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I spend my days interviewing people who are looking for their next career move. As a result, I get an inside look into how people are thinking about their lives, careers, and what’s important to them. Outside of cash and health insurance (the bare minimum benefits to compete to hire someone), the most requested perk when joining a new company is work-life balance. I can totally appreciate the sentiment; however, work-life balance is the wrong goal. I’m writing to everyone here today to pose a new perspective; specifically, that work-life harmony is a better goal to hold than work-life balance. The difference is subtle and important.
Balance is a state of equal distribution between things (physically, like a teeter tauter, or metaphorically, like the scales of justice). It’s static. The traditional idea of work-life balance is that there is a distinct separation between to the two; neither one overly influencing the other. In the course of a 24-hour day, one might work eight hours, sleep eight hours and have the other eight hours for “life,” which means something different for everyone. Life and work are not static, though. There are always competing forces and things outside our control happening. It follows then, that seeking a balance in an inherently non-static world is going to be tough (e.g., impossible) to achieve.
To make the nebulous, high-level idea of combining work and life something achievable, we can rip two definitions of harmony and repurpose them for us. Harmony (1): the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions having a pleasing effect. Harmony (2): the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole.
For our purposes, we can think about work-life harmony as: the combination of personal and professional activities in such a way as to produce a pleasing experience.
Seeking harmony instead of balance is a better goal for the simple fact that it’s achievable. We can’t control all the moving pieces in the world, so trying to balance them all isn’t an option. Instead, consider creating a feedback loop between work and life that continuously energizes you and feeds into the other area. The ideal state is where life feeds your excitement for work, and the work you do feeds (not drains) the life you live.
How this plays out in reality will differ by the individual, but the steps are mostly the same. Choose work that feeds the life you live outside of work. The problems you would solve even if you did not get paid to do so is a good starting point for figuring out what kind of work would blend in well with the life you live. Taken from the opposite point of view, the work you already do might fit better into another lifestyle, though most people tend to choose lifestyle before work.
The intersection of work and life is one most of us will have to deal with for 40+ years. Having the wrong goal for that entire period of time won’t do us any favors. Living in a harmonic state for those 40 years, though, will lead to much greater satisfaction for us, and the people we live with.