It seems that life is getting harder and harder to balance, to make time for the many pressing and important demands on our life: work, family, friendships, leisure, health, rest, and so on. And despite the fact that technological innovation continues to promise more efficiency, speed, and time-saving solutions for our lives, it hasn’t seemed to make balancing work and the rest of life any easier. In fact, the economist John Keynes predicted in 1930 that, based on the startling rate of economic and technological development he witnessed, that people alive today would only be working 15 hours a week.

Obviously, Keynes was (sadly) mistaken in his prediction, even though technological development has surely increased in ways he could never have dreamed nearly a century ago. We are just as busy, if not more so, and obtaining a “work-life balance” still remains elusive.

But it’s worth considering what the term “work-life balance” actually means. Is it actually possible to balance our lives in some perfectly optimal regard, as if there is some ideal way to ensure that each day is rationed out in just the right amount? While it’s important to strive toward structuring our lives in a holistic and meaningful manner, is a “work-life balance” even possible? And if so, how can we integrate it into our lives? 

Re-Thinking the Term “Work-Life Balance”

There is growing consensus that the term “work-life balance” is unhelpful in trying to fashion a well-ordered and fulfilling life, one that makes adequate time for responsibilities related to work, family, friends, church, leisure, and so on. One article cites the following in regard to the questionable term:

“Many people tend to focus on ‘the even distribution’ part of the balance definition when discussing work-life balance. In fact, Berkeley Haas School Of Business notes the traditional image of a scale, an image often associated with work-life balance, ‘creates a sense of competition between the two elements.’”

In other words, the term “balance” implies a zero sum game related to one’s life. While in some sense this is true (we only have 24 hours a day to spend, and an hour here means the loss of an hour somewhere else), it can be unhelpful to view our life as mere juggling of tasks, one that inevitably results in our failing to obtain the so-called perfect balance. Jae Ellard, an author and teacher, is critical of the term as well, explaining that the point of life isn’t about hitting some perfect balance, but rather in living a life that offers “joy and meaningful engagement between the interconnected roles, relationships and responsibilities that make up [our] lives.”

Though no term may be perfect, something closer to “work-life integration” or “work-life harmony” can be more helpful. These terms at least imply that it’s about having each aspect of one’s life working in unison for the whole, as opposed to competing against each other. This means living a well-ordered life isn’t about the optimal, superficial scheduling of activities, but in striving for an overall rewarding, productive, and meaningful existence to the extent possible.

PLNU alumni Erin (07) and Jeff (07) Youngren are photographers and entrepreneurs. They started shooting weddings together right after they married 13 years ago. Six years ago they started a commercial studio and associate photography brand locally in San Diego. They also launched a website, blog, and podcast providing resources and insight related to starting and running your own photography business. And, last but certainly not least, they recently became parents, giving birth to a boy named James a year ago. With the many demands in the Youngrens’ lives, they have certainly given a lot of thought to the term “work-life balance” (in fact, they even did a Creative Rising podcast episode about it). And they agree that the term is unhelpful. 

“The term work-life balance needs to be redefined since it’s a construct that is not helpful anymore. I think it can bring more damage than freedom, since, as it’s commonly understood, it’s not achievable.”

“The term work-life balance needs to be redefined since it’s a construct that is not helpful anymore,” Erin shared. “I think it can bring more damage than freedom, since, as it’s commonly understood, it’s not achievable.” 

While not achievable in a traditional understanding, the Youngrens acknowledge this certainly doesn’t mean fashioning an integrated and life-giving life is not possible. 

Implementing Work-Life Harmony

An approach that has helped Erin and Jeff acquire an integrated, or “harmonious” way of living, despite their busy lives, has been to view their life in terms of seasons. As opposed to attempting to manufacture some perfect schedule across a short unit of time, such as a day, week, or even month, they review life in a longer-term aggregate: as a long span of fluctuating seasons.  

“When starting your own business, you have to work really hard to get the business going, and there really is no balance between work and life. It is a season of all work, all the time,” Erin shared. “But then come seasons where the business does not require as much. The reason we expanded our business into a larger studio and began hiring other photographers to shoot for us is because we knew we could not be wedding photographers for the rest of our lives. Weddings require a lot of time and effort, and it’s also physically exhausting. So we spent a long season of working really hard to build a business that would allow us to step back from shooting when the new season came that we had a family. Life goes in seasons and the Lord works in seasons.”

I think that when people feel out of balance it is because they are not fully present in their lives.

The Youngrens knew that, for a few years, they would have to put in 70 to 80 hours a week to find success with their new business. They understood that if they worked hard at first, then when they were parents they would be able to spend much more time with family, having built a business that could function without their constant attention. 

