Reframing the idea of “work-life balance”

How emphasizing "life" over "work" could lead to more happiness

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“Work-life balance” is frequently talked about in our culture. How am I going to pay all of my bills and still find time for a vacation? I can never start training for a marathon because I’m always just a little bit behind on work deadlines. My friends and family are always trying to schedule things with me, but they always conflict with prior work commitments. Someday, when work slows down, I’ll get around to some of those hobbies I have been thinking about for years. “It’s just so hard to find work-life balance,” people say. 

The intention of this conversation is valid. But for many it rarely goes beyond just that – a conversation – into a reality in which there is a healthy balance between what we define as work and what we define as life outside of work. Because so many people struggle with this balance, we must be doing something wrong; what if we changed the smallest part of this conversation in a way that made it a little bit more meaningful and a lot more of a reality for the majority of society? 

All we have to do is flip-flop. Instead of referring to it as “work-life balance,” what if instead we called it “life-work balance?” 

Inherently, when we make lists or discuss topics in a business meeting, we do so from most important to least important, and this is for good reason. The top of any to-do list should be what needs to be done most urgently, and the beginning of a business meeting should include the most pressing subject matters, since that is when everyone is most alert and engaged. 

Reason would follow this inherent understanding that first is foremost is also present in linguistics, be it conscious or subconscious. See where I’m going with this?

When we say “work-life” balance what are we inherently understanding to be the most important thing in that pair? Probably work. Because it comes first, and from a greater social context, the modern American society is firmly pressured into believing that work is life and is the defining characteristic of success during this lifetime. Don’t get me wrong — I think a fulfilling career is incredibly valuable and we should enjoy and feel inspired by work since it takes up such a large portion of our waking life. But it isn’t everything. 

I started thinking about this a lot while I was traveling. I had just left a career of sorts in Los Angeles, and for a lot of people I told my travel plan to, the thought of giving up a job to go do something “fun” bordered on incomprehensible. “But what about your resume?!” I heard countless times. To this day, I’m glad those endless comments didn’t sway my decision. Because once I left the United States, it didn’t take me long to start to see that maybe we were thinking about things ineffectively. 

In so many of the places I visited, “life” took precedence over everything else. Social life, night life, travel life, family life, any kind of life besides work life. For a lot of people I met, work was just a means to actually life live. People didn’t define themselves as their means of income. I instantly appreciated this way of thinking. “There’s so much more to life than work,” I started to hear frequently, and it was pretty apparent that these societies were happier for thinking about life this way. 

Societal conditioning is difficult to change and it’s silly to think that verbally putting life before work in a frequently muttered phrase would create a massive shift in the tightly woven fabric of our work-conditioned society. But it couldn’t hurt for people to try to start thinking about it just a little bit differently. 

So the next time you find yourself lamenting the state of your very unbalanced work-life equation, just ask yourself this question: am I living my life so that I can work, or am I working so that I can live – really live – my life? The chances are, the key to finding a life-work balance lie somewhere in the answer to this question. 

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