The Myth and Math of Work/Life Balance


Bryan Helfrich edited by VolodyA! V Anarhist

“How Do You Do It?”

I used to have many proud, ready answers to this question.  Now, I simply smile and say, “It depends.”

When I decided to take my right-brained self and go back to graduate school in computer science, I was a neophyte planner.  I believed in the “creative process,” waiting for the big “aha!” to hit me before I could get started — I had to figure out how everything fit together first.  Scheduling and juggling and closing the loop was only something I learned during my college senior thesis, when I had to balance the production of a paper with the production of a staged show and the demands of classes and homework.

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 8.05.46 AM“How do you do it?” friends would ask, because I was a creatively  disorganized type and would barrel through with sheer force of will and memory.  And in reply I would pull out my dog-eared planner, and out of that senior year chaos was born my addiction to lists.

So the list got me through grad school — helped me find study time, helped me part-time work, helped me stay married, helped me do the math of a 3 lives in one day.  I even scheduled in a math tutor to help me conquer math.  Like a Franklin Planner addict, each time I faced a greater workload, a steeper learning curve, I would make a list:

The evolution of The List

The evolution of The List

a dummy-proof, to-the-half-hour schedule to fit in as much as possible, in something even better than a notebook: Excel.

There are bodies of work out there on the power of lists, and the act of breaking down mountains of work into sub-problems and small tasks.*  There are also bodies of work on the addiction of to-do lists and why they are ineffective.**  As I started to live my life by lists to achieve “work/life balance” without ever saying no…

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 8.33.03 AMA slave to balance, I hardly slept.  A slave to balance, I dropped all hobbies.  My friends and family would speak to me, and I couldn’t hear them anymore — I had jumped somewhere else ahead in my mind.  My hair began to fall out, my health and fitness at an all-time low.  My husband was going to wake up one day next to a bald Jabba the Hut.  “But they’re counting on me,” I would say.  I wallowed for a bit in my warped funk, looking through the demanding prism of “work/life balance.”

I started to think — what was this achieving?  Was I equating “counting on me” with “needing” me?  And in the end, what about the people who really needed me?  And was I showing my girls the right example of life balance?

I could be upright and balancing in a standing mountain pose, feet firmly on the ground, heart beating, mind clear.

I could also be upright and balancing — while log rolling on white water rapids.

What would I rather be doing?

“Why Do I Do It?”

I began to take time for reflection and self-improvement.  Some small moment of the day when I would just sit and think.  Some small moment of the day dedicated to an activity that would make me better.  There are things that I wanted to do, and things that I should do, but I found that I was a better contributor to life when I allowed for the time to reflect and self-improve.

Of course, I still worked.  But also:

I wrote.  I drew.  I took exploratory walks.  I played music.  I took yoga.  I took dancing lessons.  I laughed.

In each thing, I would try to be in that moment — not as a task on a list, but as a human being living that minute because I would never have that minute back again.

And miraculously, things began to fall together, and make sense, because if you devote one small moment to your passion every day, you can make amazing things happen.  And if you are able to share your passions — in life, in work, with your loved ones, your special friends — you yourself are in an amazing jigsaw of “fit” with other people, and you achieve a great mosaic of tasks and to-do’s together — that much I have learned now.

Things may not be perfectly “balanced” — but then again, it depends on who’s doing the math 🙂


*Read this interesting article on the psychology of the to-do list.

**Read this interesting article on why to-do lists don’t work.