The Myth of Work-Life Balance

Why it's harder than ever to separate work and life

Tim is a full-time employee at an ad-agency in Baltimore. Everyday at 5:45am, he showers, shaves, and brushes his teeth. He wears ironed clothes and a tie—then works for eight hours with a 45 minute lunch. At 4:50pm, he packs up and drives home. He won’t think about or touch work until tomorrow. At least that's what his wife wishes. He brings work home all the time.

I bring my work home

My life isn't exactly like Tim's, but I do bring work home, and so does my wife. I sometimes wish I could separate work and home life, but since I have the ability to work from anywhere, I often work from my house. I believe it’s good to leave work at work, and home at home. But these days, it is harder than ever to really do.

Not only does my immediate family use texts, email, and social media to communicate, but my coworkers do, too. It’s hard to keep it all straight. I’m know I’m not the only one who occasionally gets a text from my spouse during work meetings, and emails from colleagues during dinner with my spouse. Why am I checking email during dinner with my wife? Not sure—I’m working on this!

I wish things were simpler, but they’re not. In our interconnected culture, a speedy reply communicates professionalism and respect. When someone is slow, it’s perceived as lazy, delayed, and unacceptable. (In my ideal world, a slow response would be perceived as more professional, but that’s not the world we live in.)

Interconnectivity is the new normal, and we’re figuring out how to make it all work. None of us have it completely mastered, and when we finally do—or think we do—technology changes. A new app emerges, a new product wins the market, we start over.

What is the work-life balance myth?

The work-life balance myth is believing that work and life are two separate things.

They’re not. Work will always be part of life. Period.

Work and home can be two separate things, but work and life is a false dichotomy. But since it’s easier than ever to work from home, even work-home life balance is hard to distinguish. Are you working when you’re thinking about an upcoming meeting in the shower? Are you “home-ing” when you confirm dinner plans during the workday?

I propose that we use the term “work life—home life balance” but it’s unlikely to catch on. Work life—home life balance is a real thing on both sides of the spectrum. We have to figure out the best ways to handle home life information during the work day, and work life information when we arrive home.

My wife is a school teacher

My wife, Hope, teaches preschool. We currently don’t have children. We’re newly married and finding what works for us at work and home.

She’s not “required” to read or respond to email after-hours, but it often makes her next day easier if she does. She can reply to parents’ questions and stay current with her coworkers. It’s a normal part of her job. If she didn’t reply to email and texts from home, she’d have a lot pile up quickly. Some teachers would say it’s impossible to do it all during the work day.

The other evening, we were about to go to bed when she checked her email. (She uses Outlook for iPhone, which is a GREAT app, by the way.) She received an email saying some important documents would be due sooner than she expected. While I wish the sender would have used Boomerang (an email scheduling app that allows you to schedule send times), it pinged her inbox around 10pm. It made getting to sleep a little difficult.

Instead of winding down, work life entered our home life. (I can only imagine how much MORE stressful this would be with children!) She told me why this was a surprise, what this would mean for her next few days, and that it stressed her out a little. And I was OK with this! (Still am.)

My wife’s work is a part of our life together!

Maybe I’m the exception, but I love my spouse’s job. I enjoy hearing about her day and learning what new things she’s up to. It allows her to process her day and plan for her week. It allows me to know what she's dealing with and know why she's feeling a certain way. Her job is an important part of our marriage.

I recognize that not all marriages are like this. For instance, I can imagine some are frustrated with the demands and expectations of their spouse’s job and wish their lives were different. But in my case, Hope and I share a healthy understanding about each other’s work. We recognize that we were uniquely made with talents and abilities and that it’s a blessing to GET to do them every day—and be compensated. We don’t have to go to work, we get to go to work.

No matter what my wife chooses to do, supporting her means listening, discussing, and being truly interested in her stuff. Right now, that’s her job as a preschool teacher.

So… why doesn’t she just leave work at work? Well, for the most part she does! She’s not “always working,” even though she occasionally has to prepare lesson plans and write detailed reports that cause our entire sofa and coffee table to be covered in purple folders and papers. If she completely separated her work from our relationship, I’d feel left out, and I’d have less things to laugh and joke with her about. I don’t know absolutely everything about her job (nor do I don’t really want to), but I know about the big stuff. It’s a part of our life together.

Why don’t you just not check email after work? Most of the time, after-hour emails only require quick responses, which can make the next day easier. I don't condemn her for checking her phone at home. Personally, I know I need to check email less, but I’m not going to impose my goal on others. Each workplace is different and come with different communication strategies. Each of our “tolerance levels” are different, too. Some people can handle 1,000 unread emails in their inbox, where others can barely tolerate 3 (???????? this is me. I practice Inbox Zero).

Work is a GOOD word

We’ve made “work” into a negative word in our culture. This is probably because some people can’t stop working, and they prioritize their job at the expense of family, personal health, and relationships. That’s probably not a good idea. Trying to completely rule out work from the home environment, probably isn’t the best idea either. There's no perfect solution for this. We must each figure out where the boundaries lie.

Home life affects work life and vice versa

When I meet with business executives and leaders, I know notice that their home life has a direct impact on their attitude and perspective at work. On the other hand, if work is unhealthy and negative, it can have a harmful impact on life at home.

A few ideas

  1. Try a new perspective. If you dread your job (or someone else’s job), grab a sheet of paper. Draw a line down the center. On the left side, write down all of the things that job allows you to do. On the right side, list all of the things you hate. Try to give thanks for the benefits (left side), and simply recognize the drawbacks. When we write things down and identify them, it allows us to process life in a new way.

  2. Modify your reputation. If you have a reputation for being super responsive, you may be making your life more stressful than it needs to be. If you don’t want to handle email after-hours, don’t. Let important people know your “office hours” and stick to them. Don’t apologize for delayed responses.

  3. Keep a non-reachable proximity from your phone and tech gear. The farther away it is, the harder it is to reach, meaning your attention will be what’s right in front of you, rather than a new notification.

Question: How do you deal with the balance between work and home life? You can leave a comment by clicking here.