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The Fallacy of Work-Life Balance: 5 Reasons You Might Be Failing At It

I hesitate to write an article on work-life balance, because I usually laugh at them. Most of them are pretty much complete nonsense. Every article on work-life balance should be called “How to Work Less” because no one reading those is going “You know what I have? Too much life. I need more work!”

The people that need more work are reading different articles, mostly about how to find a job.

I’m not here to tell you how to achieve a great work-life balance, because honestly, I suck at it myself. True Story: I left my own high school graduation party to go work a shift I was scheduled for at a fast food restaurant. It’s one of my life’s great regrets, because that’s an opportunity you can’t get again. My point is: Don’t follow me on this, because I’m not a great example.

That “work ethic” followed me into agency life. I worked for a large digital marketing firm, and I was often known as “The Hardest Working Guy In The Building.” True or not, that was the perception. It’s somewhat of a badge of honor, but it’s not always something to be proud of. It leads to burnout, and it did for me. My last few months there were mentally exhausting. It leads you to misplace blame. You blame them, but you should be looking in the mirror.

As I write this, I’ve been out of there almost two years now, and with some distance and reflection, I’ve realized that it was all my fault. Every single bit of it.

That’s not to say that the job wasn’t demanding. Any job worth having is. If you don’t feel challenged by your job, it’s probably time to go do something else. If you have clients, things happen. You’ll sometimes need to put in that 50-60-70-80 hour week. It can’t be totally avoided. However, if you’re doing it every week, something is wrong. If you dig deep enough, you’ll probably find that one or more (and maybe all) of these 5¬†things are¬†happening.

  1. You’ve defined yourself by your work.
    There are lots of things that one can consider most important in their life. It’s where you find your happiness. For some people, it’s family. Maybe it’s hobbies, or friends. However, if your job is the thing that’s absolutely most important to you, that’s where you put your energy, and your time. This isn’t a bad thing if you control it, but true workaholics often take it too far. The birth of my son put this in perspective for me, and really re-defined this for me. Now he and my family are my absolute most important thing, and my balance reflects that. You become your values
  2. You’re addicted to the praise.
    There’s nothing wrong with being a hard worker. I try not to surround myself with anyone who’s not… but you shouldn’t be known for effort, you should be known for results. The hardest working person on a team doesn’t necessarily mean the most valuable or the most effective. Late nights and Herculean efforts become battle scars and war stories, but they’re not necessarily tales of victory. I once totalled my car because I was too exhausted from pulling a late night. That’s not something to be proud of. Would you rather tell tales of your reckless driving, or of the time you completed a project on time, and on budget, and the client was really happy? One is framed as “going above and beyond” and the other is seen as “just doing your job.”
  3. You’re a people-pleaser.
    I love to help people out. I always have. I probably always will. I feel bad telling anyone no, but that creates a vicious cycle. Say “yes” too much and you’ll find yourself with a stack of unrealistic deadlines and projects that aren’t really delivering the greatest value. You’re making them happy, and that’s great, but what happens if you say no? They’ll find someone else. Life will go on, and you can focus on your central tasks.
  4. You don’t trust others.
    If you work on a team, or manage a team, and you find yourself overloaded while your colleagues are not, there’s only one of two scenarios: You’ve got the wrong colleagues, or you’re “work-hoarding” to feel self-important. It’s probably the second one, if you’re being honest with yourself. Every time you don’t empower someone else, you’re placing a greater burden on yourself and minimizing their value. It’s a hard lesson to learn and hard to admit to, but accepting this will change your work style.
  5. You overestimate your own abilities.
    First of all, all developers do this. You look at a project, and you go: I can do that in 10 days, when 30 is the more likely scenario. You look at projects on their own, and not in the context of everything else going on. If you had 10 pure days to work on that project, then MAYBE you could pull it off, but you probably don’t. It’s why a lot of estimates and timelines are just wrong. Internally, it feels like admitting failure to you, and that’s unacceptable, so the only thing you can control at that point is effort.

All of these things create a vicious spiral. It can feel inescapable, but it’s about reframing your attitude and looking inward. As I get a little older, and the late nights get a little harder, I’ve been forced to look at the root of the issue and actively fix them. I haven’t succeeded at all of them, and I probably never will, but I’m better at it today than I was yesterday, and I’ll be a little better tomorrow. I can only hope that me writing this leads you to think about your root causes of the problem. I’m writing this on a Friday morning, so let’s all agree to knock off at 5 o’clock today and maybe go grab a beer?