The Work-Life Balance Myth

Posted 13/8/2019 by Georgina Deas

This week, we have another great blog from Tom Gold, a professional Life Coach who works with founders, CEO’s and entrepreneurs.


In the past, Tom’s worked with incarcerated offenders, forensic psychiatric clients, combat veterans, disengaged youth and a whole lot of people who didn't believe that this is as good as life gets.


Today, he’s taking a look at work-life balance. Is it really achievable or is it more of a myth? Can improving your mindset help steer you towards the optimum work-life balance?


The Work-Life Balance Myth


On Loch Tay, not far from Aberfeldy, there once stood a Crannog.


It was a large thatched circular dwelling, built on sturdy wooden piles out in the loch and reached by a wooden walkway from the shore.


It would have been home to several families and their animals. Artefacts recovered from the loch bed suggest that the occupants not only lived here but also fashioned tools weapons, jewellery, clothing and other pieces on the site.


The existence of such a substantial dwelling indicates that the surrounding area would have provided for most of their needs, including food and natural resources.


That said, just felling and processing the timbers required for its construction, as well as gathering the reeds to thatch it, would have been a significant task requiring a great deal of skill and time; as would hunting and trapping sufficient game and fish for a group this size.


So what does that have to do with work-life balance?


In truth, practically nothing. We have all but abandoned the integrated lifestyle approach taken by the people who lived in the Crannog and replaced it with one in which we strive to keep work and life as separate as possible.


The trials and tribulations of a company CEO wondering if they can make payroll and cover the mortgage this month, while still showing up for their loved ones, are no less real than those of our iron age ancestors preparing for the onset of winter or hunting or maintaining their home because just like them, there is never a time when everything is done. The difference is that for them, there was no point in separating the various crucial elements of their lives; all their work had to get done and their life happened while they did it.


The biggest oversimplification of modern times and why it doesn't work 


Firstly, it’s just a metaphor. It can’t be used to reduce stress (like the Headspace app) and it provides no drop-down box of options for when we feel pulled in two directions at once (like the Eisenhower Matrix).


Instead, it suggests that we are dealing with two hermetically sealed entities, work and life. But anyone who is truly passionate and driven, and has a product or service they are determined to push forward, is not going to see what they do simply as ‘work’, especially if they are prepared to put their health and wellbeing on the line and devote 12 hours or more a day to it. By the same token, describing everything else - and it’s a lot - simply as ‘life’ requires a level of mental separation that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator would have been proud of.


Secondly, it places an undue emphasis on time as the critical element in that we need to achieve a workable split between work and that other thing, life. Yes, time is important but we all know that thanks to our various electronic devices we can be physically in the same space as the rest of the family but completely disconnected.

Managing to balance time spent with the family or at work, is not a measure of success. It's how we use that time, and in the words of Phileas Fogg, a well-used minimum is quite sufficient.


Thirdly, while we have units and metrics for measuring almost every other aspect of our lives (like Fitbit, blood pressure, flexitime, weekly device use summary, performance reviews, circadian rhythms, calorie intake) there is no such thing as a ‘work-life unit’ to measure this supposedly all important, some might say crucial, aspect of our lives. When we think we’re getting it right we can’t be sure what we did and even then, it doesn’t take much to derail it; a boiler breakdown, extra responsibility at work, a new hobby. When we get it wrong, we more often than not find out through relationship difficulties, stress and hearing about all the things we missed out on.


Fourthly by illustrating it as a ‘balance’ we have also created a myth that there exists a sort of sweet spot where everything will be perfect. The trouble with that idea is that it creates the expectation that at all other times work and life will be in constant conflict. The real problem is the guilt we feel from that conflict. It’s in the sidelong glances of our colleagues as we leave the office at 5.00 pm to go the school play or going to bed and realising you came home and just downloaded all your problems onto someone you care about without even asking about their day.


So what can we use instead?


Earlier in this piece, I mentioned that our Iron Age ancestors probably lived an integrated lifestyle. For me, this is one in which we recognise and embrace the fact the various key elements of it are going to overlap, and that we can allow this to happen. For that to happen in a controllable way we need three things: Vision, Priorities and Permission.



