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Myth Busting: The Work-Life Balance Doesn't Exist

We've all heard that phrase, “the work-life balance.” It's offered up as something to strive for, something to accomplish, something lots of other people brag about on social media. The topic of work-life balance has been brought into sharp relief this week after a BBC commentator was interrupted by his two adorable kids during a live interview, causing the Internet to burst out laughing.

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(previously posted on Nomad Communications)

Do you get enough time at home with your family? Do you have enough energy at the end of the day to work on boat building, marathon running, or whatever your passion is? Are you completely present and productive at work? Are you all of these things every day?

If you're anything like me, the answer is a huge guffaw, complete with an embarrassing snort. That work-life balance thing that so many articles have been written about (some of them by me) is a myth we tell ourselves to keep getting out of bed in the morning. Soon, soon we will find that wonderful point of balance in which you are everything everyone needs you to be, including YOU.

Nope. Not going to happen. Let me break it to you gently: there is no such thing as the work-life balance. At least, not the way we collectively envision it.


Robert E. Kelly knows this all too well. He's the professor who was being interviewed by the BBC when his four-year-old daughter and baby son burst into the room, clearly pleased to have found their dad. Kelly tries to keep a straight face as his wife follows a few seconds later, obviously mortified that the kids escaped her attention and are now live on international television.

Today's media world being what it is, the video soon went viral across social media platforms and everyone who had ever tried to conduct an interview from home nodded in recognition.

Myself included. I was a freelance writer when my children were babies, and it takes only a moment to bring back that feeling of desperate tugging between a child who needs something and the interviewee on the other end of the phone. I'm just relieved I was never filmed doing things like handing my kid an entire box of cookies in the hopes it would keep him quiet for just five more minutes, or making silent, it's-going-to-be-okay faces at my toilet-training son striving for success on the potty while holding the phone to my ear and making interested sounds at the person on the other end of the line, whose quote I needed for an article.

There is no such thing as balance, but there is such a thing as the long view, and that's the story I tell myself, especially during weeks like the one I just had. We all have weeks like this; tell me if this feels familiar. Monday, I had a sick kid at home, which meant instead of preparing for the gigantic storm coming on Tuesday (emailing myself work from my office computer, buying milk and bread along with the rest of the Upper Valley), I was at home, trying to write paragraphs in between taking temperatures, delivering tea, and walking the dogs, who seem to think if I'm at home, I must be at their service.

That's okay, I figured. I can catch up. To do this, I got up at 2:30 on Tuesday and made it to the office by 4 a.m so I could get some hours in before the storm hit. Add to these weird days a lingering cold making the rounds in the family, one kid's stress about an upcoming play (which requires rehearsals until 9 every night), another kid's anxiety about a karate belt test, and another kid's struggle with math homework, and, well, if you can find a good way of getting everything done, than you need to give me lessons.

And that's the thing about the work-life balance. Maybe it doesn't mean succeeding all the time at everything you're trying to do. Maybe the balance part of the phrase refers to the constant wibble wobble that erupts when you try to walk a balance beam. Maybe it's more about doing most things mostly right most of the time.

After more than a decade of striving for the work-life balance, here's my advice:

Be flexible. Your week is never going to go exactly the way you plan. That's okay. I bring my laptop everywhere, and I have written pages upon pages on the sidelines of soccer games and at the karate dojo. I once wrote a good chunk of content on the back of several receipts (they breed in my pockets) while hiding in the coat room at an office party. Always carry a pen, and don't be precious about your surroundings—your brain works no matter where you might happen to be.

Be open to inspiration. Because it hits when you least expect it. And because you're so flexible (see above), you'll have the ability to take advantage of those blinding moments of genius and actually get the words on the page or the sketch on the back of your hand or the idea recorded into your phone. Real life is a wealth of connections, so pay attention and write it down.

Revise, revise, revise. Those pages I wrote in the coat closet? Yeah, they kind of sucked. But the second draft, which I wrote when I had more time to sit down and concetrate, was amazing, and it wouldn't have been that way without the crummy closet draft. The work that results in the immediate aftermath of a moment of inspiration is rarely as good as it could be, and part of the job is bringing it to the next level.

Hone your sense of humor. Because it's funny, dammit. In the video, Robert E. Kelly has a lot of trouble keeping a straight face, even as he's apologizing to BBC viewers as his wife herds the kids from the room. And that's part of what makes this clip so endearing, and enduring. Life interrupts on a regular basis, and if you don't laugh, you're only going to get frustrated, and that's never good for the work.

What about you? What are your most memorable work-life balance failures?

 

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