Work-Life Balance Versus Flow


There’s something we here at Switch and Shift discuss frequently when we meet offline. It’s an insight I first learned from my co-founder, Shawn Murphy: one of many things he’s taught me in the past several years. The lesson may be simplistic, but there’s nothing simple-minded about it. It’s vitally important to anyone’s happiness, and too few of us understand it.

The lesson is this: When we discuss work-life balance, we are tacitly stating that work is not part of our “lives.” That work is a chore to be tolerated because we must do it, because we weren’t born rich and we haven’t won the lottery yet. That work is the price we pay to have a life on the weekends and vacation two or three weeks a year.

How does that sound to you? Does that sound like a trade-off you’re willing to make, or one you have to make because you have no alternative, because that’s just the way it is?

When we discuss work-life balance, we are tacitly stating that work is not part of our “lives.”

Leaders, is this the outlook you hope your team holds about your time together? “I’m putting my time in all week so I can live a little on the weekend?”

Maybe you think this is just the way it has to be. And maybe it is. But I’m not convinced.

The other night I was speaking with a new member at our biweekly Technology Entrepreneurs of Naples meeting. He told me he has a day job as a developer, but that, at home, he and some friends are developing a new app together. His eyes lit up as he was talking about it.

Another guy, an investor, asked him how he was going to monetize it.

“Oh, we don’t really care about that,” the first guy said. “There are so many apps out there that don’t make money. We’re just going to make it available for free – ”

“Oh, freemium!” the second man said. “That’s smart!”

“No,” the developer replied. “We haven’t really thought about making money from it. If it takes off, we’ll think about that. It’s just fun to make apps with your friends. And it’s good to keep your skills sharp too, I guess….”

I have no idea of the quality of the app developer’s work, and I also don’t have a business that needs a developer right now anyway. But I love this guy, and if I were hiring for his skill set, let me tell you, he’d make my short list for sure!

So back to the fallacy of work-life balance. Are you in a line of work that is so fascinating to you, so “fun,” that you choose to do it more when you get home? That’s called flow, that joy of work that inspires you to lose track of time, to keep going and going, getting energy from your work (or hobby) versus burning your energy up. Flow is where we all should be, and where some of us dwell when we work.

Are you in a line of work that is so fascinating to you, so “fun,” that you choose to do it more when you get home?

Flow trumps work-life balance every time, because you know what? Good luck finding that balance anyway! If you don’t take joy in the work that you do, it drains you of vitality. It also dominates your calendar, so all you have energy for each night is a few hours of mind-numbing TV before bed; a Saturday of recuperation; a whole week to detox before you can enjoy your vacation. I am speaking from years of experience. Is this your experience as well?

If you don’t take joy in the work that you do, it drains you of vitality.

And leaders, does the work your employees do excite them the way the developer’s work clearly does? If not, what changes do you have to make that will turn their work from soul-quashing drudgery into adventure?

Work-life balance is a crock. It’s unbalanced. What are you going to do about that?

Art courtesy of Jacek

Ted Coiné is a Forbes Top 10 Social Media Power Influencer and an Inc. Top 100 Leadership and Management Expert. This stance at the crossroads of social and leadership put him in a unique perspective to identify the demise of Industrial Age management and the birth of the Social Age. The result, after five years of trend watching, interviewing and intensive research, is his latest book, A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive, which he co-authored with Mark Babbitt. An inspirational speaker and popular blogger, Ted is a pioneer of the Human Side of Business (#humanbiz) movement. He is also a serial business founder and three-time CEO. When not speaking at conferences and corporate functions, Ted advises CEOs on how to become Truly Social Leaders, or “Blue Unicorns” as they put it in A World Gone Social, in order to bring their companies into the Social Age. Ted’s advice: “Change is only scary if it’s happening to you. Instead, bring the change your competitors dread. That is something only a Social Age business leader can accomplish.”

  • Love this perspective. Personally, I don’t even use the terminology – work/life balance. For me, it is similar to your thought of flow but I use the term integration. How do I integrate my life for the many roles I have – wife, mom, marketer, public servant, in that order. What can I do to move seamlessly btwn roles doing the least amount of damage? That is the question, I challenge myself with daily and challenge people who trust me to lead them. I don’t expect to be all those roles well at all times. I do, however, strive to give my best to each and focus to each when it is necessary. Thanks for the post.

