rethinking work-life balance

The work – life balance discussion is well meaning. The basic motive is ensuring our work commitments don’t become harmful to family and personal life. However, one only gets answers to the questions one asks, so it is important that we frame the issue of work – life balance to address the real issue.

Most times I hear a discussion about work life balance it ends up essentially an exhortation to leave work on time or reduce the time spent at the office. Sometimes that is the right advice, but only sometimes, and in my view is typically a result of the issue being framed unhelpfully.

The first thing to say is that some of us need to come out of the closet and confess to loving work. It engages our best skills, it provides opportunities to make a contribution and the relationships are enjoyable. I remember feeling liberated when reading for the first time Happy Mondays many years ago.

When this is the case, as it is with many of us, addressing the work – life balance issue by the simple discipline of reducing work hours is about as effective as a commitment not to think about a ‘white dog with black spots’. Have you ever tried not to think about a ‘white dog with black spots’. The truth is it is really hard to change behaviour by committing NOT to do something. I’ve done the white-dog-black-spots exercise countless times with people … and the only way not to think about a ‘white dog with black spots’ is to …. think about a brown dog, or something else entirely.


The problem with so-called work – life balance is that people don’t have a life! Or that they don’t have a life that is sufficiently compelling to compete with all that work offers us. When I am tempted to put in ridiculous hours and make choices in favour of work over family, then the best course of action is actually to invest in the quality of home life so that walking in the front door is the best part of the day. The pattern over time is that we tend to chose in favour of things we love.

A few years ago I was sitting in a workshop being led by John MacFarlane, who at the time was CEO of ANZ. John talked about his commitment to cycling to work, only scheduling meetings in the morning so he could work at his desk in blocks in the afternoon, and refusing to take phone calls out of business hours. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking, if the CEO of a bank can be committed to such things, surely I can. But the key for John was not so much his commitment NOT to work in the evenings, it was that he had other interesting, compelling things to do including a love of photography as I recall. It was in that workshop I first grasped the idea that the real issue with work-life balance is usually to do with our lives outside work.

So the most effective way to address the work – life balance issue is not by addressing the ‘quantity’ of work, but by investing in the ‘quality’ of life.