What a beautiful word. It has its origins in the late Latin word bilanx, meaning “having two scale pans.”
In most of its usage, balance is the central point between two ends. Balance of hate and love. Balance of debit and credit. Balance of work and life.
In fact, the third usage — the balance of work and life — is what most people think of when they think of balance.
Problems With “Work-Life” Balance
The term work-life balance originated in the 1980s in the United Kingdom during the Women’s Liberation Movement.
“The movement advocated for flexible schedules and maternity leave for women. But while men were socially unencumbered to pursue their career goals without worrying about housekeeping and family-raising, working women were expected to work and maintain responsibility for housekeeping and family rearing.”
Since then, its influence has permeated all across the world with work-balance being a core component of a job. In fact, when LinkedIn surveyed over 25,000 recent graduates in 2014 with the question, What are your top 5 factors when considering a job opportunity? the result was as follows.
But, the phrase work-life balance does not make sense to me, for a few reasons:
- The boundary between work and life is thin and unclear in this era of knowledge work. We work from our home. We write emails while sitting on the toilet. We hop on calls while making lunch. In this boundary-less life, what’s the boundary between work and life?
- Work-life balance oversimplifies the components of one’s life into just two domains: work and life (which I assume means everything outside of work). This disregards or obfuscates other equally important domains such as relationships, mental health, physical health, etc.
- The oversimplification also leads to not viewing your life through the rich lens that it deserves to be looked at.
In this article, I introduce a newer, fresher perspective through which you can define what balance means for you.
My Earlier Exploration
In the past few months, I’ve asked the question — What does a balanced life mean for you? — to over 30 people.
Based on the result, I published an article earlier titled the Balance-Intentionality Framework where I introduced the idea of how balance and intention interact with each other to create a matrix.
In my earlier article, I wrote:
Many people didn’t have a ready-made response. They paused. Gazed upward and thought for a moment. And only then gave a response. Some didn’t know what to say and asked me, Um, what do you mean? And the rest responded quickly, sharing whatever came to their mind.
Amongst the 30 responses, no two responses were the same.
However, there were a few themes that I noticed across all the responses:
- Having autonomy over one’s time: “For me, Balance is having the agency to structure my days/weeks/months the way I want and do whatever I want in that time.”
- Loving one’s work: “For me, Balance is when you’re able to work without losing who you are as a person. And enjoy the work you’re doing.”
- Having time for relationships: “Balance and happiness are centered around the community for me. I enjoy sharing my time than spending it alone.”
But I couldn’t let go of the question.
It felt like saying balance means something different to everyone was the easy way out of a hard question. So I went back to reading more.
I realized, that to define what a balanced life is, I need to first nail down the components of a balanced life.
Components of A Balanced Life
In 2001, nine researchers from across the United States got together to publish a massive paper titled Quality of Life Indexes for National Policy: Review and Agenda for Research.
Essentially, they reviewed 22 “Quality of Life” Indexes — which is a statistic that attempts to measure the quality of life of an entire state or region — and made the following conclusion:
Our review concludes that seven domains can adequately span the space of perceived Quality of Life. Their names (and approximate importance weights) are: Relationships with family and friends (weight = 100), emotional well-being (98), material well-being (77), health (67), work and productive activity (61), feeling part of one’s local community (29), and personal safety (27).
Let’s exclude “feeling part of one’s local community” and “personal safety” for now. Because first, they have significantly lower importance weights than the other factors. Second, I feel the former is part of “Relationships with family and friends” and the latter can be taken as a given for most people in the knowledge work era. Someone working at a tech company, living in the Silicon Valley, is not particularly worried about their safety. They’ve passed that rung in the Maslow’s Hierarchy.
Further, I feel we can combine “health” and “emotional well-being” into a single domain of “mental & physical health” or “self-care.” And rename the remaining domains.
This leaves us with 4 final domains: relationships, wealth, self-care, and work.
Defining A Balanced Life
Here’s my definition of a balanced life:
A balanced life is one where you attain equilibrium between the four domains of (b) building meaningful relationships, (b) attaining sufficient wealth, (c) taking care of oneself physically and emotionally, and (d) contributing back productively through work.
Of course, there are corner cases: someone might say, “For me, spiritual health is extremely important” or “I don’t really care about contributing back productively.” Personally, I am not focused much on (b) attaining sufficient wealth as much as the other domains right now.
Nevertheless, I feel this is a good start to defining what a balanced life should look like for the general public.
Measuring A Balanced Life: Seeking Answers
“You can’t improve what you can’t measure.” — Peter Drucker
Now that we’ve defined what a balanced life is, how do you measure it?
Let’s take a brief detour to talk about another type of balance first: A Balanced Diet.
A balanced diet is one where you consume a combination of plants, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and protein to get your daily requirement of macronutrients (carbs, protein, healthy fats) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants). Ideally, you would eat food that adds up to 2,000 calories a day, with 50% of it coming from carbs, 30% from protein, and 20% from fat.
This is a clear definition of balance that gives you not just the components, but also the quantity of consumption.
Translating this over to a balanced life is no easy task. How much time should you spend nurturing your relationships vs taking care of yourself? When do you reach the minimum threshold for material well-being? What type of work can be called productive? These are non-trivial questions that I’m still seeking an answer to.
But one thing’s clear: however hard it might be, these questions are worthy of exploration. The better we understand what a balanced life is and how to build it for ourselves, the greater we improve our overall well-being.