Why Work Life “__________” Needs More Than Just A “B” Word

Bigstock Images

Bigstock Images

It seems like there is always a desire to describe the essence of a concept, philosophy, movement, culture, or societal ill as succinctly as possible. In our sound-byte driven world, having just the right catchphrase for one of the afore-mentioned situations gets attention from others. “Knowledge worker,” “millennials,” “#metoo” and the “experience economy” are four that quickly come to mind.

Sometimes, however, these phrases don’t work as well. Take “time management” for instance. According to Amy Bourne in A Brief History of Time Management, she writes that we first began looking at the need to manage our time as a civilization as early as 4000 BC with the Mesopotamians. Benjamin Franklin added to the concept with his idea that “Time is money.” In 1959 James McKay formalized the idea of time management even further with his book, The Management Of Time.

The irony is that the phrase isn’t completely accurate. Charlie Gilkey says it best when he writes, “Money can be managed. People can be managed. Schedules can be managed. Time can only be accounted for.” We still use the phrase, however, because it’s the best way to quickly describe the concept.


I look at the ongoing discussions about “work life balance” in a similar way. While the term is a good placeholder for the idea of….well… managing your time to desired outcomes, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Articles like Why Work Life Balance Is A Load Of Crap call the term “a lovely little lie that’s infiltrated our vernacular” and go on to talk about how there’s no way to find such an equilibrium between work and life.

I personally use the term “work life balance” when describing my training around the topic. My solution for helping people with the struggle of too much to do is built on the idea of managing your work and life like a circus, so when people question the use of the word balance, I call their attention to a high-wire trapeze artist. While they must maintain a sense of balance to get to their desired destination, they are frequently moving their arms or a pole they are holding to help maintain that balance. My point is that balance is not some artificial state you can predictably create, but rather a dynamic environment you have to pay attention to and make adjustments as needed. So it works for me.

Balance is not some artificial state you can predictably create, but rather a dynamic environment you have to pay attention to and make adjustments as needed.

Other words have surface to better describe the process one should use to win this battle of too much to do. They include:

An insightful read on work life blend is Forget Work Life Balance: Aim For Blend Instead by Rebecca Fraser-Thill. She writes, “In a work life blend model, life and work are seen as consistent and symbiotic, with work viewed as a genuine part of life.” She writes that they should be allies and not adversaries, and I couldn’t agree more. I’m convinced that all three areas of our life (I call it the 3 rings of “self,” “relationships,” and “work”) must all be a daily focus if we are to achieve meaningful success in any of them.

Interestingly, she later quotes Mitch Joel, who said: “Life is a stool that has three legs-personal, community, and work-and all three need to be equally strong to in order to have a fulfilling life.” Hmmm… “Equally strong?” Sounds a little like balance to me.

The word “blur” seems to have become more common due to the changing nature of work for all of us, especially the millennials. With blurred lines for starting and stopping work, there aren’t the strong distinctions that used to be in place. According to a survey by the APA, six in working Americans respond to personal communications during work hours and five out of 10 report regularly responding to work communication during personal time. And those numbers would certainly be higher for people like small business owners, entrepreneurs, and solopreneurs.

While blur may describe what we have allowed the situation to become, it doesn’t seem like an effective model for evaluating how well you are managing the blend or balance within your life.

The best alternative description I’ve seen for describing the essence of what we are striving for is the word “boundaries.” Barrett Cordero explains the idea so well in his article, Why Setting Work-Life Boundaries Is More Important Than Striving For Work-Life Balance. He writes, “What is work supposed to be anyway? Some 24-hour day evenly segmented into eight hours for work, sleep, and family time? This balanced concept is unrealistic, and chasing some illusory sense of ‘balance’ only leads to increasing the stress you’re supposed to be decreasing by being balanced.” Bravo!

In his article Cordero cites Ellen Kossek’s work on creating work life boundaries, and how we have choices about how we set boundaries. Kossek’s three include:

  • Separator (Think traditional work/life separation)
  • Integrator (Blend work and personal time throughout the day)
  • Cycler (Heavy work and then heavy time off)

I still see a connection to the idea of balance because in each one of these scenarios you are seeking to find balance over a period of a day, week, month, or year. You also have the need to “blend” these in some way to get the outcomes you want.

Which Approach Is Best?

None of these approaches, in my opinion, will get you to the best version of yourself and the life you most want to have. The real work to be done is to STOP trying to find a methodology and take a deeper look at what you’re trying to accomplish with any of  your time. Answering questions like:

  • What is my purpose?
  • What fulfills me?
  • Am I flourishing or just maintaining the status quo?
  • What does living life in alignment with my highest values look like?

John Coleman, in his brilliant article, The Crucial Thing Missing From The Work Life Balance Debate, affirms the value of going deeper than balance, blend, blur, or boundaries. He writes, “The questions then become: What does flourishing and fulfillment look like for me? Where do I find meaning? What makes me happy-at work or at home? And what matters enough-whether children or a professional cause-that I am willing to sacrifice for it? Asking these questions assure that any conversation about balance actually centers us on something fulfilling.”


So What?

In his company, Big Speak, Cordero has a company policy that all employees strive to be 100 percent present at work and 100 percent present at home. That may be the biggest litmus test for any of us in this whole work life balance discussion. If we aren’t finding that we are functioning at 100 percent in all aspects of our life, something needs to change. And whether we believe better balance, boundaries, blends, or blurs can help us, we’re right.

The question is, How will you manage yourself (not time) differently to achieve more of what’s most important to you?


Jones Loflin is a global keynote speaker offering innovative strategies for individuals and organizations struggling with too much to do. He is the author of several books, including Always Growing and the award-winning Juggling Elephants. Jones is well-known for his solutions for individuals, groups and businesses on leadership development, work-life satisfaction, and change. To learn more about Jones, go to www.jonesloflin.com.