Stop Saying You Don’t Need Work-Life Balance

  • September 22, 2009 by Corbett Barr
  • 22 Comments

living-in-balance

I don’t know who started this, but it needs to stop. I’ve heard a lot of people recently say that they don’t believe in work-life balance. The thinking goes that if you love your job enough, who needs balance?

That’s a dangerous way to think.


I actually like the passion behind the statement, and I think it’s great to love what you do for a living. The world is better off when people pursue things they’re passionate about.

In a post last week, I even linked to a reader quote about this disregard for work-life balance because it makes for a provocative quote.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the concept is all wrong.

Doing something you enjoy for a living and living a balanced life are two completely separate topics.

There are plenty of great things in life that are enjoyable in moderate doses but dangerous when addicted to. Sex, drugs, adrenaline-fueled sports, watching TV, exercise and the Internet all come to mind. Some are dangerous to your health, others are dangerous to your mental state, your finances or simply because they cause neglect in other important areas of life.

Work is no different. If you love what you do, it’s easy to become consumed by it. If you let it go too far, you’ll start to neglect other things.

When it comes down to it, work isn’t at the top of the “most important things” in life list. It should probably take a back seat to health, family, friends and intellect at the least.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Dull boys have fewer friends. Friends are important to happiness.

Denmark is consistently rated the happiest country on Earth, and yet they work 354 fewer hours per year than we do in the U.S. They’re not consumed by work, and yet they’re much happier.

Maybe the “I don’t need work-life balance” people really don’t mean it, or maybe they’re just being sensational. Either way, it’s dangerous to make people believe it’s OK to be a workaholic because you like what you do.

Separate the arguments and let’s all agree. Being passionate about what you do is a good thing. Living an unbalanced life is not.

What do you think?

photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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Gordie Rogers September 22, 2009 at 1:06 am

You are so right. In the beginning it can seem wonderful to love your work so much that it’s all you focus on, and I think it has it’s place in the beginning of many great people. Many athletes, musicians, experts do almost nothing but eat, drink and sleep their work e.g. The Beatles. However, later on they start to feel stale and start to pull back to find other ways to enrich their lives. For some, they’re able to find something but for others they can’t and end up getting depressed that they’ve missed out on so much life had to offer them.

Corbett Barr September 22, 2009 at 5:34 pm

It’s also important to consider that for every famous musician/athlete/expert who eats, drinks and sleeps their way to success, there were probably hundreds of people who worked just as hard but never made it. Working your ass off doesn’t guarantee success, and success doesn’t have to require working your ass off either. Lots of successful businesses were built while the owners lived a great lifestyle. Just look at 37Signals.

David Turnbull September 22, 2009 at 1:57 am

Bah, you totally stole the concept of I post I just finished up today. But I guess I can still add my thoughts to the conversation (I completely agree with you though).

I’m a fan of Ferriss’ view of work-life balance, in that you shouldn’t just balance the two, you should separate them. That I think is very powerful because when you’re in your work zone, then it’s 100% focused work and when you’re enjoying the rest of your life there’s no niggling work thoughts at the back of your mind.

I love what I do but I also love reading, drawing, playing video games and I definitely don’t spend 8+ hours a day on each of those activities.

And final thought: I think people who claim to be so passionate they work 8+ hours a day are just being ineffective. Very few people could maintain a very high level of output for that extended period of time. They’re more likely getting 2 hours of solid work done and then spending the rest of time doing unnecessary busy work.

Corbett Barr September 22, 2009 at 5:36 pm

Sorry for beating you to the post ;)

The separation idea is definitely interesting. I really enjoy what I do lately, but thoughts of work often distract me from enjoying other activities fully.

Tristan Lee September 22, 2009 at 4:41 am

I agree with this. I would think it’s stupid to not separate work and life. If all you only passionate about work, and little about anything else (family, friends, sports, etc.), then you will live a very narrow-minded life. To truly enjoy something, things should come in moderation.

