Balance is an inadequate metaphor. Harmony is a more helpful mental model–this post explains why and how to use it.
By now, you’ve probably read a dozen articles saying some version of the following: Balance isn’t a good metaphor for how work relates to life; harmony is much better. (Jeff Bezos said so!)
Harmony sounds nice. You might say it strikes a chord. But life is busy and challenging. Professionals need better than nice: we need research, based in reality, that brings about a perspective shift, so that we can make better decisions and grow over time.
In this post we’re going to break down and apply relevant research into work-life harmony, originally published by the Center for Creative Leadership in partnership with Purdue University. By the end of this, you will:
- Understand why work-life harmony is a more helpful phrase than work-life balance;
- Grow in self-awareness concerning your own psychological preferences around work-life harmony;
- Be motivated to reconsider, shift, and/or strengthen your personal boundaries, for the sake of deepening overall harmony in yourself and in your important relationships.
Balance is a myth
Why a myth? It’s an oversimplification. We usually use this phrase as shorthand for “appropriate time management” or “not letting work take over my life.” But this covers over the complex mix of circumstances that affect how we spend our time, and leaves no room for the factors that cause different people to have different boundaries for different reasons.
It’s too individualistic. The mental image of balance places our self at the center, balancing on right and left our “work” and “life.” But that’s an unsatisfying center. Our choices about how we spend our time affect a number of other people, for better or for worse. “Harmony” acknowledges that no one is an island, and that negotiation with others is a necessary part of healthy relationships and time management.
Work-life Harmony explained and essentialized
The Center for Creative Leadership created an assessment, called WorkLife Indicator, and then published many findings from that data. A Leadership Essential is a simple framework distilled from complex research. This is the essentialized version of work-life harmony.
At its core, work-life harmony is achieved by growing in self-awareness and self-mastery in our behaviors, our identity, and our boundary control. The complex interactions between these three broad buckets of life results in work-life harmony (or disharmony).
Behaviors refers to the instinctive ways people respond when presented with the opportunity to reflexively prioritize one part of their life over another. In other words, this refers to what we actually do over time rather than what we say we believe or value.
Within behaviors, there are two broad categories of people:
- “Integrators” tend to bring work into family and vice versa;
- “Separators” have hard boundaries between work and personal life.
Each of those can manifest as one of three reflexive orientations:
- “Work-firsters” tend to reflexively prioritize work – think answering work emails at all times and during meals;
- “Family-firsters” tend to prioritize personal and/or family things – think putting your work phone in a drawer starting at 5:30pm;
- Finally, “cyclers” are able to actually cycle back and forth between integration and separation without a true preference. (Think psychological preference – like right- or left-handedness.) These people are rare. We can stretch, but all of us tend to have a resting norm.
See why “work-life balance” is too simple? There are two categories and three orientations within just the first of three buckets of work-life harmony. Before continuing, consider how someone who knows you well would describe you: as an integrator or a separator? As a work-firster, family-firster, or cycler?
Identity refers to how we reflexively see ourselves. In The Matrix, Morpheus tells Neo that his appearance while inside the program is his “residual self-image”: his internalized view of himself (which may or may not be what others really see). Behaviors are observable, while identity is an inward disposition / focus / orientation towards a certain end. Think about the question, “From where do I get the largest chunk of my self-worth and sense of identity and purpose?”
People tend to exhibit one of four broad identities:
- work-focused – I get my identity from work;
- family-focused – from personal life / family;
- dual-focused – I draw equally from both spheres;
- other-focused – I have a hobby or passion (non-work, non-family) that drives me most.
It’s important to remember that these are value-neutral. It is possible, for example, to be a perfectly loving and available husband and father, while also having a fundamentally other-focused identity. The key lies in maintaining healthy boundary control.
Boundary control refers to the amount of influence you have (or perceive you have) over how you spend your time and energy. Boundary control is loosely identified along a spectrum of high, moderate, or low. To illustrate, consider the difference between an hourly shift worker vs. a Fortune 100 CEO. Shift workers clock in and clock out; it’s obvious when and where “work” takes place, and they usually don’t take it with them (though emotionally and psychologically they may). CEOs may feel the pressure to be always on, or to constantly maintain and project a certain image.
