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Why Work-Life Balance is Futile—and What to Focus on Instead

Many of us feel guilty, anxious, or uneasy when our work overrides family time and vice versa.

Maybe lately you’ve been working long hours to meet a variety of deadlines. Maybe you’ve also been working most weekends. Or maybe you’ve been focusing more on family time, which has meant that you’re working fewer hours. You’ve been closing up shop early so you can drive the kids to sports practice, and eat dinner together — and you’re too tired to pull the split shift. Which means email keeps piling up and projects remain unfinished.

Many of us feel guilty, anxious, or uneasy because we’re not achieving that so-called work-life balance. We feel like it’s regularly out of our reach.

This is understandable, because we are trying to achieve something impossible, something that doesn’t exist.

Work-life balance is a “placeholder term,” confirms Jones Loflin, a speaker and trainer who helps individuals and organizations that struggle with too much to do. It was the best descriptor at the time—“and it stuck.”

But trying to live this way—to have a balance between work and life—is utter futility, he said.

“There will always be days, weeks, or even months where more of our physical, mental, and emotional energy will be required in one area of our life than another.”

Loflin uses the analogy of a high-wire act: The person uses a balancing bar to help them walk across the wire, and that bar is constantly shifting.

So if work-life balance is futile, what is actually useful and helpful?

A better term and concept is “work-life satisfaction.” Because, as Loflin said, it’s really about “making the right choice about where our time and energy is needed right now based on our purpose, goals, values, or whatever principles guide our lives…If we are living our lives in close alignment with our purpose, we are more satisfied with our outcomes. And satisfaction can be measured much more accurately than balance.”

Work-life satisfaction is specific to each person, said Loflin, author of several books, including his latest, Always Growing: How To Be A Strong(er) Leader In Any Season. Again, it depends on your values, goals, and priorities. For Loflin work-life satisfaction is: “having the desired impact on my world each day.” “It’s the feeling I get when I put my head on my pillow at night and have the satisfaction of knowing I did my best to live this day in alignment with my values.”

To start exploring your own satisfaction, Loflin suggested finishing this statement, and identifying what needs to be changed: “I would be more satisfied with my life if….”

Below, he shared other ways we can explore and boost our work-life satisfaction.

Consider the three key categories. Loflin breaks his life down into these areas: work, self, and relationships. He regularly asks himself honest questions about each area to understand his satisfaction. He shared these examples:

  • Work: “What did I do to move a project forward today? If I used my time like I did today for the next 30 days, would my business grow or shrink?”
  • Self: “Did I start my day in such a way that it provided me with the physical, emotional, and mental energy I needed? Am I a better person because of the choices I made today?”
  • Relationships: “Did I do my best to be an encouragement to everyone I interacted with today? Did I do my best to grow at least one relationship today?”

You might create your own questions for each area based on what’s most important and essential to you. You might even come up with your own areas.

Next, consider if you’d like to change anything in any of the categories. For instance, if Loflin finds he’s not satisfied with his progress in writing his next book, he explores why he feels stuck and takes action to get moving.

Maybe you’re feeling disconnected from your spouse, so you talk to him or her about scheduling a date night every Friday. Maybe you feel disconnected from yourself, so you decide to carve out 20 minutes in the morning to journal about your thoughts and feelings and stretch your body.

Identify what’s important to you. Figure out “what you truly want to create and experience,” and what brings you your greatest joy and makes you feel most alive,” said Loflin. Then figure out what that looks like day to day—and what concrete steps you can take to make that happen.

For instance, Loflin worked with a client whose core value was adventure. Loflin helped the client see that building relationships can be an adventure, too. So one step his client took was creating more engaging conversations.

Take the time to celebrate. Loflin has found that too many people fixate on bashing themselves for what they’re not doing, instead of savoring and celebrating what they are doing. “If you are always chasing work-life satisfaction, you miss the chance to harness the incredible energy that comes when you take a moment to reflect on all the positive things that you have done or experienced.”

So what is making you smile right now? What are you enjoying about work? What are you enjoying about your family? What do you feel good about?

Of course, life is fluid. The demands and needs of your job and your family are constantly in flux. So are your own needs.

When we use work-life balance as a barometer, we often end up feeling bad about every area. That stress, anxiety, and overwhelm dampen everything.

The better question is: Are you satisfied in the different areas of your life? Which you can follow up with other questions such as: How satisfied? Do I want to make any changes?

Or perhaps this is simply a season where work has a bigger role, or your family does, or your wellness does. Either way, it’s up to you—and it’s totally OK that it’s completely out of balance.

Why Work-Life Balance is Futile—and What to Focus on Instead

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Why Work-Life Balance is Futile—and What to Focus on Instead. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
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Last updated: 30 Sep 2018 (Originally: 30 Sep 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 30 Sep 2018
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