The Work-Life Imbalance

Often I come across an article or a quiz asking me to examine my “work-life balance.” It’s a term we should have all encountered by now – whether in a magazine, an HR seminar, even in a casual dinner conversation. To nod your head and affirm, “Of course, I have a great work-life balance,” carries a sense of pride as if you’re really saying “Yeah, I’ve got it all together.” But what defines a work-life balance? Must the parts always be equal to keep the scales from tipping too far in one direction?

We spend the majority of our waking hours working in some capacity. In the best case scenario, only 40 hours of our week is spent in a formal work environment, but what about all of those evening and weekend emails, phone calls and “emergency projects” that cut into the little time we’re already given for “life?” Such tasks sneak extra weight onto the “work” side of the scale and can lead to an imbalance we don’t even know exists.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve taken more notice to how I’ve been chipping away at my free time by choosing to do a several minutes of work-related tasks here and there. Even just a few minutes can turn into hours over the course of a week. For example, I try to finish up my last work project of the day no later than 6pm. But while I enjoy dinner and a little bit of television, my mind is still very much on work. If I hear the chirp of an email – I answer it. And so this persists throughout the evenings and into the weekends. My best estimate is that on average, I burden myself with an additional 7-10 hours of work each week beyond what’s expected or demanded. When all added up, that’s a full day! A day in which I could have taken a road trip, enjoyed the beautiful fall weather or simply decompressed. And while these off-hour emails may help progress work, they put a major halt on life.

Back when I wrote about The Two-Day Truce, I urged everyone to resist the urge to do unnecessary work on the weekends because it only causes the recipients of the emails to feel the pressure to respond. Essentially it takes away from everyone’s weekend. I have gotten better about not being a weekend warrior with work, but I realized an even bigger problem. We’re so trained to work, we do it without even knowing it. Consciously we may feel like we’re living a pretty balanced life, but really our scales are so off kilter they’re nearly falling over altogether.

I couldn’t tell you how many times a day I check my phone for new emails, especially after “work hours.” I’m not sure I would want to know. By proactively checking for emails and refreshing my inbox, I’m looking for work to do instead of enjoying that other component that should fill our time – life. A true Work-Life Balance is so much more than saying you leave your office or close your laptop at 6pm. Chances are we’re very accessible to work during any of the hours in between. But when we’re at work are we this accessible to life? Every week’s schedule is different and there’s no doubt that there will be some weeks that demand an imbalanced share of our time for work. The key is to find the balance not every day or every week, but over the long run.

The Work-Life Balance may not be so much about balance after all. Maybe it’s more about flexibility and our openness to work more when we absolutely have to, but to also seize extra moments of “life” when the opportunity should arise. If you can’t close down by 6pm tonight, don’t sweat it, but plan for some extra relaxing time in your schedule later this weekend to make up for the difference and realign the balance!

What about you. Is your work-life balanced…flexible…or somewhat of both?

13 thoughts on “The Work-Life Imbalance

  1. This is a critical topic for us all. I asked the same thing in a post on my blog a few months ago. Work encroaches on our private time (via technology) but private time encroaches equally on our work (via social media). I think the real problem is that we are ON now all the time. When did all this actually start? I hope the inclusion of my blog post will add to the conversation (although it will also likely dump me in your spam box!)

    1. Doug – I really like that you brought up how social media enables our private time to encroach on our work time. I know I experience that almost every day. It’s nice that technology allows different areas of our life to overlap seamlessly, but in certain circumstances this causes a disaster for time management.

  2. I think I’ve somewhat given up on the idea of a completely balanced work-life scenario. I think I just try to balance it out especially when there are days when I have to complete a project and it needs more time. I then take some extra time to rest. I’ve also realized that I also tend to be ON all the time like Doug mentioned in the previous reply. I’m learning not to reply to every email or text as well as to even minimize my time on social media. Somedays are better than others when I’m not on autopilot but most days I have consciously tell myself to disconnect.

    1. As frustrating as it can be when technology doesn’t work in your favor (a broken phone or internet that won’t connect) I’ve found these moments give me the excuse to disconnect even for a few minutes and enjoy the silence. I think for many of us we almost have to be forced to disconnect to really appreciate it for what it can be.

      1. YES I agree. What I will say though is that having a baby will also give you an excuse. ;). I’ve had to disconnect when I’m with my son not only to give him my undivided attention but also because with him now walking, he gets into everything and if I turn away for too long, he’s into something. :). But it’s good when I don’t feel obligated to be ON all the time. This is just one of those areas where I INTENTIONALLY put an effort into taking back some of my quiet moments just for sanity’s sake.

  3. I’m generally very strict about the balance of work and life. I firmly believe that work should be cut off after the 8hr shift of the day. Evenings and weekends should be for relaxation, quality time with loved ones, hobbies, etc.
    Lately, I’ve been working pretty much around the clock. Why? Because my JOB isn’t my WORK. I have a job for survival, but I have to work to satisfy my passion. In order to transition to being a full time writer, I have to put in time (from my FREE time) to get words on paper, because it’s not my job to do so. It sucks, but this is what it is. This will likely be the case for the next 2 years or so, as I labor on a short story collection and a few novels.
    I’m thinking one thing I can do is set some limits. At a certain time, I have to just cut it off. I may actually have to make my writing hours something obscene like midnight to 2am or 5am to 7am so I have time to spend JUST RELAXING with my partner.

    1. This is the dilemma almost every entrepreneur or business owner can closely relate to. I know I still haven’t found the magic solution for making a living off of doing what I love and having a stable schedule. It seems those two ideas are always in contrast–it’s one or the other. Maybe, someday I’ll get there 🙂

  4. Great article Stephanie! It can be difficult for those of us who work freelance or are working for ourselves to find an appropriate balance. The line between work and nonwork time can be blurred if you create your own schedule and monitor your own tasks. I find that I am mostly “ON” but find certain specific set times where I disconnect, literally and figuratively. For instance, going to yoga class is my time to turn “OFF” from work. I don’t bring my phone and fully enjoy my practice and my drive to and from the studio in “OFF” mode.

  5. Great article. I wish work-life balance were easier to manage. rracho’s comment about freelancers and the self employed is spot on. There are times when my work IS my life. I have to drag myself away from my computer or whatever project I’m struggling with — and I’m learning, day by day, the value of the small push as opposed to the big push — the small one being a step forward, the big one being a push past my own resources and exhausting myself. Balance is the key!

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