First introduced in the UK in the late 1970s, the term “work-life balance” has only become more popular and relevant over time.
While the focus has morphed over time to consider the needs of different audiences within the workplace—mothers, the sandwich generation, millennials and more—the basic question has remained constant: How can we find and keep hold of that elusive holy grail—the equilibrium between the two competing elements, work and home?
The answers to this question have frequently been either less-than-satisfying platitudes (from “you can have it all” to “you can have it all, just not all at the same time”) or less-than-effective advice about how to better manage one’s time in a way that manufactures the additional minutes or hours required to steady the scales.
But the fundamental problem may be with the words that were chosen—nearly 40 years ago—to characterize the problem (or the opportunity). Balance is an impermanent state. Stasis is fleeting. Pendulums swing back and forth, reaching the middle point for a brief moment in time before moving on. Emotions are rarely even; rather they bounce between ups and downs, highs and lows. So, why would we expect—or strive for—balance in two highly dynamic dimensions of our lives?
These are thoughts I was having while in China recently for a speaking engagement. During a free afternoon, we did some sightseeing, and I happened upon a potentially new way of thinking about this conundrum. A residential section of Shanghai offered this.
Perhaps it’s time for us in the West to consider updating our aspirations from a precarious “balance point” to a much more promising “blur.” The constantly connected, work-from-anywhere global economy within which we operate today has already muddled the lines between work and non-work. Perhaps it’s time to lean into the blur and make it work for us.
Because redefining the goal of long-term, concurrent contentment in multiple dimensions of one’s life as a blur offers several advantages. A blur offers a broader corridor of what’s acceptable, allowing for the natural swings of the pendulum of life over time. A blur is more forgiving. Veer a little left or right of the centerline and it doesn’t matter—it’s not even noticed. And a blur provides a wider strike zone to get it right, reducing the debilitating guilt so many workers feel as they consistently fail to achieve the balance they so deeply desire.
Striving for work-life blur requires a new mindset—and a new way of measuring progress. It means:
- Developing target ranges rather than target points. For instance, blur your 30 minutes of exercise every day to 15-45 minutes, allowing a little more latitude to accommodate the realities of your work flow. Conversely, set a range of leaving the office between 5:45 and 6:15—and really leave at 5:45 when you can.
- Tracking daily but evaluating monthly. It’s still important to track your daily results, but don’t judge yourself based upon how one 24-hour period plays out. Blurring requires a longer term view. At the end of a month, see how your averages compare to your target ranges. Performance within desired ranges over the course of 30 days is a better barometer of your work-life blur.
- Cutting ourselves some slack when we don’t get it quite right. Striving for work-life balance is fraught with stress and a persistent sense of failure, failure that then can cause wider swings of time and energy investment as we try to even the scales. We’ll have better long-term results, if we can treat ourselves more kindly and gently as we integrate these two essential elements of life.
So, although that Shanghai high-rise might have been suggesting something different, I think it could serve us well to let it inspire us to give “balance” the boot and embrace the blur.
Julie hits another home run, as usual! I like the “blur” metaphor. At MITRE, I’ve been urging people to think more in terms of work – life integration versus balance. If we are doing what we love, it should smoothly integrate. If we are not doing what we love, why is that? Blur works…
Thanks so much, Dan. Integration is certainly what I strive for. But for me it’s still a constant battle or balancing act… even given how much I love all parts of my life. It’s challenging to keep the equilibrium… especially as I get older and become more viscerally aware of the finite nature of time. Increasingly, I’m recognizing the role of mindfulness in all of this. (Wow, this got a bit deeper than I was expecting on a Saturday morning!) Thanks for being part of the conversation!
Julie, I too am in favour of work-life integration. One needs to have the flexibility to take care of ALL aspects of one’s life if it happens during the work day. I believe that increasingly, employers ought to roll into the org culture, the implicit “permission” (and in some cases stating it explicit is better) which allows their people to take care of “life” – a run to the dentist; taking an older parent to the doctor, dashing to the utility company to query an excessive billing. These issues will weigh on people’s minds and interrupt the flow of productivity anyway. Therefore, it seems more prudent to blur the lines; build in the flexibility and watch your people soar as they feel lighter after having handled necessary life matters in a work day.
Best to you and keep making these great contributions.
Thanks, Jacky. That makes perfect sense… and, in fact, in organizations that don’t quantify vacation time (ie it’s unlimited), folks tend to take less rather than more. I’ve been reading The 100 Year Life (by Gratton and Scott). And when we think in terms of living and working much longer, finding the balance becomes ever more important. Thanks for sharing your perspective…and good luck as you continue to find work-life integration.