Rethinking the Work-Life Dichotomy

I have a confession to make: I detest the phrase “work-life balance.”

The topic of countless articles, talks, blog-posts and therapy sessions, work-life balance is a subject heavily researched and saturated with opinions.  Conversations on the theme address everything from identifying if you have an issue with striking work-life balance, to better achieving work-life balance, to why work-life balance is important in the first place.

It’s not that I disagree with the words of wisdom offered in the literature on the subject, per se.  Who could argue against taking a vacation, confiding in co-workers, and managing time efficiently?  Rather, I find the concept problematic because it sets up what I believe to be an unhelpful dichotomy.  It suggests that work is separate from life, when in fact, that’s not the case.  Work is an aspect of life, not an alternate reality distinct from life.  Experiences at work spill over into our personal lives, and vice versa.  Acting as if work and life are separate is sort of like saying, “Food on vacation doesn’t have calories; I can eat whatever I want!”  While this mindset may seem freeing and invigorating in the moment, it is ultimately destructive. 

When we treat work and life as two separate entities, two things happen.  First, we are more inclined to simply accept the negative aspects of either “work” or “life.”  We can say, “My boss is a tyrant, but at least I have a supportive partner,” or “my home life is in shambles; good thing I can stay late at the office,” using the positive aspects of one dimension to escape, or justify ignoring problematic aspects of the other. 

Secondly, a dichotomy creates a competition of sorts.  By pitting work and life against each other we implicitly tell ourselves that one is good and the other is bad, that giving to one means taking away from the other, that in the game of work-life, one will win and one will lose.  We may end up sabotaging one aspect of our life for the sake of the other.

It doesn’t have to be like this.  I spend a significant portion of my time at work and I want it to be a fulfilling and meaningful aspect of my existence, just as my family, my friendships, my continued education, my hobbies and my health are.  To this end, I think it’s a lot more helpful to think not about “work” and “life,” but about “work life” and “personal life” as separate categories that share a common stem: life.  They are both parts of our lives and deserve our attention and effort.  Rather than asking how we can balance the two, we should rephrase the question: how can I nourish both of these aspects of my life? 

Along that vein, I think we can benefit from applying best practices in one area of life to the other, and vice versa.  For an example, reading is one of my favorite hobbies in my personal life.  Integrating reading books and articles about my field into my work life would be both enjoyable and beneficial to my career.  Alternatively, one of my greatest strengths in the workplace is my ability to create detailed timelines for long-term projects and stick to them.  It would be of huge benefit to my personal life to create a timeline for deep-cleaning my apartment!

What aspect of your work life would you like to focus on strengthening?  How can your skills from your personal life (or vice versa) contribute to this goal?

Teresa lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church and dabbles in hospital chaplaincy. She has a BA in English, a Master’s in Divinity, and a passion for thinking about the intersection of spirituality, self-improvement, and well-being. Her perfect day includes slowly savoring a morning cup of coffee, reading for work and for fun, and receiving snail mail.