This is how our life looks in an ideal case scenario. Crucially, it’s not a social media inspired Pinterest perfect picture. Neither is it based on how Gary Vaunerchuck, Jeff Bezos and Tony Robbins did it; this is about you and the competing demands and objectives of your life. I regularly use visualisation with my clients, which involves creating a mental picture of how things should look to give us a baseline with which to compare our current state.


If you need to work 60 hour weeks right now, then your vision is one in which you do just that. Brilliantly.


It's about how you would like to appear for your kids when you take them swimming on Saturday - on and off your phone, distracted, impatient, or full of fun ready to deal in and be 100% available for the next hour and a half.


It's about how you would most like to be seen by your partner or family when you get in at the end of the week. Dumping your bags and falling into a chair with a glass of wine and the TV remote, or with a big smile and asking how their day was first?


By visualizing, we can push other people’s version of how we should live our lives out of the picture and plan and present the best version of ourselves, based entirely on an understanding of our own specific circumstances.



Having a clear vision based solely on what works best for us will enable us to identify the really important stuff. We may only be talking about a few key areas but those areas will be off-limits to anyone but the people we have decided to share them with, and once we’ve ID’d them, we ring-fence them.


The work-life balance model implies ring-fencing, or prioritising, the entire weekend but if you are able to block out time to take the kids swimming, to show up with undivided attention for your partner, or to take that conference call because the weekend was the only time it could happen, then you are integrating rather than balancing. You’re getting everything done and your life is happening at the same time.


Now, consider for a moment the effect that spending this sort of committed, focussed, totally available, guilt-free time has on you, your approach to your work and your general sense of wellbeing. If it helps, try contrasting it with that feeling you get when you spent the weekend worrying about Monday and feeling guilty about another weekend of missed opportunities.



Perhaps the single greatest failing of the work-life balance is in the feelings of guilt it imposes if we can’t keep everyone happy. There is always a trade-off and there will always be nagging moments of guilt but if we can use vision and priorities effectively, we can give ourselves something of tremendous value: permission to do the right thing.


It’s permission to say to the family that you can’t take them into town today because you have to work. Then getting down to it with total commitment.


It’s permission to take the time to show the most important person in your life just how much they mean to you. Then showing up as the person you always wanted them to see you as.


It’s permission to duck out of the Netflix movie you were all watching to field a call from someone you’ve been trying to get hold of for weeks. Then making absolutely certain that you give them your fullest and most complete attention.


It’s permission to tell a client that you can’t help them this time because you have family commitments. Then knowing with unblinking certainty that you did the right thing.


Only you can give yourself these permissions and it’s not always easy but if you can accept that they are all part of the same integrated picture, underpinned by your core goals and values, then maybe you can also give yourself permission to seek happiness instead of balance.




Don’t waste time reading the characteristics of successful people - trust yourself to write out your own, specific to your version.


Get the ‘busy’ monkey off your back. Busy does not make us more productive or happier any more than being balanced does.


Share your vision. You have to tell people what you’re doing and exactly what it's going to involve for them in terms of your availability. They might be able to support you better.


On the way home from work choose, visualise and mentally rehearse how you will show up for your family or partner based on the best version of yourself and the person you need to be for them.


When can you turn off your phone? We routinely switch off our phones for the big meeting but rarely extend the same courtesy to our family.


If you can’t turn off your phone, have the confidence to know that you are not going to see something in your Facebook timeline that tells you to re-evaluate your priorities.


Suppose you scheduled and prioritised time with family and loved ones in the same way you do the really important things at work.



Tom Gold is a professional Life Coach who works with founders, CEO’s and entrepreneurs. In the past, he’s worked with incarcerated offenders, forensic psychiatric clients, combat veterans, disengaged youth and a whole lot of people who didn't believe that this is as good as life gets. You can read more about him here


Enigma People Solutions is an award-winning technology recruitment consultancy. We find technical leaders for the emerging and enabling technology industries. Visit our job search page for the latest vacancies in photonics, electronics, semiconductor, software and IoT in Scotland. Check out our blog for the latest in the technology industry. You can get in touch with us or call us on + 44 131 510 8150


I like this. Few people who feel guilty about leaving at 5pm consider the flip side of checking email at home, letting it interrupt family time and/or waking up at 4am thinking about that work problem you have to deal with. These are the hidden work hours that organisations don't see.
Posted on August 15, 2019 by Michael Buchan

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