Give Up on Work-Life Balance

Despite the pressure to have it all, many workers still feel they are failing both in the office and at home.

A woman eats and does her makeup while looking at a laptop.
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Brigid Schulte has baked Valentine’s Day cupcakes until 2 a.m. and written articles until 4 a.m. In 2014, when she wrote Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, a book about the hunt for work-life balance, Schulte was a reporter for The Washington Post and a mother of two young children. Her unforgiving schedule had no free time and left her constantly torn between her family and professional life.

“I have held what I hope were professional-sounding interviews sitting on the floor in the hall outside my kids’ dentist’s office,” Schulte writes. At work, she would get started on an article only to have to take a break to call her kids’ school. At night, she would wake in a panic thinking of all the stuff she didn’t get done. When she described her time troubles to a fellow reporter, the reporter said, “I don’t know how you single mothers do it.” Schulte has a husband.

“It was madness,” Schulte, who is now the director of the Better Life Lab at New America, told me recently. “I felt like I couldn’t even breathe. I felt like work was totally demanding. I always felt behind, that I wasn’t doing enough. At home, I felt like I couldn’t be the kind of mother that I thought I should be. I felt like I was falling apart at the seams.”

When I read Schulte’s book, I found myself nodding along vigorously. My career as a journalist similarly requires odd hours. I’ve timed calls from PR people to coincide with my commute home, since that’s the only “free” time I had to talk. On a recent cross-country trip to see my parents, I spent a day doing my work expenses. Constant pressure in my profession has made me go to great lengths to minimize how much labor I perform outside of work. I once made my boyfriend pay me for the hours I spent booking flights and hotels for our vacation.

The reasons behind this “madness,” as Schulte put it, are familiar, and they’re not specific to journalism. American workers—especially those in white-collar professions—are working longer hours. Women are often the default chore-doers and child-tenders, even in relationships that strive for egalitarianism. The solution from career gurus has historically been to try to squeeze both work and life into the overpacked Tupperware that is your day. Check emails during the kids’ swim meet, they say, or pick up a hobby to “take your mind off work”—and take up even more time you don’t have.

Busy workers have been trying and failing at these types of hacks for decades. This fruitless cycle suggests that work-life balance is not independently achievable for most overworked people, if not outright impossible. Balancing work and life “is such an act of subversion, of resistance, that it’s really difficult for individuals to do,” Schulte said. “The fear is you’ll be overlooked by your overworking bosses and seen as a threat by everyone else.”

In the end, the pursuit of balance can itself be exhausting: After an arduous workday, people feel as if they “should” dice up vegetables and Instagram their smiling toddlers. In fact, some researchers think that rather than beat yourself up striving to balance work and life, it might be better to simply embrace the imbalance.

To many Americans, reading the research on work-life balance would feel like reading their own diary. The people most stricken by work-life-balance issues are, perhaps expectedly, dual-earner families, says Marcus Butts, a management professor at Southern Methodist University. That is, both people in the house have jobs, so there’s no one whose job it is to exclusively manage the household.

Melissa Milkie, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, has found that people with college degrees have more “work-nonwork interference” than those with less education. Having the freedom to “make their own hours” doesn’t necessarily help Americans who work long hours, either. In a study, Milkie and her colleagues found that people who work more than 50 hours a week actually have more, not fewer, work-life conflicts if they set their own hours—a concept called “schedule control.” Rather than a salve, “schedule control may be indicative of ‘work that never ends,’” Milkie and her co-authors write. Another study states it plainly: “The most consistent family characteristic predicting [work-life] imbalance is being a parent. The most consistent work characteristic predicting imbalance is hours worked.”

Wealthy workers’ long hours of course don’t mean they have it tougher than poor workers do. While people in low-income professions are less likely to work more than a standard 40-hour week, this can be due to a lack of job opportunities. The overwork of the professional class, meanwhile, does seem like more of a choice. The relationship between a person’s satisfaction with her job and the number of hours she works appears to form a U-shaped curve: One study found that satisfaction dips upon working more than 40 hours, only to rise again after 55 hours. Some of that overwork might be driven by passion. Then again, Corporate Stockholm Syndrome is apparently a thing, so maybe at some point you come under the spell of your corporate captors.

Many of these people are salaried employees, so they’re not earning overtime. Why work more hours than you get paid for? “Employers are greedy institutions. They want as much time as they can get,” Milkie says. This can be especially hard in creative professions, where the sign of a job well done is nebulous and subjective. (“If we all hated our jobs, it would be much easier to create work-life balance,” a worker once told Schulte.) In professional jobs, employees feel a sense of competition with one another. And one way to compete is to outwork.

This culture of overwork has well-known personal consequences. Working more than 55 hours a week raises the risk of heart attack and stroke. People who work longer hours tend to be more anxious and depressed, and their sleep suffers. Long hours aren’t even good for performance: As Schulte wrote in the Harvard Business Review, research has shown that people’s IQ actually drops 13 points when they’re in a state of tunnel-vision busyness.

Long work hours affect romantic relationships, too. In heterosexual partnerships, women seem to suffer more than men do. One study found that women whose male partners worked 50 or more hours a week were more stressed and felt their relationships were of lower quality than those partnered with men who worked 35 to 49 hours. But men partnered with women who worked long hours “report no differences in stress, time adequacy, or relationship quality.”

Technology has been offered up as both a cause of work-life imbalance and a potential solution. Smartphones often take the blame for work bleeding into the evening, yet Butts says certain elements of remote work can actually be beneficial. Attempting to work 60 hours each week directly from an office desk can be brutal. “Being able to attend to after-work emails after the kids go to bed allows you to set up for the next day,” he says. “One of my colleagues calls it ‘parking downhill’”—setting yourself up to have the easiest workday possible. “Without tech, you couldn’t have that.”

Butts says that if you can, you should try to “segment” between your work and nonwork lives. But for jobs in which that’s not possible, he advises that the best way to think about your life is as “one big pie.” Busy people who see work and nonwork as two separate spheres tend to get angry when one bleeds into the other, Butts says. One coping mechanism might be to view your life as a seamless, worky fever dream. As unappealing as that sounds, at least you’re not surprised when it extends past 6 p.m.

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.

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.”

At work, letting balls drop is risky; it can get you fired. Most people can’t simply tell their boss that it’s a co-worker’s month to handle something. “In a really demanding and competitive environment, to say ‘I’m not gonna go after that big story’ is the kiss of death,” Schulte admitted. She suggested that journalists (or graphic designers, or dancers, or enter your this-was-my-dream-so-why-am-I-so-tired profession here) try to get more buy-in from bosses so they can put their long hours toward projects that truly excite them. “When the shit train comes by”—that is, the tasks no one wants to do—“tell them, ‘Okay, I can be diverted to do this, but then this other big thing that we all want is gonna take me longer to do, so what do you want?’” Schulte said.

She encourages women, in particular, to take time away from work and use whatever flex time their employers grant them. Many men she knows seem to have no compunctions about taking time for themselves. Women, she said, should start behaving similarly.

Schulte admitted that she’s not “some guru that’s figured it all out,” and it’s not likely that there will ever be one. Sure, there are isolated tales of bosses who insist that their employees go home on time. But if you don’t work for one of those bosses, the best way to achieve balance might just be giving yourself permission not to have it. Maybe you should go easy on yourself for ordering pizza multiple times a week and catching up with friends while you’re running errands. The break you give yourself might be the only one you’ll get for a while.