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Why “Balance” Is a Faulty Metaphor

Why “Balance” Is a Faulty Metaphor

Work and Life Balance vs. Work and Life Integration

Does it seem like there just aren’t enough hours in the day? Are you constantly being pulled in several directions, juggling priorities and demands? Or does your life feel balanced? Most people would probably say they feel overwhelmed and out of sorts, which suggests they feel out of balance.

Yet the often-mentioned concept of work-life “balance” isn’t particularly constructive. The balance metaphor just isn’t very helpful or realistic.

In this article, we’ll break down the concept of work and life balance, explain the problem with the balance metaphor, and offer our recommended process for achieving a healthy approach to work and life balance.

What Does Work and Life “Balance” Mean, Anyway?

Let’s do some quick math. Assuming we sleep 7.5 hours a day (the approximate amount recommended by scientists to manage stress and health effectively), for the scales to be truly “balanced,” we’d need to split the remaining time: 8.25 hours for work and 8.25 hours for life every workday.

However, our research has found that in the age of the smartphone, most executives, managers, and professionals routinely spend substantially more than just 8.25 hours involved in work every workday. Therefore, if we’re connected to work 13.5 or more hours a day 5 days a week, and spend about 5 hours on weekends scanning emails, this equals a total of about 72 hours a week connected to work.

If someone is connected to work 13.5 hours a day and sleeps about 7.5 hours a night, that leaves just 3 hours a day Monday through Friday for the awake “life” part. That’s 5.25 hours less per workday than would be needed for true work and life balance, for a total deficit of 26.25 hours every workweek.

Now, let’s calculate weekends. If there are 168 hours in a week, and someone spends 52.5 hours sleeping, that leaves them 115.5 hours a week for other things. If they spend 72 of those hours connected with work, they have only 43.5 total hours per week to do with as they will.

People Have Different Styles for Handling Work and Life Balance

People have different styles in how they manage the boundaries between work and non-work activities. Our research suggests that work-life boundaries are more important than work-life balance.

Many of us don’t really feel balanced, and the idea of trying to attain “balance” just isn’t helpful. We stress and struggle to live up to an image of doing it all, and in just the right amounts.

But if we think more about work and life boundaries instead, more options open up — both for individuals and for organizations.

At CCL, we’ve developed a model to understand behavioral preferences in how people approach work and life balance and boundaries. In another white paper, our researchers identified 5 styles for handling work and life balance. People’s natural preferences in terms of how they handle work and life balance typically fall into one of the following 5 categories:

  • Some are Separators, preferring to separate work and life tasks and commitments, with a clear boundary between the two. They tend to work during “business hours” and from a dedicated work location. Work stuff stays during work time, and life stuff stays during home time. An example of this style is the person who rarely, if ever, takes work with them on weekends or vacations. This person would also never schedule a family activity during work time. This more traditional style of working has become challenged by the recent global shift toward remote work, an increasingly global business environment, and advances in technology.
  • Some are Integrators, blending work with personal tasks and commitments throughout the day. Their work life interrupts home life, and vice versa. This type of person moves from business calls to taking care of personal errands, to answering work emails to taking care of someone else, always managing tasks as they come up, anytime, from anywhere. An example of this style is someone who takes a long lunch break to exercise, but then offsets that time spent by catching up on work emails that night.
  • Some are Cyclers, switching back and forth between periods of integrating family and work, followed by periods of intentionally separating them. An example of this style is a person who travels often or who has seasonal or project-driven work. Others may cycle around school schedules, child care, family responsibilities, or other personal circumstances.
  • Some are Work Firsters, putting their work schedule first and protecting work time. They allow work activities to interrupt family time but don’t let family matters interrupt work. An example of this style is a parent who answers emails and makes work calls at sports events, family dinners, and vacations — but rarely makes personal calls at work.
  • Some are Family Firsters, putting their family schedule first. They allow work to be interrupted by family needs, but protect their family time from work interruptions. An example of this style is a parent who rearranges work to care for a sick child or elderly relative — but rarely gives up family time for work.

(Note, however, that this research was conducted before the global coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath. That has obviously changed how people approach managing work and life, and for many, has further blurred lines between them — more out of necessity than preference.)

Boundary control is another factor we can measure to understand people’s different approaches to balancing work and life. Our research has found that some people have higher or lower levels of boundary control, and it has much to do with the circumstances or type of work they’re in:

  • High Boundary Control: People with high work and life boundary control are able to decide when to focus on work, when to focus on family, or when to blend the two. For example, they may decide to work late to finish a large project. Or, they might decide to attend a school event on a weekday morning and only work a half-day. Individuals with high boundary control feel they have the authority and ability to make these decisions and to manage any resulting trade-offs.
  • Mid-level Boundary Control: People with mid-levels of boundary control sometimes decide when to focus on work or on family, or when to blend the two, but there are times when they feel they have no choice in the matter. For example, they can sometimes focus their attention and time on family matters during work hours, but there are times they’d like to, but can’t. They may want to separate or integrate more than they’re able to.
  • Low Boundary Control: People with low boundary control don’t get to decide when they focus on work, when they focus on family, or when they blend the two. In most cases, these limitations are established by the type of job they have, their personal circumstances, or both.

