“One Size Fits All” Work-Life Balance is a Myth

It seems like we’re all searching for it. The perfect work-life balance that means we “have it all.”

We can be productive, land that new client, get promoted, network with your new contact after hours, take those two weeks of uninterrupted vacation time, get home in time for family dinner, work-out during the week AND still get paid to support the kind of lifestyle we want. Sounds like a lot.

HubSpot shared some “scary” numbers about stress at work. 48% reported lying awake at night due to stress, and 54% said stress caused them to fight with people close to them. The thing is, if you’re that stressed about work, I’m not sure balance is going to make everything better.

This might be obvious from the about section on the website, but just in case it’s not, John Philbin is my dad. There are a lot of pro’s and con’s that come from working with family, but one (that could fit in both columns depending on how you look at it) is we can always be working. When your boss really likes to work and has been texting you since 2009, it means you can hear from them at almost any time. And I mean always.

I was at my Dad’s house this weekend kicking off the holidays and helping to set up the family Christmas tree, and I got an email from someone who wanted more information about our coaching services. It was a tricky request so I showed it to him and we discussed it while we were putting out the decorations. On the one hand, it was nice to have an answer to my question (and be able to get back to the potential client immediately). On the other hand, I don’t think my wife, or my dad’s wife, appreciated the shop talk during family time. (The same thing happened at my nephew’s third birthday party.)

It can be especially hard to find the balance with a start-up as it feels like every decision, every moment, can have significant and lasting consequences for the business.

I wanted to know a little bit more about how this search for so-called balance plays out in other people’s lives, so I ran a couple polls on our Instagram account.

1. Do you work on the weekends? 86% said, “Yes.”
2. Do you check your work email on vacation? 86% answered, “Yeah, guilty.” But hey, at least you’re taking a vacation! Last year the U.S. ended the year with 662 million unused vacation days. 54% of people had unused time-off.
3. Do you feel an obligation to work even when it’s “your” time (aka home/date night/with friends/etc.)? 77% said, “Yes.”
4. Do you like always being connected to work? 77% said, “No, I want boundaries.”

The last answer is the most telling for me. A lot of us constantly feel a pull to work that is so strong that we let it cut into personal time and even check emails on vacation, though we want more boundaries.

So, do we need to ask more of our boss or be more clear about our expectations from the outset? Or is that picture of balance — a firm 8:00 to 5:00 and close the computer — not realistic anymore? I think the answer isn’t a one size fits all.

There are those who are willing to completely and fully immerse themselves in their career, and there are those who want a great job during the day and then want to leave that job for the night and come back the next day to their great job. I think whatever each of us wants, we can be better at negotiating our own balance. And if we find that what we want isn’t what the company feels like it needs, wouldn’t it be better to know that at the outset, rather than deal with all of the friction of being in a job where what you want and they need don’t match?

One of the things we believe at Happy Spectacular is that you don’t necessarily need work-life balance; you just need a happy, satisfied, and balanced life. It can be really hard to get the balance just right. Have you ever tried to balance two different things on a double pan scale? (Yes, that’s its actual name).


And why do we put our work and our life on opposing teams? You shouldn’t put one against the other, but rather think of them together. If you’re constantly balancing things against each other that means you have to take away from one in order to get it to balance with the other one. It’s really just the wrong way of thinking about having a spectacular life for most of us.

It turns out that my version of balance isn’t so much about evening out the scales but is more about being successful in the present. For now, that is fully dedicating myself to work for those five minutes and then getting back to making the tree as festive as it can be. Take a break from decorating to be amazingly responsive on a Sunday evening and then shift back to using my gifts as a holiday decorating artist. Maybe in two years when the start-up mindset has worn off, I’ll start to find a different kind of balance.

How have you found (or not found) balance in your work and life? Or have you just mixed it all together like it is for me?

Nora Philbin

Nora is a co-founder of Happy Spectacular, which she still can't really believe, and she's on a lifelong quest for the world's best cheeseburger (applicants accepted).

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