  • Ted,
    Flow to me is the best way to navigate what i call the work-life merge. It never made sense to me to separate work and life. We are inherently human beings with a depth that goes beyond the simplicity of defining our lives as either – or. Our joy, our pain our purpose, our perspective in every facet of our lives whether at work or play must be integrated to bring our full beauty to the table on any project, in any meeting in any moment. Full integration is the undercurrent of the flow I believe from which all creativity arises. Thanks for sharing your perspective. Enjoying this blog more and more. @judymartin8

  • Achim Nowak

    Work-Life-Balance is a misnomer, isn’t it? Work IS life. Life IS life. And life is sometimes a whole lot of work. And who decides what balance should look and feel like, anyway? I am with you, mate. I vote for flow. AWESOME post!!!

  • ayeletb

    So agree with this thinking. Work-life balance is a myth. Old world organizations would like to see people working and available when they need them. There is so much fear in the workplace that people continue to seek a balance that does not exist. At the end of the day it is about the choices we make and the hardest question we need to ask ourselves is “who am I?” Some of us are choosing to divorce ourselves from our jobs and not always define ourselves by what we do. Why do we talk so much about whole foods and yet we come up with “work-life balance” instead of talking about whole people?

  • John Bennett

    Agree with the thought to a point!!! Cannot allow “flow” away from work impact joy of family and friends – and the responsibilities they deserve from you.

  • I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly. Work-life balance is an invention of the industrial revolution. That revolution has ended for most of us. Scientific management is so last business paradigm. The great enterprises are now realizing that they need to tap into their workers’ creativity if they want to get results.

    Curiously enough, I’m actually reading Csikszentmihalyi’s book right now. Brilliant stuff. And that’s a great way to determine whether or not you’re in the right line of work. If you want to do more of it when you get home, you’re in the right line of work. We need to focus less on work-life balance and more on work-life integration.

  • Agree. The need is not balance, but having a purpose and clear outcome from what you are doing. It’s near impossible to make work and life operate reasonably well, never mind perfectly. Instead, know where you are going, be ambitious, contribute, etc., and work with what’s in front of you, unpleasant surprises included.

  • Greg Marcus

    Ted – I agree, work life balance is a crock. However, my reasoning is very different. As you point out, work is a part of life. Work life balance suggests a false equivalency between the two, and it puts work first. The appropriate phrase is life balance.

    There are three parts of life that need to be in balance – work, sleep, & everything else. It is wonderful to have a job that you love, but if work is the most important thing in your life, such that it dominates your time (not enough sleep, little time with the people you care about), than your life is out of balance.

    I recently wrote a post on life balance. If interested, you can find it here.

  • Greg Marcus

    I think one of the reasons that balance is out of favor is that people think of balance as something static. We need to keep that teeter totter at just the right point, and then we can put our hands in the air and cheer.
    Balance isn’t static – it moves. I think of it as someone riding a unicycle balancing a stack of spinning plates on top of a stick. (I saw someone do this at the Moulon Rouge once.) Balance requires constant adjustment and is never the same.
    And we all are different. We all face the challenge of finding the right balance for us.

  • Lisa Shelley

    Fabulous post Ted, and such a rich dialogue! I love the concept of life balance and life integration shared by Greg, Judy and Denise. I also love Greg’s point that we are talking about a dynamic balance… How many of us have struggled to find that perfect formula only to realize it was only perfect for a brief moment in time? However, I think a really important insight is related to Alan’s comment. In the end successfully integrating your life is dependent on taking the time to really know yourself, your values, and yes, your sense of purpose. Coupling this self knowledge with a practice of mindfulness as you engage in life, allows you to be aware when an important part of your life begins to feel disconnected or out of balance, and adjust course accordingly. It’s a dance: ideally moving from one state of flow to the next as you engage in the different aspects of your life… as well as the different seasons of your life.

    Another thing to consider in this whole discussion is whether our western society and business adequately value the richness in thinking and in perspective that come from living a multi-faceted life. The old saying that “all work and no play make Jack a very dull boy,” should really say “all work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy, and therefore unlikely to contribute significantly creative or innovative thought.” It is through exposure to different stimuli… people, situations, industries, perspectives, that we see connections and generate new thinking. This is very difficult to accomplish when you don’t leave the office.

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  • Thomas Chadd Kerr

    Excellent reminder. Thank you. We spend a third of our lives working, not loving your profession = not loving your life.

  • Thomas Chadd Kerr

    Excellent reminder. Thank you. We spend a third of our lives working, not loving your profession = not loving your life.

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