I’m writing on my new laptop. Flipping it open, my screen lights up in an instant. With its metal curves and smooth surfaces, it feels like a racing car. As I type, it’s like I’ve tapped into a future that is smarter and far more efficient than the scattered papers and book-strewn desk it sits upon.
My computer suggests the world can be ordered and effortlessly smooth, as neat as this onscreen desktop.
From the structured worlds of our smartphones, to cars that reverse and park themselves, we’re surrounded by tools that emphasize efficiency above all else. And with them has come the delusion that we should be just as efficient in our own daily multi-tasking.
This is why so many of us are seduced the concept that one might be able to find a “work-life balance.” It’s an idea that sells millions of self-help books promising a life free of disorder, stress, late-night emails and raising children who barely recognize us when we tuck them in bed and say goodnight.
However, unlike an electric car that has achieved the very specific skill of reaching 200 miles per hour, our brains have, for very good reasons, evolved into messy, broad-stroke generalists rather than single-skill specialists. With such brains, perfect balance to be found between any two aspects of our lives will always be illusive.
The practical and emotional skills needed to raise a child; learn to play the trombone; keep a friendship for decades; adapt to a debilitating illness or study a new language demand the kinds of brains humans have been evolving for millennia. And yet we cling to the idea that if only we got up an hour earlier to get to the gym then our lives would feel more “even.”
Instead of the disappointment this hope inevitably brings, it is far better to acknowledge our human messiness. Here are three less sexy, but better concepts to aim for than the ultimately unachievable “work-life balance.”
- Accept the seesaw
Whether you are building a new career or starting a family, big life changes mean we need to postpone or have less of those parts of our lives that get in the way of this goal. We may not see our partner quite so much as we’re still at our desks at 8 p.m. when we start a new job, for instance. We can console ourselves with the knowledge that when we get that promotion in a year or two we will be able to set our own schedule and be home earlier each day. Understand that sometimes gratification needs to be deferred, but plan ahead for what you need to compensate for all those late hours you’re spending at the office now—both for yourself and for your loved ones.
Give up on the idea of balance, just don’t give up on the need to find the space to relax, reflect and enjoy your relationships. You might have less time for them now, but you do have some time. When our careers are less important to us, in mid-life and beyond, we can find the space to spend more time immersed with our loved ones, collecting football memorabilia or learning to play the piano. Look at those non-work things you really want to do, and figure out what you have time for now, and what you’re happy to wait on.
- Stop taking time “off”
Time off always means time spent away from your work. What if we refer to this instead as “time on?” Time on to see friends. Time on to go to the movies. Time on to check out that hip new bar that’s just opened nearby. These two words make your personal time the most important time in your week. Who needs work life balance when instead of living to work you find yourself working to live?