The Real Truth About Work-Life Balance

Twenty20 / angela.nguyen2
Twenty20 / angela.nguyen2

Do you wish you had better work-life balance?

Of course you do. I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t wish they didn’t have to work so much. If most of us had the money, we’d quit our jobs on the spot and live a hedonistic life of excess.

Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, that’s basically what I did last year when I quit my high-paying job as a management consultant. I went from living out of a hotel and working 80-hour weeks to literally having nothing on my calendar for months.

I’ve been living this way for the past 18 months, and while you might think my life sounds awesome, it’s been anything but. After living at both extremes of the work-life balance spectrum, I’ve learned a lot about what leads to a happy and fulfilling life.

The answers might surprise you.

What Happens When You Work Too Much

I used to have terrible work-life balance. I consistently worked 60 to 80 hours a week, and I spent half the year living in a hotel. I even worked a few 100+ hour weeks when projects got crazy.

Even worse than the sheer number of hours was the lack of control. My worst memories from those years were having to cancel weekend trips with friends or dinners with my girlfriend because of work.

Even if your job isn’t as demanding, you can probably relate to how it feels to work all the time. It feels like all you ever do is work, eat, and sleep.

Even when you’re not at the office you’re never really “free” from work. The “always-on expectations” follow you home and work lingers in the back of your mind 24/7. I used to feel tense all the time and could never really relax. I was some twitchy special forces soldier in enemy territory, phone constantly on hand ready to fire off a burst of emails if anyone made a sudden movement.

When I started my job I was motivated and committed. I actually liked it, and didn’t mind working nights and weekends. I wanted to get ahead, and I was willing to sacrifice three to four years until I “made it.”

But as the years wore on, I found myself thinking more about life outside of work. I looked at my friends in “regular jobs” and imagined what it would be like to get home at 5:00 instead of midnight. What if I had time to go to the gym after work? Or the time to go for drinks with friends? Or the time to cook a real dinner for once?

I tried to keep a good social life outside of work, but the hours made it tough to make plans so I’d usually end up hitting the couch for some Netflix whenever I had a chance to relax.

I eventually accepted that I’d have no work-life balance while I worked this many hours, and the only solution was to quit.

And so that’s what I did.

In 2014, I quit my job. I had no job prospects. I had no plan. I just had my mind fixated on working less and living more.

What Happens When You Work Too Little

It’s been 18 months since I quit my job. If I had to summarize what I’ve learned it’s this: the grass is not always greener.

The first few weeks felt like a long vacation, but pretty soon the “honeymoon period” ended and I had to face reality.

Despite having complete freedom and the money to do anything I wanted, I wasn’t happy.

I was bored, and found myself drifting between a million different interests. I chased superficial pleasures like shopping, eating, and partying but after a while these all lost their appeal.

The most depressing thought was that people work for 30 years to retire and do what I was doing, and I was hating it!

Ironically, the one thing I wanted to do was work. I actively sought out projects — mostly unpaid — so that I could replicate the hard work I’d done during my career.

I spent a month researching and writing a 2,500+ word article on why you shouldn’t ice injuries and then sent it to my parents 20 person running group just for fun (true story).

I was lost without work.

Maybe that says something about my lack of imagination, but I think it actually reveals that how we think about work-life balance all wrong.

So, what is work-life balance?

Whenever I talk to someone about work-life balance, the conversation always focuses on one thing: the hours.

40 hours is a reasonable work-life balance. Any more is “bad,” and any less is “good.” When someone tells us they worked a 12-hour day, we reflexively think, “That sounds like a terrible work-life balance”.

Even though we intuitively know there’s more to work-life balance than just how much you work, the hours is all we ever talk about.

My experience from living life with too much work and too little work has made something abundantly clear: work-life balance is not just about how many hours you work.

I tried to fix my work-life balance by working less, and it didn’t work.

I’ve experienced the extremes, and the happiest and most fulfilling moments in my life happened while drowning in work. When I was experiencing “flow.” When I was so engrossed in work that time seemed to stand still.

For some reason we tend to recoil from hard work, even though it’s a guaranteed source of happiness.

Think of your experiences in life and see if this makes sense. Have you ever worked a 12-hour day and felt invigorated at the end? Or had a lazy Saturday where you waste away the entire day on the couch and feel guilty and depressed?

I’ve realized that work-life balance isn’t an objective measure that can be quantified by the number of hours you work. It’s subjective. It’s personal. It’s about deciding what’s important to you, and spending your time and effort on those things every day.

For me, perfect work-life can’t exist without work. Sometimes that’s only 4 hours a day, and sometimes it’s 20+ hours a day.

People say that if they didn’t have to work so much, they could really live the way they wanted and finally be happy. But to be honest, I don’t think most people would be happy without work.

The Truth About Work-Life Balance

The truth about work-life balance seems to be this: it’s different for everyone, and it’s not defined by how many hours you work.

Working insanely hard, long hours can suck sometimes, but life has little purpose or meaning if you aren’t working hard and pursuing excellence at something.

Work-life balance means different things to different people. For some that means spending 20 hours a day at work building a career they’re proud of, and for others that means freelancing to pay the bills and travelling the world.

What does work-life balance mean to you? Leave a comment and let us know. TC mark

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Image Credit: Twenty20 / angela.nguyen2

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