Articles > Forget balance: Focus is the Key

Forget balance: Focus is the Key
Globe & Mail, October 02, 2002

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Work-life balance has become a new kind of mantra, expounded upon endlessly at conferences, in newspaper articles and on television. I will admit to having devoted many column inches to the subject.

Yet I’m beginning to wonder, given everyone’s apparent desire to achieve a state of work/life balance and their conspicuous inability to do so, whether the whole idea is meaningful, still less attainable. Perhaps work/life balance is like perfect love, something you can pursue but never find.

There’s no doubt that many people have a serious problem in terms being able to fulfil the many roles demanded of them at work, at home and in their personal lives. A recent Health Canada survey shows that one in four Canadians works more than 50 hours a week, compared with just 1 in 10 a decade ago. Nearly 60 per cent of respondents complained of high “role overload” in juggling work and personal lives, almost double the number in 1991.

But is the solution really one of finding better balance? It may be that the whole concept of “work-life balance” tends to obscure what we’re really looking for, namely the opportunity to feel good about out lives and to have a sense of accomplishment.

The problem with the term “work-life balance” is that it assumes we all have a caloric budget for meeting a prescribed set of needs -- such as time for family, friends, children and loved ones, aesthetic pursuits, spiritual nourishment and intellectual engagement -- choosing just the right amount of each as if they were major food groups. But there is no Canada Food Guide to tell us how to live our lives.

The truth is, we are all have different needs, and those needs are constantly changing. Our lives are dynamic, not static. Children are born, loved ones get sick, we land a new job or lose one, develop an entirely new interest. At different points in our lives, different life events and priorities compete for our attention, and we focus on whatever is most important to us at that moment.

You may be doing a piece of work that completely enthrals you, for example, or you may be preparing for the birth of your first child. Whatever your main focus is at a particular point in time will by definition take away from your ability to pay attention to other important things. And no matter how hard you strive to achieve “balance”, there will inevitably be tensions between competing needs: between the need for spiritual nourishment and the need to make money, for example, or between the desire for personal and family time and the yearning for advancement. These conflicts are not necessarily bad: They are what make us grow as human beings.

If I were to ask you to think about a time when you felt really good about yourself and your life, my best guess is that you would describe a time when you felt completely and single-mindedly involved in something, whether mastering a sport, losing weight, doing a piece of work which was totally engrossing, or complete engagement with your kids or someone you care about. Was your life in balance at that point?

Probably not, if we think of balance as a state in which all our needs, roles and domains of experience are being equally satisfied.

What we idealize as “balance” is really a kind of throwback to a fifties idea of the good life, to a sunny but bland world with everything in moderation, where everyone read Reader’s Digest and ate bran cereal. When we feel great about something we’re doing, or passionate about a particular pursuit, then almost by definition other important aspects of our lives will get less of our attention, and may be entirely neglected. It’s unlikely, for example, that many great pieces of work were produced by artists who pursued a state of balance.

Now, it’s true that some people do lead lives that are wildly unbalanced, focussing obsessively on work and ignoring everything else with serious consequences to their health, relationships and family. But when that happens, their life isn’t simply out of balance, it’s out of control. What we call workaholism, for example, doesn’t emerge from a failure to balance work and personal life: it’s the result of deep-seated psychological issues, such as a a lack of self-worth or an inability to develop an identity separate from one’s work. Such issues cannot be addressed, or redressed, through greater attention to balance.

It’s also true that most organizations continue to demand far too much from their people, and it is certainly not my intention here to take them off the hook. There is an urgent need for new attitudes and new programs -- in particular, for flexible work arrangements that are more than just empty policies and for reasonable work load expectations. We need to shape a more humane and life-friendly work place that is responsive to people’s needs at different phases of their lives. But let’s not distract ourselves in some futile search for the mythic grail of perfect balance.

For individuals, the real questions should be:

Do you feel good about how you’re spending your life, and are you aware of the choices you’ve made? Are you nourishing what is important to you? Are you able to play out all the roles that are important to you? If you are making sacrifices now in some areas of your life, are you doing so in a conscious way as part of a plan to help you realize your vision of how you want to live and work in the future?

It’s not reasonable to expect your life to be in perfect balance at any point in time. Our lives are made up of chapters, and in one we may need to sacrifice some needs in favour of others that will be met in a later chapter. Giving something up now doesn’t mean giving it up forever. A need that isn’t satisfied today can always be satisfied tomorrow.

Often people worry that if they say no to something now they are saying no to it forever: They think “If I don’t take that assignment/promotion/geographical transfer my career is going to be permanently derailed.”

The important thing is to be conscious of the decisions you are making now, and to think serially about your life. In one chapter of you life, your personal life may take priority, in another chapter your career aspirations. Over time, a kind of balance emerges.

If you instead doggedly pursue that elusive state of work/life balance, trying to have some measured ration of everything you want at any given time, you are likely to end up in a kind of grey zone, where none of your needs are really being met, and you end up feeling chronically dissatisfied.

Life is not some gigantic mechanical scale on which you can put all the pieces of your life and weigh them up, adding and taking away bits until they come out in perfect state of homeostatic balance.