Open up Forbes, head over to HBR, or scroll through Thrive Global, and you’ll see plenty of pieces discussing burnout. People are working long hours and neglecting their health. Workers are answering emails at 12 AM and skipping vacation. Employees aren’t taking advantage of health programs and sitting for too long.
The solution? Work-life balance. The answer, according to so many sources, is to simply scale back your life-draining work and up your dose of healthy living. Sleep a bit more and check email a bit less. Split your weeks up into nice tidy sections: work, family, leisure. On the surface, it appears to be exactly what the doctor ordered. Who doesn’t need a bit more balance?
But this approach is riddled with problems that only make us feel more fatigued and less motivated. Here are 3 reasons why this approach hurts and what to do instead.
1. Work is Deeply Connected To Life
The primary issue with focusing on work-life balance is that we’re pinning our life against our work. By saying we need to do more of x and less of y, we’re effectively saying that one is not connected to the other. But we know this isn’t true. Our work is, in fact, a primary part of who we are, why we exist, and how we serve. Our work isn’t separate from our life—it’s a part of our life.
When we try to rip these two apart we simply create a false dichotomy between them: choose work or choose life. This is not only harmful, it’s impossible.
2. Work is Not Inherently Bad, Evil, or Harmful
When we pin our work against our life we’re (subconsciously) making a judgment call on what is good and what is bad. When we’re stressed it must be that we’re simply working too much or too hard. When we’re relaxed it must be that we’re taking enough breaks, signing-off by 6 PM and not checking email on the weekends.
Work is bad; life is good.
This is far too simplistic. Perhaps we’re stressed because of how we’re approaching work—not how much we’re working? Perhaps we’re fatigued because we’re not living a life connected to our values? Or perhaps we’re worried because of family member’s health that has nothing to do with our work? There are lots of reasons that we could be feeling a bit disconnected, worried, or just burned out. While our brains enjoy the simplistic answer of blaming our work, it’s likely our approach to our daily activity that is the true problem at hand.
3. Harmony Helps Us Flourish; Balance Leaves Us Stuck
Some days you won’t leave the office at 5 PM. Some days you won’t get your morning workout routine in. And some days you’ll get interrupted from your work and be asked to answer the urgent. Sound familiar? This is life. The fluidity of the day and unpredictably of the week is not going to change. But our approach can and should change. Instead of looking at your day and thinking you can control the hours into nice segments of time, consider your values each morning. Reflect on what matters to you and why.
Is it responsibility and responsiveness? Then your answer to an urgent call from your boss is a natural extension of your value system—not an annoyance you must endure. Do you value physical fitness? Then putting your phone down over lunch so you can get in a 30-minute walk shouldn’t leave you feeling guilty—but aligned.
Of course, we all have a myriad of values that we must sort through on any given day. The pivotal part is shifting our self-talk in the midst of our daily choices. Specifically, we should practice saying, “I choose to” instead of “I have to.”
This practice reminds us that our choices are not passive but active. We have a choice when we answer that email, pick-up the phone, or file another expense report. We choose to go into the office early or take a long lunch. And those choices—if they reflect our values—will help us live a life that is aligned and not segmented. We’ll be less focused on balance and more focused on harmony.
We’ll begin to flourish.
(This piece is part of an ongoing series celebrating Summit: Aileron’s yearly conference that helps leaders connect their hearts to their minds. Contributing writers are keynote speakers at this year’s Summit.)