There are only 24 hours in a day.
Most people think of that time as being divided between some type of “work” and the rest of their “life” (hopefully with enough time left for sleep).
Cultural and economic shifts in recent decades have resulted in more people working (especially more women) and many more people working 40+ hour weeks. With these changes has come an increasing interest in work-life balance.
A quick google search for the phrase returns “About 152,000,000 results.”
However, the term itself seems to have only existed since the late 1980s. Another quick search of google books suggests that it only became a more common topic for writers in the 1990s.
As a relatively new concept, there is no single agreed-upon definition of work-life balance.
Here are 5 somewhat different ways of thinking about it:
1. Separate spheres
One idea is that work is separate from life and that the two have little or no influence on one another.
There is not much evidence to support this idea overall, but some people do think of themselves in this way.
A second idea is that work is separate from life but that one can “spill over” into the other and have either a positive or negative influence.
For example, problems at home might negatively influence performance at work; whereas a restful vacation might positively influence performance at work.
A third idea is that the balance between work and life is determined by how well each meets the needs of the individual person.
For example, a person with an unsatisfying job might instead get satisfaction by taking up an interesting hobby in their spare time; whereas a person who is unsatisfied with their life outside of work might get satisfaction by working harder to achieve more on the job.
4. Temporary tradeoff
A fourth idea is that people knowingly make a tradeoff between work and life.
For example, a person might choose to work long hours in order to secure future life-related benefits that require more money (e.g., buying a house for one’s family, saving more for retirement).
The fifth idea is probably the most common. It is the idea that this post opened with.
There are only so many hours in a day, work and life both demand time, and there may not be enough time for all of it (in the opening example, one might occasionally need to forgo sleep).
None of these ways of thinking is completely right or wrong.
They reflect not only a variety of different personal circumstances, but also different ways of thinking about life.
That second part may be more important than you realize.
If you think of work and life as 2 separate things, things that might spill over, compensate for one another, present tradeoffs or conflicts—you are still thinking of your life as 2 separate things.
Research on Cognitive Dissonance Theory has shown that—much like our attitudes influence our behaviors—our behaviors influence our attitudes. It could be that spending more time working actually causes people to think their life outside of work is less important.
On the other hand, taking time away from the office might actually cause people to think work itself is less important. And there is some evidence suggesting that this is the case.
Interestingly enough, this doesn’t happen when people instead think about life as a whole, in terms of “work-life harmony.”
The findings are still somewhat preliminary, and more research will be needed before we can reach any solid conclusions.
However, just imagine if a simple shift in thinking can turn an inevitable tradeoff into a potential win-win situation.
Why not strive to be happy and satisfied in every aspect?