Why better work life balance isn’t the answer

And what to do instead

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I no sooner want to be balanced, than I want to be a ‘good girl’. ‘Balance’ is not something I want to live down to. Danielle LaPorte

A recent client began our sessions together with the goal of better work life balance (or WLB). As we talked, an interesting thing happened. Turned out she wasn’t that interested in balance after all. What she actually wanted was meaningful work that she felt passionate about. Work she loved so much she was happy to put the kids in childcare to do it.

Instead, my client was paying eye-watering nursery fees to spend her days feeling undervalued, unfulfilled and often bored.

And that’s the problem I have with the idea of work life balance. It has become as popular to talk about how we have no WLB, as it is go on about how busy we are.

This overused, meaningless catchall is put forward as the solution to all ills of the working parent. In much the same way that we think we will be ‘happy when…’ (I’ll let you fill the blank), we assume life will be good once we achieve our desired work life balance.

Indeed, the 2017 Modern Families Index reports that 50% of families claim work life balance is a source of stress and 48% that working hours are getting in the way of spending time with their children.

If so many people think there’s a problem, surely there must be? The juggle is real, isn’t it?

Well, yes and no. Working parents have a lot to do for sure. And it can feel like a tremendous struggle to fit it all in. But is ‘balance’ the answer?

It wasn’t for my client and I would hazard a guess that, if you’re like her and many other women I know, it’s not the answer for you either.

If not balance then what?

How do we address the struggle of juggling careers and family life?

First, we need to be whole lot clearer about what we really mean when we talk about better ‘work life balance’. We need to be really specific about the issues and challenges lurking beneath the dreaded term. Then, and only then, can we look for solutions.

In a quest for answers, I asked some working mums what better work life balance meant to them. They said:

  • I want flexibility to be available for my children during work hours
  • I want greater control over how I spend my time
  • I don’t want my personal time disrupted by work tasks or calls
  • I want to be able to fully switch off from work when I get home
  • I want the headspace to decide whether to prioritise work or children

Three things jump out. Their priority was greater flexibility to be available for their children. But they also wanted greater control over how they used their time. And almost all these working mothers, I noticed, focused on how to achieve better work life balance.

Only one person explained why.

She said that better WLB would allow her to feel like she was doing a good job as a mum and at work. Which is, of course, completely understandable.

And yet there are many different ways to feel like you’re doing a good job. Not all of them rely on a more balanced life.

Seek a good meaningful life instead

So, I am going to propose we ditch the quest to improve our work life balance. Instead let us seek good meaningful lives.

How? Here are my hot tips.

1. Ask yourself, what do you really mean when say that you want better WLB? What are the actual practical benefits to you? How would your life be different with better WLB? Resist the temptation to reduce the issue to controlling the hours you work (although that may be important).

2. Now think of as many different ways as you can of achieving these benefits. Don’t worry too much about practicality for now, just write.

3. You have a blank canvas, how do you choose to spend your time? Be very specific. What does your day-to-day life need to look like for you to say you have a ‘good life’? What are you doing? How do you feel? Who are you spending your time with? What conversations are you having? What is your role in the things you do?

4. Imagine you have your dream job, how does this affect your desire for WLB? Do you need better balance or are you able to roll with the chaos?

Finding the answer to these questions and making choices about what is most important is likely to take you much closer to the life you want to live than a generic quest for better WLB.

They may not be easy choices and it is definitely no panacea. But it will upgrade the quality of the problems you face.

As for my client, once she realised the problem was that she didn’t enjoy her role, we got to work discovering what she would enjoy. She retrained and is now self-employed. She works as many hours as she did before but enjoys what she does so much that it’s no longer an issue.

If this sounds like you and you’d like someone to bounce your ideas off, drop me a line and learn more about what I do.

Originally published at

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