The irony of work-life balance

People seem to be very interested in work-life balance. I guess that’s because it is something many of us lack and don’t know how to get. There are numerous studies on the topic, and on the strategies people use in their quest to find it, but still, many have so little of it.

I once saw a TV documentary on how to find happiness. Barbara Ehrenreich (whose books I can recommend, especially Nickel and Dimed) was interviewed as an expert on happiness – or rather the cultural obsession with happiness. What she basically said was that you’re not going to find happiness if that is all you are looking for. She talked about the importance of meaning in what you do and quoted Freud, saying that really it’s about losing yourself in your work, and when you do that then you can feel content and fulfilled, and in other words happy.

This really resonated with me, and I saw parallels to the search for work-life balance. Work-life balance is symptomatic of something else, and as we try to fix the lack of balance in our lives, we’re not actually getting to the root of the problem. The problem is the structures, working cultures, and corporate norms that are prevalent today. They make it hard to have a holistic view of life and career and to combine work with other areas of life.

After I opted out, I no longer so acutely felt a lack of balance in my life even though I was working a lot and at all hours of the day (and night whenever I had deadlines to meet). I could really lose myself in my work, and it automatically solved my lack of work-life balance. And yes, in case you are wondering, I still sometimes feel a lack of balance when I have too much to do or I am feeling stressed, because opting out does not obliterate all stress. But when I do feel a lack of balance, I know it is only temporary and not a chronic problem.

This is also closely related to time management.

Every once in a while I’m asked if I can recommend a good book on time management. I know nothing about time management, nor do I know of any good books on the subject. I have a vague recollection of being offered to take a course in time management a long time ago in my previous career. Needless to say I didn’t take the course. I remember having the feeling that no matter how many time management courses my colleagues took, or how many books they read on the subject, they still didn’t have enough time.

However, I do know enough about time to know that time management, like work-life balance, doesn’t actually get to the root of the problem. The experience of not having enough time doesn’t really correlate with there not being enough time, nor of not being structured enough in one’s use of one’s time. It’s a symptom of something else.

People feel they don’t have enough time when they don’t feel they have control over their time, and in today’s hectic working culture this is often the case. People don’t feel like they have control. In my research I have seen that the feeling of not having enough time becomes less of a problem when one can create a lifestyle where one can decide over one’s time and how one uses it. After opting out, people often create lifestyles and ways of working where they have more control over their lives and the use of their time (for example when they work and when they spend time with their children or doing other things, not necessarily how much time they spend doing all this). This feeling of control is, in turn, closely related to a sense of coherence, which then leads to a feeling of happiness and contentment.

So no, I have no books on time management, but I do have a good book on time that I can recommend:

Unwinding the Clock: Ten Thoughts on Our Relationship to Time (original title: Tio tankar om tid) by Bodil Jönsson

4 thoughts on “The irony of work-life balance

  1. Oh boy, I have the book by Bodil Jönsson. Actually, I heard her being interviewed at the Academic Bookstore in Helsinki many years ago on her book, which of course I bought and had her dedication written into it. Jönsson is (was) a professor on theoretical physics or equivalent at Chalmers i Gothenburg. Which means she’s really into analyzing complex issues. She gives you no answers on her subject, but puts a lot into perspective. My personal insight from this book: why time goes faster when you’re getting older. This also gives you an understanding why you ‘never’ have enough time.

    I have also found that when you try to do as much as possible during the day you might fail. It’s because you focus on what to do and not on the amount of time you have at hand. Focusing on time means you will be chunking down automatically.

    Experiment on this: Think on how much you will get done in one hour. When you efficiently use this one hour you will achieve a lot, or at least you get a good start of something. This means chunking down, and focusing on the time you have at hand and not on the amount of work still un done. Which motivates you more?

    But now I must pick up my personal Jönsson from the bookshelf! Merry Christmas and all that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Yvonne for your comment and for your time experiment! I’m a big fan of breaking things down into manageable chunks. I also think I need to reread Jönsson’s book! Merry Christmas!


  2. Pingback: The search for happiness | the opting out blog

  3. Pingback: Who wants balance anyway? | the opting out blog

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