“Now I only work two days a week for a total of sixteen hours, which is a major difference. And this allows me a lot of time to be with my son James. I decided that I’m not going to miss being with James because of the business,” Erin shared. “Before we had James, my life occurred around the business. I worked all the time and then life is what happened in the leftover hours. Now I’m in a season where I can prioritize ‘life hours’ first. I’ve decided what is most important to me: be with my son, practice yoga, hang out with my girlfriends. And once I got clear on those desires, then I could see what hours are available for the business, which is two days a week. The goal is to design a business around my life instead of creating a life around my business.”

The Youngrens sat down before James was born and figured out how to make their life work so that, while still addressing the needs of the business, she could have enough time home with her son. But they admit that if they hadn’t been willing to sacrifice a few years to a “season of work,” they would not have been in the position they are in today to spend more time as parents.

Jeff added that, while we’ll always have to make time for things that we might not necessarily want to, that it’s critical that we approach our lives with an attitude of presence.

“It’s about being fully present with whatever you’re doing and giving a hundred percent to where you are and what you’re trying to accomplish when there. I think that when people feel out of balance it is because they are not fully present in their lives,” Jeff said.

When it comes to viewing life in seasons, PLNU alum Joy T. (91) is quite familiar with the approach. 

Joy encountered tragedy when her husband of 14 years, after having met another woman, left her and ended their marriage. Although he remained somewhat loosely involved in their children’s lives, Joy ultimately was tasked with raising her two daughters as a single parent. This meant that Joy had to figure out how to raise a two-year old and ten-year old in addition to working. Obviously, any semblance of a “work-life balance” was completely absent for many years of her life.

“It was really stressful because around the time I needed to go back to work was the financial meltdown of 2009,” she explained. Joy is a teacher and tutor who focuses on children with learning disabilities. “Teachers were being pink-slipped rather than hired and so given that I had been out of the field for so long there weren’t jobs available for me. I did a lot of tutoring and home-schooled one child. I also worked as an independent reading consultant at some private schools.

While financially stressful, Joy was able to piece work together to both draw an income and maintain some semblance of flexibility for the purpose of being present to her growing daughters. While the situation was emotionally and financially difficult, she found a sense of purpose and worth in being able to both work and, miraculously, be there for her children.

“When my youngest was in second grade, I went back to work full time, and I found that being able to work was really healing. I’ve never had a whole lot of money but when I was able to find that consistent income there was satisfaction in being able to provide for my girls. I realized then that, you know what, I can do this.”

That particular season of life, where she had little time for anything but work and parenting, has passed. One of her daughters is now 24, just having graduated college a couple of years ago, and the other is 16. Joy is proud of herself for having raised two wonderful daughters, and even though she isn’t done being a mom (she never really will be), she is grateful for this current season of life where she is able to enjoy a more harmonious way of living, one in which she fosters friendships, travels, and finds time alone to recharge.

“We’ve been at the same church for 20 years in Carmel Valley and I’ve found my tribe. Most people feel lucky to have two good friends but I have such an enormous circle of friends that I have leaned on when I needed them over the years,” Joy explained. “I have deliberately gone out of my way to cultivate these friendships and, while being my daughters’ mom is the best and greatest thing in my life, it’s not the only thing in my life. I have to feed my soul and the more settled and older I have gotten the easier it has become, but there were years when the kids were little when just getting through the day was a challenge.”

The key is to do our best, as much as possible, to be able to look back on a life that is harmonious, that has allowed us to devote time to what matters the most to us, in the long run.

Even though in the past she could only devote the majority of her time to work and parenting, she still grafted herself onto a church community and made sure to find healthy and necessary outlets. As the years passed and her children grew older, then she could carve out more and more time for things outside of parenting and working.

Joy provides a great example that, while life certainly will not always allow for the ideal sense of balance and harmony — and at times will be quite tragic, stressful, or overwhelming — it is important to remember that it’s about achieving a harmonious balance over the course of a life-time, and not just for a short period of time. Some seasons may require more work or family time, while others may allow for more recreation, hobbies, or travel. The key is to do our best, as much as possible, to be able to look back on a life that is harmonious, that has allowed us to devote time to what matters the most to us, in the long run. 

Related Article: Why we all need more play, recreation, and leisure in our lives no matter our age.

This is exactly what author Stewart D. Friedman discovered when he examined the lives of six incredibly successful people who have practiced integrating work and life effectively to see what the underlying theme is. He discovered that it wasn’t by siloing each part of one’s life — family, work, friends, etc. — into separate buckets, but rather in allowing each category to nourish the others. As Friedman explains:

“[These successful individuals] show how accomplishment in a career is achievable not at the expense of the rest of your life, but because of commitments at home, in the community, and to your interior life.”

