Stop Trying to Achieve Work Life Balance!

work life balance

Nik Wallenda made history in June 2013 when he became the first man to cross a Grand Canyon-area gorge on a tightrope. But while admirable, his achievement is not the inspirational work-life balance lesson some people suggest. Why? Because it’s just not possible to sustain that kind of balance for a long time.

It took every ounce of the seventh-generation member of the famous Flying Wallendas high-wire family’s concentration, skill, and determination to complete the 22-minute crossing, 1,500 feet above the Little Colorado River Gorge. His walk was a continual series of careful adjustments, taking into account the wind, the weight of his bar, and the movement of the wire beneath his feet.

That kind of balance required all his training and all his talent, a level of intensity that can only be channeled into a specific goal. Few would even consider attempting it—yet many people are drawn to try a different kind of high-wire act that I believe is equally beyond them.

I’m talking about the work-life balance that we are so often told to pursue; the search term brings up almost 200,000 Google results. The idea is that if we try hard enough, we can keep everything in our life in good order and perfect harmony. We meet all our work obligations and responsibilities but never miss a family dinner or one of the kids’ games. No one is ever disappointed, and everything works out just fine.

It’s a worthy goal to aspire to; but let’s be honest, we’re not going to achieve it. Life just isn’t like that. There are too many factors beyond our control. Don’t forget Nik wouldn’t have stepped out if the conditions had been too bad. But you can’t always say no to things just because the timing isn’t the best, right? Work goals still have to be met. Children must be fed and cared for.

For many, the concept of work-life balance has become unhelpful. A general principle that should be encouraging has become a cast-iron rule that too often leaves people feeling frustrated, failures, guilty, or inadequate. It can also drive a wedge between couples who feel the other isn’t pulling their weight as they should.

Even the words of wisdom from the ancient Book of Ecclesiastes remind us that we can’t always hold things in perfect tension. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,” it declares. “A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted… a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up… a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together… a time to get, and a time to lose.” So let me be the one to give you permission to live life off-balance.

I’m not saying you should not be concerned about being the best worker, husband or wife, and parent that you can, all at the same time. But sometimes those demands don’t all line up equally the same. Here are five things to keep in mind as you live off-balance:

Be aware.

So far removed from the farms that grow much of our food, many of us have lost sight of the fact that the world has different seasons. But there is a natural order and rhythm to things. Maybe your work situation is demanding more of your time and attention right now; it’s easier to handle if you have a sense that it will come to an end. But if it’s a long-term or an unending level of time, maybe you need to reevaluate it. Perhaps health struggles or issues with children require more of you at home during a season. Be aware that different seasons demand different time commitments in different areas of your life.

Be united.

It’s easier to cope with challenges in life when you and your spouse are united. For example, if you both agree that work opportunities need to take a back seat for a season to family concerns, you won’t have so much tension over one spouse feeling like they missed out on a career advancement opportunity. How to Be a Team Player in Your Home looks at ways to develop shared vision and a common purpose.

Be prepared.

With a clear perspective on how a coming season fits into the bigger picture of your family life, you are better situated to minimize the negative potential impact on your family. For instance, if you are an accountant, you know that tax season will mean long hours at the office, so “store up” investments in your marriage and family ahead of time to see them through your absence. Afterwards, be sensitive to any “dry spots” you may need to water. Consider these 6 ways your marriage can thrive in a busy season.

Be present.

So-called work-life balance can feel a bit like a juggling act, keeping all those balls in the air. Like tightrope walkers, even the best jugglers can only keep everything aloft for so long. So whatever you’re doing, focus on that without juggling and without distraction. If you’re with your kids, put the phone down and stop checking your work emails. If you’re fully “there” when you can be, it will be easier for them to let you go when you need to. A previous blog about how to Be Present, Not Balanced might give you some helpful ideas.

Be creative.

You may not be able to eliminate the pull on one end of your rope, but there might be ways to reduce the tug. One time when I had to travel to Washington D.C., I took one of my daughters out of school to accompany me. I tacked a day onto the end of the trip so we could explore our nation’s capital together—a shared adventure she still remembers. I tried to be very intentional about including my kids on work trips when I was able. I know of others that include their kids in work activities as well. When he was general manager for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mark Dominik told me how he took his young son with him to training camp on Saturday mornings during the demanding period of the season. Making the most of the time became a valued tradition.

So work hard to find ways to include your kids in your work, in your workouts, and other daily and weekend activities.

How does it feel to be allowed to live off-balance? What can you do to live off-balance well? Share your thoughts here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.