Sometime before the Great Recession (Depression?), there existed a quaint notion that people could stop working — at least some of the time. Over the course of recent years, however, the line of argumentation has advanced, with advocates of a new wave going about convincing everyone that there is really no such thing as what had been termed work-life balance. There is only your life, intrinsically and hopelessly wrapped around both personal and professional entanglements, at any and all times.
While the essence of that argument is true, the practical results of such a work-life philosophy give rise to stilted experiences, of dads checking smartphones for potential client messages at children’s birthday parties, and moms hosting conference calls amid arrays of children, pets and television sounds.
But, if the answer to everything we have to do is that we have to do everything all of the time, what is left of pure experience? If a traditional work-life balance stance places us squarely between the devil and the deep blue sea, a “workislifelifeiswork” approach may mean that we’re just grabbing the devil’s right hand and taking him for a swim.
The insinuation of work into our personal lives has been slowly and insidiously achieved, as pressures from evolving cultural norms have forced us into a relentless series of Solomon’s choices.
How Work Became Life, and Life Became Work
There are a multitude of factors adding up to this pass, of which the following six would be primary culprits:
1. The information age. Our ability to consume information is far outstripped by the tremendous volume of information that we could consume — you know, if we each had several thousand more years to add to our miniscule lifespans. Nonetheless, we endeavor, wholly and totally, to catch up. There are the seemingly innocuous Wikipedia and Google Images rabbit holes; but, as work-related information becomes more diversified and socialized, it becomes more difficult to avoid, for its sheer mass and volume. Sometimes, it seems like the only escape is to disconnect.
2. Internet accessibility. Because the internet surrounds us at every turn. I don’t think I have to define the internet; Ted Stevens has got that one covered. But you know if your smartphone buzzes, you’re taking a look. Nor is it just text and email; consider all of the notifications you’re tied to in your professional and personal lives, and how many of those become muddled within the quadrants of a shared, universal calendar. The growing array of personal and increasingly portable devices means it’s becoming harder and harder to get away. But it all really started with email via smartphone, which is decidedly a page right out of Satan’s corporate handbook, and perhaps the reason why ties are convertible to nooses.
3. It’s the economy, stupid. A byproduct of the down-and-out economy has been that employees are petrified about losing their jobs (because there are always roughly 200 other, more qualified individuals preying in the wings). At the same time, business owners blanch at the prospect of losing the potential for a single sale — the standard line is that immediate follow-up is often the difference between conversion or not; sadly, it’s most often true. In a culture so steeped in immediacy, and populated by the most knowledgeable and impatient consumers in history, the first responder (even if not the best responder) is most often the most substantially rewarded. So, yeah, it’s not without some justification that people are checking business leads at bat mitzvahs. This undercurrent of agitation seems to be what motivates most business overflow. But even if you think there is always someone out there willing to work harder than you, you’re still probably tilting at windmills much of the time.
4. The superficial polymath. The internet has played this collective joke on us: that there is a new Renaissance, starring each one of us. Doctors? Sure, we diagnose ourselves on WebMD all the time. Lawyers? LegalZoom provides forms for that. Musicians? My iPad turns into a keyboard. Even though all worldly knowledge is just a swipe away, we don’t (and can’t) access anything at any real depth before the next superficial piece of information assaults our overhyped senses. It says something about our culture that the primary information repository is a crowdsourced, community-reviewed, online encyclopedia. I won’t be the one to reveal the ending of the movie to you, but if you’ve seen Spike Jonze’s “Her,” you’d know that even if you could experience everything — all at once, all the time — it may not be as cool as you think. It will never provide the satisfaction of a more complete, immersive knowledge. What functions as learning now is really just passing cars on the freeway.
5. The curse of the high achiever. The vast majority of high achievers often experience a weight of expectations that eventually converts into obligation. They (and by “they” I mean the majority of lawyers) want to be all things to all people, to always be the person who has the answer, no matter the question, regardless of the asker. Historically, high achievers were sometimes forced to make stuff up as they went along; but, internet accessibility allows even those of us with only a slight apportionment of Google-fu to find what someone else has said is an answer, and to confer it with the blessing of our own specialty. Of course this occasions error. Jack of small raids, master over one.
6. Family friendly? Labor has only recently become the official province of adults in many countries. But perhaps the space is not entirely secure in the U.S., either. Sample some reality TV shows, and you’ll see the family business is in full swing regardless of the ages of the participants. For models of family branding, witness the Kardashians, the Gosselins and the Duggars. Reality TV, which dominates television, rates as more compelling when families are profiled. When television stars allow their personal lives to be filmed for professional gain, live and work with their children and carry themselves as corporate catalogues at all times, the general populace models that (successful, hell yes) behavior. That is why you’re staring at a tablet in your living room right now, while your toddler does the same. Mo money, mo problems.
The upshot of this work-life mashup is that we tend to burn the candle down at each end, reducing both our personal and professional satisfaction. While technology and internet access do confer significant advantages, increasing your own accessibility to the point of overconsumption converts a potential boon into yet another series of impossible-to-clear hurdles. Instead, leave the vibrating and the buzzing to the beds and the bees, and power down.
Of course, it’s almost impossible for most of us to disconnect from the grid entirely. Even so, there’s a basic solution — one that can go a long, long way toward wringing more meaning from both aspects of your life. It’s simply to focus.
Understand your significance in your own personal history. If you want to just sit, and to enjoy a quiet moment with your child, don’t poison that potential memory with snippets of feverish emailing off your backhand. If you focus on one aspect of your life (work or personal) at one time, you’re necessarily achieving work-life balance. This will allow you to revert to a more normalized pie chart, one with clean lines — something other than a crusty blueberry mess.