Resolution of this problem draws on how language affects the way we think and act.
We all apply labels and short-hand to the elements of our life. If we didn’t do that, instead of saying:
we would always have to say:
- a tool with large long teeth (made of metal) and a long handle (made of wood) for digging and breaking up earth
In fact, even that wouldn’t be enough because the word tool is yet another short-hand, this time for an object that I use to increase my ability to achieve a task.
We need this short-hand to communicate efficiently. Once we all know what a fork is, it’s much easier to use the single word rather than the descriptive phrase. The problem is that we improve efficiency at the cost of reducing accuracy: for example, when we say fork the images conjured in the other person’s mind can be completely different to the one we intended – maybe even a dinner fork or a fork in the road.
This reduction in accuracy also occurs inside our own brains, because when we think we use the same short-hand. This is particularly true when we are thinking about loosely-defined concepts like “strategy”, “depression”, “society” and so on.
Life without the short-hand of language would be difficult, so we have to put up with some of its side-effects. The phrase work/life balance is just such a short-hand for a set of loosely-defined concepts, and it generates its own side-effects :
- The words work/life when used in this way suggest that work and life are separate, and contradictory, entities.
- The word balance clearly suggests that if we want more of one thing, we must have less of the other – that it’s a zero-sum game.
In reality, we know that work is one part of our whole life, so we also know that it’s possible to have more of both work and life at the same time. But the compression into short-hand automatically deletes this possibility from our thinking. This happens subconsciously: we don’t notice it.
To illustrate, here are two different problems that are covered by the universal short-hand of work/life balance:
- I enjoy my work so much that I have little time for anything else. Is this OK?
- I enjoy being with, and supporting, my family and I resent the fact that I have to spend so much time away from them. What can I do about it?
If we want to move forward constructively, we need to drill down into what we really mean by work/life balance and generate a more detailed and accurate description of our problem: once we have that, we have a much better chance of generating solutions that work.
We need to rephrase the problem and remove the hidden inaccuracies. Once we’ve unpacked the short-hand like this, we can explore the problem more constructively and take action to resolve it. For actions to be taken, they need to be expressed in specific tangible language: a specific instruction that is capable of being carried out in the here and now. Actions that are expressed in terms of open-ended generalities are ineffective: the brain goes into a search loop, looking for what, specifically, it needs to do.