The Problem with Work-Life Balance

I’ve been self-employed essentially my whole life, and this year marks the 25th anniversary since starting my entrepreneurial journey in 1992. Being an entrepreneur naturally comes with a lifestyle that makes it hard to draw the line between work and life.

Discussions about work-life balance simply aren’t very productive when your business is (such a big part of) your life,

especially when you’re the one who started it. And while many told me that we should separate life from work to be happy, I don’t believe in such a separation. Here’s why.

As individuals we all represent one unit – with a body, mind and (depending on your beliefs) soul. To think that we could separate our self into work and life without losing something bigger – is a mistake. Yes, certain circumstances require us to focus or specialize at times and in doing so make us successful that way, but keeping work and life separate doesn’t make us whole and in the long term isn’t fulfilling.

We all know that the sum is more than its parts and yet we give that sum so little attention in our daily lives. Mastering work and life in harmony isn’t the same as work-life balance, because in harmony and mastery there is nothing “to balance”. Instead it is about meeting all the issues you care about and all those which are your responsibility with 100% dedication, while carefully choosing which others you really want to concern yourself with. Because ultimately,

why bother, if you don’t care?

Some time ago I’ve watched the TED talk “How to make stress your friend” which deeply resonated with me and changed my attitude towards how we view stress. In fact it’s not stress which is the enemy, quite the opposite: stress is actually supporting us in mastering the challenges at hand.

Having been told all my life that stress is bad for you, changing my attitude towards stress wasn’t easy. The same applies for the aspect of work-life balance, or worse, having become accustomed to thinking there should be different principles for life and work.

So I was curious to find out how my principles (and consequently their values) differentiated from how I approach life vs. how I approach work. To figure that out, I asked myself whether my set of values and principles were a result of looking at the sum of the bigger picture or just a subset of its parts, i.e. work- or life-self. And while the origin of the questions and their answers to some extend vary depending on the culture you grew up (and/or are living) in, they can still serve as a simple guide to determine whether you’re on the way of achieving “life harmony” or whether you’re still struggling with “work-life balance”.

Let’s say you’ve told a friend that you’ll meet tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. Chances are that you’ll meet just fine – but if you’re not feeling well, you’ll cancel without a problem, knowing that your friend will understand.

Now picture the same in a work environment. You’ve told a colleague that you’ll meet tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. Will you still cancel with the same ease, assuming that your colleague will understand? Will you have the same sense of punctuality for the meeting? More? Less?

Whatever your answers are, this is just one example where, without much thinking, we apply different principles. The consequence, however, is that it forces us to dilute the value of our principles.

IF indeed I made punctuality one of my core principles, then there shouldn’t be a difference to whether I’m meeting a friend, a colleague or somebody new. Ideally that principle should count overall in my life, and not just in its different segments, as it’s those values which we live by across the board of life and which we are most consistent with, which have the power to make us whole and contribute towards the life harmony we’re seeking.

We all have our principles and values, and perhaps they’re defining our self much more than we let ourselves believe. What are the principles you have, especially those where you make no separation between work and life?

5 thoughts on “The Problem with Work-Life Balance

  1. Pingback: The Problem with Work-Life Balance - Unified Inbox

  2. Thank you, Toby, For me also, work is big part of my life. However, my work has always been also my hobby. So stress has not been a problem for me. And like Kelly told, if there has sometimes been stress, it has not been a problem for me. Now I can make the possible stress to a friend of mine even better.

    • I am not surprised Ilkka, your passion in life (and work) has been chosen by you and with it you chose a great topic – healthy lighting! Making the life of people better is always very rewarding. Plus your classical music singing makes a big difference towards life harmony, too – so I believe. And, Sauna of course :-)))

  3. Great post, Toby! And I 100% agree with you. For me also, work is part of my life and who I am as a person. Punctuality, honour, integrity and transparency are values across the board. The only issue I’m still struggling with is how to allocate the time I need for doing business without damaging the family & friends dynamics. In a startup setup like I have, time is crucial, and every second counts.

    Working at full speed to launch a startup means less time with family and friends, and so it directly impacts them. There’s a balance here that is difficult to attain, even though my close ones are very supportive! It hurts my heart when I decide to spend another hour on my business and not spend it with my daughter, but I do it because I know this will take me to a point when I can be a full-time dad without hurting our income. It’s a ying-yang dance between the delayed gratification (future) and the instinctive needs (present).

    • If you’re an entrepreneur first and your wife knows it, that is fair. But the other way around can be really tough. Many friends’ relationships suffered or even broke up because of that. Yes it impacts them, but mutual understanding helps and sometimes friendships change also. The uncertainty that comes with the belief in the “one fine day success” is what is the real stress and tension that rises over time in oneself and the people who surround us.

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