What No One Ever Told You About Work-Life Balance

How We Got It Wrong and What to Do About It

When it comes to work and life, most of us know what it feels like to be out of balance. But do we know what it feels like to be in balance? It’s not a trick question—even if it seems so at first.


A few years ago, I took my mentoring group on a ropes course. For one of the challenges, we walked a long stretch of rope that wound around several trees. We had to hold onto each other as we worked our way across the line.

Here’s what I remember most of all: When we were balanced, it never really felt like we were. Our legs constantly moved and wobbled, and we strained to grip each other and the nearest tree. But we stayed on that line a long time: making little corrections, adjusting our weight, and trying to stay upright.

It didn’t feel like balance, but it was. And that’s exactly how life is, right?

I’ve written before about the symphonic life: the idea of allowing all the parts of our life to play at the right pace and volume. It’s a metaphor for balance.

But what about the people that say work-life balance is a myth, an unattainable condition we all hope for but need to forget about? It’s only a myth if we misunderstand what balance means.

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Here are three vital aspects of balance we need to keep in mind, especially as we apply the concept to our work and life:

  1. Balance is not the same as rest. If we think that attaining balance means finally getting a much-needed break, then we’re missing something important. It’s not about rest, though it does include it. Balance is about distributing demands so we can stay on track. And sometimes that takes a lot of work. If that’s where you’re at right now, don’t be discouraged. It’s just part of the challenge.

  2. Balance is dynamic. “Life is like riding a bicycle,” Albert Einstein said. “In order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.” We’ve all experienced this. The slower you go, the more trouble it is to keep your bike up. Momentum helps us stay on course. It’s the same for all the corrections and adjustments we make along the way. Balance requires tweaking our schedule, task lists, and more. If you have it right one week, it still requires attention the next—which lead us to No. 3.

  3. Balance is intentional. Our bodies are programed to stay upright, but it takes a bit more focus when it comes to the complex responsibilities and relationships that make up our lives. We have to make purposeful decisions and actions if we want balance. It’s not accidental. Those decisions and actions will look different for each of us, but they’re essential for all of us just the same.

If we’ve bought the myth of fun, fast, and easy, then we might be tempted to look at work-life balance as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. If we just get the right combination of job, family, rest, and hobbies going in our favor, then we’re home free. But that’s just magical thinking.

Balance isn’t easy, fast, or always fun. It requires constant movement, constant attention.

That’s why it can feel like we’re not truly balanced, even when we are. Sometimes when we’re doing exactly what is required to keep our balance, we feel the most unbalanced. That’s only because we’ve misunderstood balance; we expect it to do something for our lives that it can’t.

But once we adjust our perspective, we can see it for what it is—a difficult but necessary way to approach our lives. Rather than be discouraged when the challenge becomes hard, we can recognize the difficulty as just part of the course.

Question: What do you think about the possibility of work-life balance? How does this perspective affect the way you look at the question? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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