His conclusion, similar to that of both the Youngrens and Joy, is that a harmonious life is one “in which disparate pieces fall into place, not every single day — that’s the impossible myth of ‘work/life balance’ — but over the course of a lifetime.”

Setting a Vision for What Matters Most

The Youngrens admit that, before anyone can form a harmonious approach to life, one that integrates work, relationships, leisure, faith, and everything else — one has to form a vision for what it should look like. Many of us might feel that we do this, that we have an idea for what types of things we want to fit into our life, but sometimes we mistake the checking off of certain tasks as the equivalent of a life’s vision.

Jeff explained how Erin and he worked with a life coach in order to establish a vision for what they wanted their life to look like. But their first attempt was too short-sighted and not large enough.

“The first time we presented what we wanted our life to look like, our life coach just laughed at us. She said it was pathetic because we were not dreaming big enough! We had written down that we wanted to go to the gym every week, go on walks, just very logistical things. But that wasn’t a big enough dream for our lives,” Jeff said. “You don’t want to look back and point to simply going to the gym twice a week and getting eight hours of sleep a night and say that’s a well-lived life.”

The point, of course, isn’t that setting small weekly goals isn’t important, but that it’s not enough. 

“Without a vision for our lives we die,” Erin added. “The Lord has a vision for our lives and he is calling us into that and it is not easy. The Lord wants you to wrestle with your vision because that is how you grow and become transformed. Unless you know who you want to be and what you want to bring about in your life, you won’t know how to prioritize it.”

Erin points out that not having an anchored vision for what a harmonious life looks like can leave you susceptible to adopting others visions, or floating untethered with no real direction, allowing what one sees on your Facebook or Instagram feed to dictate your life.

“Creating a vision will inform how you structure your days and who you invest in and what relationships are important to you or where forgiveness needs to be in your life,” Erin said.

The Lord wants you to wrestle with your vision because that is how you grow and become transformed. Unless you know who you want to be and what you want to bring about in your life, you won’t know how to prioritize it.

Even when we have this vision, though, things may not work out as planned, and so we’ll need to be creative and flexible as life goes on. Sometimes how we think our life is going to unfold doesn’t come to fruition. Yet, if we remain committed to redefining our vision and working toward it, we can build a much more harmonious life when it’s all said and done. However, we have to also be aware of the temptation to limit our vision of life by giving into false thinking or limiting beliefs.

“There are struggles out there that I don’t have experience with, and there are a lot of forces that someone might not have control over,” Erin explained. “But identify what you do have control over and what you believe to be true about your situation, and determine if you are feeling like a victim of your circumstances. The belief that you ‘don’t have time’ to do certain things may or may not be true, so understanding what is true about your circumstances and what is not true is important. For Jeff and me, no matter how much money we bring in, we still find ourselves believing that we don’t have enough, but the truth is that we have always made enough. It’s simply a mindset. It feels better to remove responsibility for our lives and blame circumstances. It’s an easier way of dealing with things. But it’s a choice and you can always choose to step out of limiting beliefs and into the truth.”

Related Article: Are we too busy for the things that matter most to God and ourselves?

It’s a valuable and critical insight: we have to make sure that the life we’re living is truly in line with our reality and circumstances. Sometimes we may have to endure a difficult season of life, one that does not allow us to live as harmoniously as we would like, but there can also be times where we set false limitations on being able to live the lives we want to. Do we really not have enough time to spend with our kids on work nights because we have too much work, or are we allowing our egos or insecurities keep us laboring at the office more than we need to? Do we not have the time to return back to school in order to switch to a more fulfilling career, or are we just afraid of risking a change? By being honest about the reality of our lives, and what we do and do not have control over, we can do a better job of working toward a more harmonious life.

But even when we face life circumstances that make living the type of life we want to live impossible, there is always a reason for hope. As Joy has experienced, you can still learn to live a more integrated and harmonious life over time with patience, resilience, and trusts in God.

By being honest about the reality of our lives, and what we do and do not have control over, we can do a better job of working toward a more harmonious life.

“Even though you might not feel it, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and everyday you get closer to figuring it all out,” Joy shared. “Carve out times in your life to do the things that matter most to you and make new traditions, because those are the things you are going to look back on and realize were the best times. You’ll learn to set better boundaries as you get older. Be kind to yourself, and you’ll figure it out as you go along.”

Christopher Hazell is a writer and editor. He is the author of Ends in Mind, a newsletter about culture, technology, Christian spirituality, the arts, and more.