John Bardos - JetSetCitizen September 22, 2009 at 7:08 am

Hi Corbett,

Exactly! You said it perfectly.

“There are plenty of great things in life that are enjoyable in moderate doses but dangerous when addicted to.”

This is precisely my issue with the idea of following your “passion.” Even great things are not always enjoyable. Do things you love, of course, just don’t expect it to always be fun and engaging.

David also says something important,
“I think people who claim to be so passionate they work 8+ hours a day are just being ineffective. ”

However, becoming great at anything does take a monumental effort. Whether it is art, music, sports, academia or business; success takes hard work and I think that means sacrifices are necessary.

Corbett Barr September 22, 2009 at 5:39 pm

Yes, of course. Short periods of sacrifice are necessary to accomplish big things. Thinking that a lifetime of being a workaholic will lead to happiness is crazy.

Nate September 22, 2009 at 7:25 am

I couldn’t agree with you more. There needs to be a balance, and a very definitive line between work and the other things in life.

Work should not come first, and that’s what it really comes down to. So many people neglect their families, health and general well-being just to be “working.”

That’s not how it should be. I like your ideas here, Corbett.

Corbett Barr September 22, 2009 at 5:42 pm

I’m not necessarily saying there should be an impermeable barrier between work and life. I happen to enjoy talking about work with friends on occasion, and I definitely borrow from my personal life in my work. My point isn’t so much about the separation, but about the amount of time spent doing each. Does that make sense?

Matt Grawitch September 22, 2009 at 7:25 am

The problem is the word “balance” – makes it sound like everything gets equal time. In reality, life in general is about making choices and being satisfied with those choices. As John pointed out, being successful at anything requires sacrifices. You have to decide what is important, put your time and effort toward those things, making them a priority. That approach should lead to more fulfillment because you are proactively prioritizing. Instead, too many people let others (sometimes ambiguous others) prioritize for them, or they simply make uninformed choices, or they have never spent time thinking about what they want to make a priority). Subsequently, they end up dissatisfied with where their life ends up.

Corbett Barr September 22, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Perhaps you’re right. It could be just the word that people are disagreeing with. I don’t think work-life balance typically means that equal time be spent doing each thing in your life. It’s more about taking time to cultivate each area of your life that you think is important. It’s also about realizing how much cultural conditioning we as Americans endure that pushes us towards being workaholics.

Puerhan September 22, 2009 at 12:15 pm

In principle I agree with you, but I think it is more about a “life balance” as a whole than just simply a “work/life balance”. Thinking in terms of a “work/life balance” reinforces the idea that somehow work is separate from life – if you love your work, and I think that this is possible whether you are following your particular passion or not, then actually work is an integral part of your life. And just as you point out, all things need some kind of balance or moderation to be healthy.
And I agree with Matt G, “balance” does tend to imply *equal* time which is problematic.
I think if our minds are free enough to focus completely on what we are doing then we can give 100% – whether it be “work” or anything else. Once that activity is complete we can move on to the next activity fully and this way we will feel satisfied and fulfilled and won’t have nagging incomplete things in the back of our mind. Life can flow this way, no need to make any part of it separate from any other part of it, work or otherwise.

Kristin September 22, 2009 at 12:44 pm

I agree that there needs to be some level of distinction, in-so-much as work is not your life (all of it), but it should be part of it. For some people it may even healthily be a large part of it.

For me, I derive so much inspiration for my work from the other parts of my life that it would be foolhardy and inefficient to completely separate the two.

Bennie September 23, 2009 at 3:20 pm

From reading this it seems Corbett that you are defining what a balance life looks like and what a person should place as priorties in their life ” health, family, friends and intellect at the least” were your examples. Since your whole concept of free pursuits is do what you want, how can you judge on another person’s priorties?
Health: What do you say to the person who is willing to die and sacrifice for the sake of others? Is he off-balanced?
Family:What do you say to the person who doesn’t have a family and his family is his co-workers?
Intellect: Are only people who place “intellect” as a priorty balanced?

