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The Food Group Theory of Work Life Balance

By Douglas B. Richardson, Certified Master Coach

At the risk of being labeled a heretic, I call on all life and careers counselors, executive coaches, self-help authors and ardent self-actualizers to stop talking about "work-life balance" when it comes to employee happiness or job satisfaction. When all is said and done, it's an imprecise, impractical and frustrating metaphor. We can do better.

The expression is used ubiquitously when discussing how to fill up parts of life that are too empty and relieve the pressure of those that are too full. Modern society hasn't succeeded in making life easier and work less demanding. Our "progress" hasn't included ways to shift more time from vocation to avocation, from labor to leisure. A lot of us aren't great at addressing the competing demands of work, family responsibilities and personal needs. So we're "out of balance," right?

But do you know anyone (anyone who isn't retired, that is) who has achieved true congruence between his or her internal values and external life demands? Between personal growth and family stability? Between self-actualization and getting at least seven hours of sleep every night? Between wanting it all and not having enough time, energy or money to get it? I thought not.

I'm not quarreling with the concept of having a well-integrated existence in which you exercise just enough control to operate more proactively than reactively. But I don't think the "balance" approach has much practical utility. The word "balance" suggests a giant scale held aloft by the gods or a blindfolded, toga-draped arbiter. When things are in balance, the scale supposedly settles into a calm equipoise, the little pans resting at equal height at the end of their chains. No extremes, bouncing up and down or swinging around.

The balance metaphor further suggests stable life equilibrium: things in balance tending to stay in balance; unsettling forces promptly corrected and restabilized. The work-life balance metaphor suggests we should all try to establish such equilibrium -- and that once we do, it will stay in happy alignment forever, like a giant life gyroscope.

This isn't how life works, as present chaotic economic conditions clearly demonstrate. We have tides, triumphs, tragedies, trials, and time-outs. We may talk longingly of "making it," "arriving" or "getting there," but suppose we could reach and sustain such a state. Then what? Spend the rest of life in some rigid inertia? Resist further change and movement that threatens to unbalance the scale?

Work-life balance is a poor metaphor. Nobody can or should do that. Life is a dynamic process (whether or not we want it to be) and using a static metaphor to define a desirable life-state is dumb.

Not Enough Time to Handle Your WorkloadWhat if we thought of the diverse forces we seek to incorporate and integrate into our lives as...food groups? Each item that goes into sustaining our quality of life could be conceived as nourishment or a complementary source of sustenance, energy and even intoxication.

The nourishment metaphor for analyzing diverse life-factors is remarkably apt. We need various mixes of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, fats and trace elements to thrive; without some combination of these basic food groups, we would starve. Similarly, you would perish if you were deprived of all forms of vocational, personal and family sustenance. Hence, the phrase "nothing to live for" is used when someone is wasting away from emotional starvation.

There are legions of such semi-starved people. They are so bereft of lifestyle nutrients that they develop spiritual or emotional scurvy. They complain, deny, isolate themselves or lapse into pessimism. Happily, just as with scurvy, a change of "life diet" to include a long-denied nutrient often produces an astonishing change in health, demeanor and well-being.

For most of us, deficits in spiritual and emotional nourishment aren't soul threatening. Indeed, some parts of our emotional and spiritual nutritional pyramid may be pretty well stocked: We receive enough personal gratification from work or from our avocations to prevent spiritual malnutrition.

In the balance-scale metaphor, for one pan to swing higher, the other must swing lower. But that's not the way our work, personal and family lives operate. In fact, we don't have to reduce one satisfaction or incentive to get more of the others.

The fundamental challenge is to strive to be fully nourished. That means understanding the basic building blocks of our emotional diet – taking a hard and honest look at what we need and want, along with what energizes or poisons us.

While the dietary guidelines in the universal Food Guide Pyramid prescribe the same general nutritional guidelines for all people, your personal "nutritional model" can and should be different from someone else's. This includes your emotions, motivations, values and "personal satisfiers." Your definition of what you need to be nourished in life and work is uniquely yours. Some people crave and need a lot of "life carbs," while others thrive on a "high-protein" diet. What's important is to define them for yourself.

When building your personalized nutritional model, you may want to use more than the three broad categories of work, personal and family satisfactions. Your personal food groups may not fit into these categories.


Douglas B. Richardson heads The Richardson Group, a nationally recognized leadership development and career management consulting firm in Narberth, PA. Doug earlier was an award-winning columnist for Dow Jones' National Business Employment Weekly and its online successor, CareerJournal.com, for over 20 years.

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