Busting the Myth of Work-Life Balance by Susan Olding

Inside the Cardinal Studio, one of the Leighton Studios at Banff Centre for the Arts.

About a year ago, I was invited to give a talk to some graduate students at Queen’s University about what was billed as “work-life balance.” Sure, I said. Why not? That should be easy.

There was only one small problem. For me, “work-life balance” is an unattainable mirage. I am the farthest thing from an expert on the topic.

The truth is, most of my days pass in a blur of immediate “to-dos.” And the hours that I so carefully set aside for creative work often go instead to the unanticipated trip to the doctor, the emergency phone call from the school or the rush-rush project for the paid job.

I used to spend a lot of time feeling resentful, inadequate and guilty about that. Because other people seemed to combine their creative work with the rest of their lives successfully. Other people seemed to have some magical ability that allowed them to flourish in the face of constant interruptions and distractions.

Except, when I questioned them, these paragons of multi-tasking all felt exactly the same as I did: weary, overwhelmed and vaguely at fault for failing to maintain their inner equilibrium in the face of multiple competing demands.

“Other people seemed to have some magical ability that allowed them to flourish in the face of constant interruptions and distractions.”

Those of us who don’t blame ourselves for this state of affairs sometimes blame the pace of contemporary life. After all, we’re all juggling numerous roles, and we’re all subject to the relentless beeps, pings and dings of our various devices. No wonder we feel beleaguered.

But what if the problem is less about us, less about the world and more about our basic expectations? What if the language we use contributes to our sense of failure? What if the problem is the metaphor itself?

What does “work-life balance” even mean?

Imagine a seal, spinning a ball on its nose. Stop that insane momentum and the whole thing comes crashing down over its head.

Is that how we want to construct ourselves – as performing circus animals? Is that how we want to conduct our writing lives?

Consider other images of “balance” – say the scales of justice… or a teeter-totter. Load up one side and the other comes crashing to the ground. The whole apparatus seems so precarious! No wonder we feel so inadequate. No wonder we fear the possibility that something might shift.

Yet shift it must. Change it must. For “balance” implies stasis – and stasis is antithetical to the creative life.

What if, rather than “balance,” we spoke instead in terms of dynamic harmony, or cycles, or an ebb and flow? That way, we might not feel so guilty or inadequate whenever we had to give one role or another precedence in our lives for a period of time. Say the first few years of our son’s life, or the first few months of a new paid job, or the last few months of work on a novel, when nothing and nobody in the world matters so much as those characters, and we can barely pull ourselves away from our created world to face the real one.

Thinking in terms of ebb and flow rather than “balance” has made it a little easier for me to give myself fully to whatever role is demanding most of me that moment – whether that be partner, wage-earner, teacher, parent, friend, writer.

Outside the Cardinal Studio, one of the Leighton Studios at Banff Centre for the Arts.
Outside the Cardinal Studio, one of the Leighton Studios at Banff Centre for the Arts.

It has also helped me recognize the enormous value of writing retreats. I’ve been privileged to participate in several formal residencies, at places like the Banff Centre for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, Wintergreen Studios in Ontario and Sage Hill and Stegner House in Saskatchewan. Each of these provides a different kind of experience, but every one offers uninterrupted time and quiet – two of the most precious and hard-to-source ingredients for the creative stew.

Of course, it’s fun to travel, exciting to stare out at different views and blissful to let somebody else do the shopping and cooking and cleaning for a change. But retreats don’t have to be formal or lengthy or costly to be valuable. In fact, some of my most memorable or useful retreats were short, cheap and close to home. Like the weekend I spent in an absent friend’s house powering through the final edits on an important manuscript. Or the day the rest of my family went to Toronto and left me digging in our back garden. In the process, I uncovered the seed of the next book.

Alas, I never did manage to tell those Queen’s students anything helpful about “work-life balance.” Instead, I read them some poetry that I wrote while crouched on one side of the work-life teeter-totter. And dared to suggest that if we’re lucky, there’s no real dichotomy, and “balance” is beside the point. Work is part of life, not separate from life, and life means growth – and change.


Susan Olding

Susan Olding is the author of Pathologies: A Life in Essays, winner of the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award for 2010, and selected by 49th Shelf and Amazon.ca as one of 100 Canadian books to read in a lifetime. Her writing has won a National Magazine Award, two Edna Awards and many other honours. A graduate of UBC’s MFA program, she lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario. In the spring of 2016, she’ll facilitate a one-day workshop for the QWF called “Telling It Slant,” where she’ll share some strategies for adding depth and originality to your memoirs, personal essays and short fiction. You can find her at www.susanolding.com.

Photo (top): Inside the Cardinal Studio, one of the Leighton Studios at Banff Centre for the Arts.

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9 thoughts on “Busting the Myth of Work-Life Balance by Susan Olding

  1. Reblogged this on sofia kioroglou and commented:
    BUSTING THE MYTH OF WORK-LIFE BALANCE BY SUSAN OLDING

    About a year ago, I was invited to give a talk to some graduate students at Queen’s University about what was billed as “work-life balance.” Sure, I said. Why not? That should be easy.

    There was only one small problem. For me, “work-life balance” is an unattainable mirage. I am the farthest thing from an expert on the topic.

    The truth is, most of my days pass in a blur of immediate “to-dos.” And the hours that I so carefully set aside for creative work often go instead to the unanticipated trip to the doctor, the emergency phone call from the school or the rush-rush project for the paid job.

