I’ve never been totally ok with the term “work-life balance”.  To me, it signals that work is as big as life itself, not a part of our existing one.  And, since we seem to have coined the phrase out of a need to put work in its place, why would we give it a life of its own?

Work does have a unique place in our lives, given it is the context where many of us spend so many waking hours. 

But I’m about to show you that the real issue with the term “work/life balance” is not even the “work/life” part, but that last bit.  The “balance” part.

We have long grappled with the issue of managing work and “the rest” of our lives.  If you can stretch your minds for a moment, consider that work/life balance became a “thing” in the 80s, when phones still rang (and were heavy as bowling balls) and messages came in only as fast as someone could write them down for you.  It’s hard to imagine that life at that speed could cause us to be concerned that things were out of balance, but it did.

The Impact of Technology on Work-Life Balance

There is a range of challenges that make it difficult to strike that elusive balance, but technology’s influence on our lives is a biggie.  

Inboxes take a new form almost on a weekly basis (thanks to Slack, Teams, and Google Hangouts, to name a few).  And work seeps into our consciousness well outside of our working hours.  

As a result, in today’s technological world, rather than choosing to work late, start early, or through the weekends, it seems more and more we must choose not to…

The Fallacy of “Balance” of Work and Life

Trying to “balance” work and life is like trying to hold two buckets of water completely still while riding a unicycle.  Imagine all that energy spent, holding your body upright, legs perpetually spinning beneath you, worrying about all that water sloshing around.  It is exhausting and a setup for failure.  

In the economy of knowledge workers, the real challenge is that work/life balance occurs almost entirely inside our minds.  In our brains, those two buckets of work and life slosh around, spill, and mix with one another, leaving us frazzled and with a perpetual sense that we are failing at something in one of the buckets.

Further, the “new normal” workplace has yet to be defined.  (And I would argue, likely never will, because our world is constantly changing. 

Due to this constant flux and the nonstop flow of information into our consciousness, it is time to let go of the idea of “work-life balance”.  

The Work-Life Filter

What we need today is a work/life filter, not balance.  

Work/life balance is about holding all parts of life, frantically picking one up and putting another down.  It is about assuming all those parts have an equal value to us all the time and trying to hold everything; not dropping anything.

In applying a work/life filter, we choose what we let in and what we leave behind; what to protect and what to let go of; what to share of ourselves, and what to hold sacred and private.  Sometimes things bleed into one another.  Sometimes we must stop that bleeding.  We are always at choice about it, but we need to develop strong inner wisdom to lead that life we desire: the one where we are present and intentional about what we are doing.

In a nutshell, work-life balance is about doing things.  A healthy work-life filter is about being.

Still not sure what it looks like to have a work/life filter instead of work/life balance?

Life with a healthy work/life filter means to:

  1. Consciously choose what thoughts and feelings flow into other areas of your life.
  2. Recognize we are on a lifelong path to reach our potential.  We do our best with the time and tools we have, always—even when it feels in the moment like we are failing miserably.
  3. See the gifts that work gives us and feel grateful for those.  
  4. Protect time to refresh, be creative, and care for our bodies, minds, and souls.  Not just so we become better workers, but better humans.
  5. Align our choices to our values; our values to our choices.
  6. Get to the bottom of what chafes us about others’ requests, address dysfunctional patterns without lingering in judgment, and move on and away from them.
  7. State needs without apology.
  8. Know when it is ok to yield, momentarily, on one of those needs in order to serve a greater purpose.
  9. Know when you have been yielding too much and take action accordingly.  
  10. Recognize that even when it feels like work is choosing for us, it is always us who are in charge.  Choice can always be found, and then made.

It’s time to get away from framing work/life balance as an issue of “doing” things—time-boxing, multi-tasking, creative scheduling, and checking things off lists.  

Instead, let’s take the time to work on what’s inside, selecting the right filter between these two spaces that will serve your success, fulfillment, and long-term wellbeing.  

Wendy Hultmark, CPC, ACC, is a coach who helps women in leadership own their story and write the next chapter. Learn more at www.wendyhultmark.com.