Of course, these types of mental tricks demand even more of the employee, rather than the employer. Most studies and experts say work-life balance only changes when bosses want it to. It’s simply too hard for one rank-and-file worker to remold an office’s culture. A research team that Schulte is working with recommends that managers leave work on time and send out notes reminding workers to schedule their vacations.
Rad: The failure of the phrase ‘work-life balance’
If your work won’t change, though, it can be difficult to justify your insane hours to your family and friends. It’s tough to explain why you can’t go to happy hour, you can’t make it to dinner by 6:30, you can’t be offline for an entire weekend, you can’t, you can’t. In Stretched Too Thin, another book about busy women, Jessica N. Turner recommends scheduling time for friends on your calendar just as you would schedule a meeting or doctor appointments. “Much of my time spent with friends happens over coffee before work and during hourlong lunch breaks,” she writes. She also recommends “being okay with imperfection,” which might include allowing people to come to your house when it’s not very clean.
The other option is to take the ethos of imperfection to its most extreme degree—to give up on the idea of balancing work and life entirely.
Silicon Valley has promoted the idea that you should spend all day and all night crushing it at a start-up, only to return to an adult dorm where you sleep the barest amount necessary to keep your company alive. Brad Stulberg, the author, with Steve Magness, of The Passion Paradox, told me that creative jobs tend to be all-consuming, almost like a socially sanctioned addiction. But “the conventional definition of work-life balance is doing equal things in equal proportion,” he said. “I need to be the perfect husband or wife; I should exercise; I should go to happy hour.”
For people who work a lot of hours, even trying to achieve work-life balance can be a source of imbalance itself. (Several years ago, I took up baking in an attempt to gain work-life balance, then realized I was usually too tired to bake after a 12-hour workday. Now I hate baking.)
Stulberg recommended seeing balance in terms of “seasons,” rather than hours in every day. “There might be a season where you’re writing a book, and that’s the thing,” he said. “There might be a season when you’re starting a family.” There will probably be fewer productive hours at the keyboard during the family season, and fewer boozy brunches during the book season, and that’s okay.
Schulte told me that her work-life balance only changed after she took some long, soul-searching walks with her husband in which they renegotiated their at-home duties. She gave up on having a picture-perfect home life. Now certain things around the house are her husband’s job, and if he doesn’t do them, they just don’t get done. If her daughter needed to go to the orthodontist, Schulte would say simply, “‘It’s Dad’s month.’ And I had to be okay with it if my daughter missed her appointment one month.”