From this perspective, CEOs might be at risk of low boundary control, since there are many external stakeholders and circumstances that demand their time. They may find it hard to say “no” or to avoid constantly checking email. Shift workers have high boundary control if they know when they’ll work and aren’t pressured to stay later or work more hours than they want to.
Boundary control is a complex mix of internal belief and external pressure. The highest form of boundary control is the ability to control how you spend your time and to say yes or no according to your internal compass. (That isn’t always good; narcissists, for example, only say yes to what they can use for their own benefit!) Low boundary control means you don’t feel the freedom to determine your own yes or no. Typically (but not always!) there’s an inverse correlation to stress levels: high boundary control results in lower stress and vice versa. One example of potentially satisfying low boundary control is a child who has chosen to accept a caregiver role for an aging parent. That child may find deep satisfaction and even joy in being needed in unpredictable and physically taxing ways.
Applying work-life harmony
Harmony in life is a complex tapestry and there are many ways to weave it. For example, I may consider myself a family-focused person. But I am also an integrator (I don’t have hard boundaries between “work” and “everything else”) – I only have one phone for work and personal use, for example. So while I see myself as family-focused (identity), my wife may notice that in my behaviors recently I have been a work-firster, rather than family-firster, because I have been answering work emails during dinner or staying up late working on work projects. That results in disharmony (within myself, because I don’t like to be that way, and within our relationship, because she doesn’t like it either) unless we can communicate and negotiate our boundary control so as to reach mutual understanding and meet one another’s needs.
To resolve this, I may let her know that I have a hard deadline in six days, but after that I commit to taking two days and shutting off my phone to be with her fully. If she accepts, we will be back in harmony, and it is then my responsibility to maintain my part of the harmony bargain by following through on my commitment.
Summary and key takeaways
Work-life harmony consists of three big buckets: behaviors (observable actions), identity (self-conception), and boundary control (real or perceived influence over how we spend our own time).
Assessments are often helpful. However, in this case I don’t need to take an assessment to instinctively know my work-life harmony profile: “integrator, family-first, dual-focused, moderate boundary control.” You may also be self-aware enough to identify your preferences without an assessment. All work-life harmony profiles bring unique strengths and challenges:
- Integrators might be passionate workers who get a lot done. They may also be overwhelmed and unable to focus in the midst of multi-tasking.
- Family-first integrators will tend to prioritize family even while at work. This is great until a family crisis or difficulty robs your energy and attention in the midst of an important project or meeting.
- Integrators will need to constantly maintain vigilance over their boundaries in conversation with friends and loved ones.
- Dual-focused people can seem equally passionate about everything, and may need to make sure that those they truly care about know how they feel.
Here’s where we’ve seen this be especially helpful to people we’ve coached and trained. These things aren’t an internal balancing act. Harmony is about not only working together within yourself, but also working together well with those you care about – friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, and others. Harmony requires naming and navigating a complex and interwoven set of variables. Much of what drives that is dependent on other factors such as expectations, work availability, schedule, finances, hopes, past trauma, and more.
Work-life harmony implies that open and candid communication, with yourself and with others, is the key to understanding and aligning the various things that together make up our complex modern humanity. Going back to my earlier example involving my wife, she understands that there are seasons when I need to bring work home. What makes the difference is if I honor her boundaries and preferences through proactive and candid communication before the pressure point hits. That allows us to have harmony, even though we may both temporarily be stretching beyond our preferred or resting norms. Similarly, teams may need to sprint and put in extra hours for a project, but clarity and communication prevents that from becoming an overbearing culture with unclear or unending expectations.
Work-life harmony is a more helpful mental model because it’s better able to sort the complex amount of data we must deal with in this area.
Questions for reflection:
- What does it clarify for me to examine my work, life, relationships, and time management through the lens of work-life harmony rather than balance?
- How much of my current stress can be traced to boundary control, and what could I do to improve that?
- Which relationships require more harmony conversations than I’m currently having? When can I rectify that?
- Is it difficult for me to have candid conversation around harmony or disharmony? Why or why not?
- What would it take to have healthier boundaries in this area?