘living’ it meant that the balance could only go one way.  In other words, I am needed to be available for work during my ‘life’ hours, but my ‘life’ hours cannot interfere with my work.

Modern companies have been finding creative ways around this problem.  Four-day work weeks, telecommuting, and flex-time are all examples that attempt to allow employees to shift between the two binary states more quickly and with more flexibility.  In some upstart tech companies, they have gone even further to the edge with no scheduled work hours and unlimited vacation time.  The jury is still out on how sustainable that kind of culture is for the rest of us.

It does, however, mirror a key concept of my Workflow Mastery Program. 

Don’t try to keep separate task lists for work and for your home life. 

In David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”, he talks about the need to gather 100% of your ‘incompletes’ in order to get to stress-free productivity.  Any task that you attach a ‘must’ or a ‘should’ to becomes an incomplete in your mind.  If this incomplete task is not safely recorded on your task list, it gets recorded in your psyche!  And every task that is ONLY kept in your mind will cause you anxiety and stress every time you think about it.   Which, of course, will be whenever you can’t do anything about it.

So, if you only focus on keeping your work task list up to date then your mind will be forced to remember all the ‘home life’ things that you ‘should’ be doing.  So, while you are at your board meeting or writing that critical report, you may suddenly remember that you need to paint the deck and feel a productivity-draining flush of anxiety. 

This isn’t just a theory either.  Once I started keeping a ‘master’ list of things I needed to do, I found my anxiety over work dropping dramatically and my productivity increasing.  As a financial manager who struggled with work life balance for many years, I started to realize that the struggle was part of the problem.  By forcing myself to choose between work and life, I was creating a whole other list of ‘should’ and ‘ought to’ problems. 

Balance wasn’t obtained by separating the two lives equally.  It was obtained by merging the two lives into one, at least mentally.   

Part of my problem was seeing the work life balance as a struggle.  Work stress, I was convinced, was inherently bad.  It would cause anxiety, unhappiness, and a host of health issues that would someday kill me.  As it turns out, at least according to a University of Wisconsin School of Medicine study, my perception of the stress is what would kill me!

I suppose I should explain that. 

You see, that study showed that people who were experiencing large amounts of stress were 43% more likely to die prematurely.  This likely doesn’t surprise anyone.  The big shock for me was the fact that only people who believed that this increased stress was bad for them died.  Others, with equal amounts of reported stress, but who didn’t believe it was bad for them, showed no increased risk of death.

So, it’s a case of Mind over Matter.  If you don’t Mind, it doesn’t Matter.

Now, I know that where you work will have a large impact on how much you can safely balance yourself on the spectrum of work and home.  A lot of employers are pushing too much work on their staff, and others have a culture of being workaholics.  It has become a badge of honour in many workplaces to ‘brag’ about how overworked and busy you are. 

So, to summarize. 

  1. The old solutions for work life balance didn’t work.  (go home and turn off your phone)
  2. The newer solutions are trying to manage transitions quicker.  (4-hour work week, flex time, telecommuting)
  3. Cutting Edge solutions are eliminating the barrier between work and home life entirely. (unlimited vacation, no scheduled work hours) 
  4. To reduce stress and increase productivity put ALL your incomplete tasks on a single master list combining work and home life. 
  5. Don’t worry so much about the stress.  It won’t kill you unless you believe it will.

If you found this post interesting, please forward it along to others via email or share it on Facebook or Twitter.  If you have come across any other interesting solutions for a work life balance feel free to comment below!  Perhaps we can all work together to get our respective workplace cultures changed. 

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