The more control a person has over where, how, and when they work and how they manage other responsibilities, the easier it is for them to fit the different pieces of life together. Greater control leads to a feeling of more autonomy and security, as well.

Ideally, jobs and life circumstances match a person’s preferred way to set boundaries, but sometimes things are not ideal. The work-life juggle may require different types of support and may still feel hectic, but having greater control over your boundaries will make work and life feel more satisfying and productive.

What does this mean for how you approach the issue of work and life balance in your organization? The concept of work-life boundaries can reframe the conversation employees have with one another, with their managers, and with their families.

Talking about preferences versus reality can help identify areas that are most frustrating for employees and managers — and reveal potential fixes that ease the struggle. Getting creative about boundary control can help shape even the most structured or high-demand jobs to give employees more ease to meet both work and family needs.

Work-life conflicts may be hurting businesses more than they realize, but often, small changes that hit the mark can make a big difference in the lives of your employees — and boost their capacity to be productive, committed, and effective on the job.

Why the Work-Life “Balance” Metaphor Doesn’t Work

Thanks in part to the smartphone, the line between work and other aspects of life is all but gone today. Everyone is almost always “reachable.” Therefore, “work and life balance” presents a false (and unhelpful) dichotomy.

Using the word “balance” sets us up to think of “work” and “life” as an either/or, instead of a both/and. It creates a sense of a problem to be solved, instead of acknowledging a polarity to be managed.

We need to think about work and life balance differently.

It’s not about achieving the “right” equation of time and effort equally distributed among your commitments. It’s really more an issue of choices and tradeoffs than of time, so think instead of aligning your behavior with your values.

Motherhood and leadership, for example, needn’t feel mutually exclusive.

So prioritize work-life integration over work-life balance. For example, sometimes you might work on weekends; sometimes you might work on personal stuff during the “workday.” The ideal is to transition easily between activities that bring you joy and fulfillment, regardless of when they happen, where they’re located, or whether you’re getting paid.

Research shows that people have more energy to give when they’re doing things they think have a real impact on something that’s important to them (whether it’s volunteering, work, or other activities). That’s true even when they’re working long hours.

So, think about the things both at work and at home that you can do that are important to you, and that allow you to live a happy life. Being able to do the things you want to do isn’t just about hours; it’s about whether you have the energy to do them.

Work-life integration is about feeling energized by what you’re doing in all parts of your life, allowing you to channel energy into taking care of whatever is important to you — both at work and outside of work.

How to Achieve a Healthier Work and Life Integration

Here’s a quick 3-step process we recommend for setting aside the balance metaphor and creating work-life integration.

1. Reflect.

First, as much as you are able, try to live with intention both at work and at home to increase your energy levels and feelings of authenticity and effectiveness.

To ensure your behaviors align with your values, take time to reflect and clarify what matters most to you. Then consider whether you’re spending time in a way that’s consistent with your values. 

  • For one week, record what you do for any period of time of one hour or more. While you’re at it, write down why you did what you did. Do your actions reflect or contradict your values and goals?
  • Or, take an inventory of the things you like to do best, including your skills, passions, the working conditions that you enjoy most, and what makes you happy. Then, reflect on what you can do to increase your involvement in similar activities.

You may also need to reflect on what you’re doing now as a choice you’re making, instead of a situation you’re the victim of. Remind yourself why you’ve made the choice you have or why the current situation is what it is. For the moment, you may be focused on surviving a temporary challenge or setback. But if current demands don’t hold in the future, or if those reasons are no longer primary for you, consider what new choices you can make now or at least in a few months from now, so that life and work feel less mutually exclusive.

Remember, your needs and expectations will continue to change over the years, so keep coming back to reflect and set achievable goals for yourself that align with your values and current priorities.

2. Have Conversations.

After taking some time to reflect, talk with friends and family about what you might do differently in the future. Try to find ways to increase your boundary control levels.

You may also need to have a conversation with your boss about how you might be able to add more value and put your skills to better use at work.

For example, ask to take on a challenging project, or about flexing your hours, so you can start later when you need to, get off early when necessary, or make up time another day. Remind your boss that flexibility can increase employee productivity.

3. Create a Plan.

If the way you’re spending your time feels out of alignment with your values, decide how you’d rather spend your time. Take 5 minutes alone to imagine yourself on your deathbed and consider: What did you not get to do that was important? Who did you not get to be?

Now — what are you going to do about it? Create a plan to make it happen and turn your intentions into reality. Doing so will increase your effectiveness and the energy you have available, leading to a greater sense of authenticity and work-life balance — or rather, work-life integration.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Help your team take control of their work-life balance by providing them access to our online resilience program, The Resilience Advantage, which offers a practical, scientific approach to help them build better boundary control and burn brighter, instead of burning out.


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December 3, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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