Corbett Barr September 23, 2009 at 4:14 pm

This is just my view of the world, Bennie. You are of course entitled to your own opinion. Yes, being able to do what you want to is one of the themes of this blog. If being a workaholic will make you happy, go for it. I’ve just seen most workaholics end up regretting it, that’s all.

John Bardos - JetSetCitizen September 22, 2009 at 8:40 pm

Hi Corbett,

I am not sure I agree that there are “hundreds of people who worked just as hard but never made it.” Malcolm Gladwell pointed out that there are huge differences between musicians who put in their “10,000 hours” of practice as to those who only put in 5,000 or 6,000.

Most of us would still consider that 5,000 hours to be “working your ass off,” but that is merely a base level of skills. It is not enough to be at the top of your field.

You said, “Working your ass off doesn’t guarantee success, and success doesn’t have to require working your ass off either.” I am sure that there are exceptions that can prove you statement true, but I would suggest that those exceptions are rare.

If you put in your 10,000 hours in any field, it would be hard not to at least earn a decent living from your calling. Yes, sometimes people get lucky making a lot of money from little work, however I would consider that to be the exception. There certainly aren’t any Olympic athletes or professional classical musicians that haven’t paid their dues.

37signals has balance now, only because of the effort and work they put in while building their company. I would certainly bet that they weren’t short of work focus in their earlier days.

Corbett Barr September 22, 2009 at 9:39 pm

Really, 10,000 hours in any field? I know quite a few artists and musicians who would take you up on that bet. In other fields, certainly, but the bar is probably different in each case.

You can’t say that working 5,000 hours is “working your ass off” without any notion of how many years that is spread over.

The broader point about dedicating yourself to one field for long enough to succeed is certainly valid. You shouldn’t bet on being one of the lucky ones who make a lot from little work. I find the whole “get rich quick” industry despicable.

My original point is more about the day-to-day when you’re pursuing a longer term goal. How long should you work every day to reach your goals?

Show me the correlation between working long daily hours and success. I’d bet the correlation is weak at best, and that hours worked over 50 or so per week actually have a negative impact on your progress.

Taking time off to do other things can freshen your perspective and improve your creativity when you get back to work.

John Bardos - JetSetCitizen September 23, 2009 at 12:50 am

Thanks for continuing the dialogue, Corbett!

Perhaps we are discussing slightly different things here.

I do agree that there are diminishing marginal returns to any activity. For musicians and athletes it is far less than 50 hours a week. You can’t swim for 10 hours a day, every day.

Spending 12 hours a day behind a computer, doesn’t mean you are working 12 hours a day. The effort has to be focused and productive to be valuable. Checking site stats, reading RSS feeds, and updating your Facebook page don’t count. :-) Unproductive hours are not included in the “10,000 hours.”

Taking time off is also incredibly important. I completely agree with you here again. Short daily breaks and longer sabbaticals make you more creative and productive. They are absolutely essential for any type of knowledge or creative work.

By “10,000 hours” I am referring to how Gladwell discussed it in his book Outliers. Those hours are required in about a 10 year span at the beginning of your career. For most musicians and athletes, it is from their early teens to mid-twenties. You can’t be an Olympic athlete when you are sixty, so the hours have to be put in early and in a relatively short number of years. For some fields like writing, it can be delayed because there is less of a physical requirement, but even then, most of the great works were done at a relatively young age. (Shakespeare, Darwin, Newton, etc.)

The quality of practice also matters. This often means good coaching or schooling and focused effort. Anthony Robbins said it best, “practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.”

10,000 hours is a rough estimate but Gladwell has found it to be a reasonable estimate in most fields including sports, music, law, writing, etc.

By “any field,” I am referring to occupation. I fully believe in the Vaynerchuk type ideas that anything can be monetized if you put in enough work.

Even street musicians and artists make a decent living if they are good enough and put in the hours every day.

Nate September 24, 2009 at 5:52 am

Sure does!

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