The debate about work-life balance seemingly has a life of its own. Every few months there is a new book or blog with the answers. I have two issues with the concept of work-life balance and its meaning in my life. First, most discussion of work-life balance implies that the life part is good, and the work part is bad. We all work too much, so don’t have enough time for “life.” Our conversation revolves around how to do more in less time, how to hire out chores that we don’t enjoy, how to not feel guilty about being away from home. My issue is that this black and white, good and bad, is just not reality. I spent a lot of time training to be a physician. It is a big part of who I am. There are lots of parts of my job that I love to do. It is not inherently bad. In fact, when I am happy at work, I am happier at home and in my life.
My second issue with the concept is that of balance. How often are our lives in perfect balance? In my case, very rarely. When it feels balanced, I try to enjoy it, because I know that something is going to come up—being on call, covering for a colleague, having a sick kid, helping a friend or relative in crisis, getting sick myself, not sleeping well, getting injured, etc. By talking about “balance” I feel that I am setting myself up to fail, because it is a goal that I can rarely achieve. It has taken me many years to get to this point. I work part-time in order to be home more with my kids. My life is structured to be able to do many of the things I love but not equally all the time.
So, I’ve started thinking about the concept of life as a dynamic equilibrium. Dynamic equilibrium is a chemistry concept where reagents are being converted to products, and products are being broken down into reagents. To achieve an equilibrium, each action is mirrored by an equal reaction, and the material in the two containers flows back and forth. The idea of life as an equilibrium appeals to me because it is a model that is constantly in flux based on my current work situation and my current life situation. I’m looking to achieve a steady state or close to it. I envision two buckets of water, with the water running back and forth between the buckets via tubes. The water can flow from work to life or from life to work, depending on the day or week. It makes me feel like I am never in balance but always striving to achieve a combination of the things I love. If the work bucket is overflowing 1 week, I make sure to put more water in the family or personal bucket the next week. If I am home a lot 1 week with a sick child, I may work more at night the following week to keep up.
The other part of this concept that I like is that if we don’t fill our own buckets with water (ie, sleep, exercise, healthy eating, spirituality, time with family and friends) then the overall levels of both will be low, and we will not only be ineffective at work but irritable at home and at risk for burnout. There is an expectation of self-care that is explicit. If we don’t focus on our own health, then the water levels and quality will be subpar. The idea of an equilibrium carries with it the inherent belief that everyone’s levels are different as well. For me, working part-time is the right amount, while for someone else, a full-time position is what they need to keep their bucket filled. For me, it is important to be home with my kids most days after school. In 6 years when they are in college, the time will get adjusted. I was singing a different tune 6 years ago when they were small, and I felt that I was barely keeping my head above water. Life changes and so does work. If we focus on trying to maintain an equilibrium, maybe we can be more thoughtful about those changes and more flexible in our expectations of ourselves.