Leadership focuses on what works, and often has to declare war on common sense ideas that don't work. Work-life balance is such an idea. If you let it, it will damage your career, hurt your family, make your life mediocre and make you feel guilty all the time.
In 2000, my Tribal Leadership co-author John King and I devoted a chapter in The Coaching Revolution to why work-life balance was an idea whose time had passed. More than a decade later, with global social and economic problems on the rise, it's time to leave the "work-life balance" concept on the scrap heap of history and move on to a better model.
For those who have been living in a cave for the last 20 years, work-life balance is the idea that work and life are two different spheres, both wanting more time than you have to give.
There are three reasons you should abandon this idea right now:
1. People who think work and life are separate are usually under-performers. Work-life balance is built upon a flawed notion: that work is like cancer -- expanding without boundary and leaving you pale, exhausted and without friends or family. The only way to prevent it from expanding to your entire life is to set up barriers. Instead, let's see work and life as both guided by a sense of calling, to a unique role that uses your best skills in service of something important. The highest performers I've met feel this sense of calling in every area of their lives -- from family to how they do their jobs. Everything they do reflects this calling, and they integrate their work and family time together.
2. Nothing alive is really in balance. Turn a plant away from light and it will use all its stored energy to seek out the sun again. The human body isn't in balance. I've witnessed many surgical operations, and the inner organs of a live person are in a dynamic system, in which each is adapting to, and guiding, the others. Your work and life are the same way. The goal is a dynamic flexibility based on what's important to you and the people around you. At times, this will mean seeing less of your family for a little while. At other times, your family's needs will take over. At no time are the two balanced, except in someone's head who feels guilty because he can't make the two work like he thinks they should.
3. The real goal is a life expressing core commitments. A far better way to approach the work-life issue is to constantly ask what you and others in your life are committed to accomplishing. This isn't an easy question. If it were, everyone would have answered it long ago. My family and I struggle with this issue. For me, it comes down to my core values of impact and learning. I want to express these values through my family (learning is big in our home), through my business, through teaching at USC and through research for the next book. If forced to choose between family and work, of course I'd choose family. But in the real world, this choice doesn't exist. The only question is how will you make your 168 hours each week matter? The C- answer is you'll respond to things as they come up -- this makes you reactive. The B answer is that you'll balance life and work -- because you'll end up sacrificing one for the other and never really do either very well. The A answer is you'll express your core commitments, constantly discussing the tradeoffs with everyone in your work and your life.
What should replace this fruitless search for work-life balance? The short answer: The problem of limited time is best dealt with by a relentless search for your core commitments, and how to express them in every aspect of your work and life. This has to be an open discussion that is never fully answered, not even after you're retired. For those who want to see the newer system, I've included a longer explanation on my personal blog.