    I used to spend a lot of time feeling resentful, inadequate and guilty about that. Because other people seemed to combine their creative work with the rest of their lives successfully. Other people seemed to have some magical ability that allowed them to flourish in the face of constant interruptions and distractions.

    Except, when I questioned them, these paragons of multi-tasking all felt exactly the same as I did: weary, overwhelmed and vaguely at fault for failing to maintain their inner equilibrium in the face of multiple competing demands.

    “Other people seemed to have some magical ability that allowed them to flourish in the face of constant interruptions and distractions.”
    Those of us who don’t blame ourselves for this state of affairs sometimes blame the pace of contemporary life. After all, we’re all juggling numerous roles, and we’re all subject to the relentless beeps, pings and dings of our various devices. No wonder we feel beleaguered.

    But what if the problem is less about us, less about the world and more about our basic expectations? What if the language we use contributes to our sense of failure? What if the problem is the metaphor itself?

    What does “work-life balance” even mean?

    Imagine a seal, spinning a ball on its nose. Stop that insane momentum and the whole thing comes crashing down over its head.

    Is that how we want to construct ourselves – as performing circus animals? Is that how we want to conduct our writing lives?

    Consider other images of “balance” – say the scales of justice… or a teeter-totter. Load up one side and the other comes crashing to the ground. The whole apparatus seems so precarious! No wonder we feel so inadequate. No wonder we fear the possibility that something might shift.

    Yet shift it must. Change it must. For “balance” implies stasis – and stasis is antithetical to the creative life.

    What if, rather than “balance,” we spoke instead in terms of dynamic harmony, or cycles, or an ebb and flow? That way, we might not feel so guilty or inadequate whenever we had to give one role or another precedence in our lives for a period of time. Say the first few years of our son’s life, or the first few months of a new paid job, or the last few months of work on a novel, when nothing and nobody in the world matters so much as those characters, and we can barely pull ourselves away from our created world to face the real one.

    Thinking in terms of ebb and flow rather than “balance” has made it a little easier for me to give myself fully to whatever role is demanding most of me that moment – whether that be partner, wage-earner, teacher, parent, friend, writer.

    It has also helped me recognize the enormous value of writing retreats. I’ve been privileged to participate in several formal residencies, at places like the Banff Centre for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, Wintergreen Studios in Ontario and Sage Hill and Stegner House in Saskatchewan. Each of these provides a different kind of experience, but every one offers uninterrupted time and quiet – two of the most precious and hard-to-source ingredients for the creative stew.

    Of course, it’s fun to travel, exciting to stare out at different views and blissful to let somebody else do the shopping and cooking and cleaning for a change. But retreats don’t have to be formal or lengthy or costly to be valuable. In fact, some of my most memorable or useful retreats were short, cheap and close to home. Like the weekend I spent in an absent friend’s house powering through the final edits on an important manuscript. Or the day the rest of my family went to Toronto and left me digging in our back garden. In the process, I uncovered the seed of the next book.

    Alas, I never did manage to tell those Queen’s students anything helpful about “work-life balance.” Instead, I read them some poetry that I wrote while crouched on one side of the work-life teeter-totter. And dared to suggest that if we’re lucky, there’s no real dichotomy, and “balance” is beside the point. Work is part of life, not separate from life, and life means growth – and change.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I totally agree on your perspective here, Susan. If you’re a writer, you’re lucky enough to be doing something you love for a living, which makes the work/life balance easier because your work is a genuinely meaningful part of your life. Also, when there are kids to juggle on top of the balancing act, it’s worth bearing in mind that children whose parent(s) do something creative for a living will likely be inspired by them, not wonder how come mommy or daddy is spending so much time “at work”. That’s been my experience so far, anyway!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you for writing this Susan.

    I teach a course on Time and Priority Management and feel similar about the “Work-Life Balance” expression. I have yet to find The expression that will better summarize this life challenge. I like your “flow” and “ebb” reflexion…

    Through research and experience, I have found that one of the main problem I encounter when trying to juggle my life (and its different and numerous legs) is the lack of time I spend doing the things that I love. For myself.

    Cooking with my daughter, walking the dog, having a good conversation with my companion; these are all amazing things I do and love. However, I need to find myself some time to do the things I do for myself.

    There are 168 hours in every week. Most of those hours, I spend with my family and at work. Overtime, I discovered that I need to reserve at least 12 hours out of 168 for my reading of science fiction literature and to play tennis. If I don’t have those 12 hours, I am not as good a father, a companion and a coach for my clients.

    Therein lies the need for balance. Or flow.

    I like to use the analogy of the plane ride:

    “In case of an air cabin pressure problem, oxygen masks will fall in front of you. Please secure the mask on yourself before assisting any person in need around you.”

    Because, if I help my child and then pass out because of lack of oxygen, I won’t be there for her thereafter…

    So, in my course, I suggest a modification to the expression of “Work-Life Balance”: Balance Between the Spheres of my Life. And I make sure that there is a sphere called “Me” and that it includes at least 12 hours a week. Most weeks. 🙂

    Like

  4. Reblogged this on A Vine Branch and commented:
    So many of us strive for that perfect schedule where we finish work and then just live, play, relax, and create. However, we all need to realize that if work can take so much of our time, then we need to embrace it.
    Thanks, Crystal

    Like

  5. I really appreciated this article. To me, it spoke to all that we get down on ourselves about and instead, facing it with acceptance of what it is and love for what it gives. We’ve got to stop being so hard on ourselves.

    Like

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