Life Should Come First in Life-Work Balance
A flow-focused perspective on life and work.
Posted January 13, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Why do we keep using the phrase work–life balance? Shouldn't life come before any activity of life?
- The concept of flow helps clarify why we need work—just not too much of it.
- To optimize our flow, we need strong boundaries.
Why do we keep using the phrase work–life balance? As my brilliant friend Markita Roberson said a long time ago, it should be life–work balance! Or, perhaps, just a life balance?
Logically, life itself comes before any activity of life. This logic seems to have been broken in the work-focused culture—and we say "work–life balance."
I am not antiwork—quite the opposite. I enjoy work. The right work can be invigorating; productivity can sustain and enrich our lives. And not being able to work can be boring and, in many cases, downright terrifying.
And, yet, in another extreme, too much work can be overwhelming and downright terrifying as well.
Between the boredom and the overwhelm lies the magical, beautiful sensation of flow—being challenged in just the right way to stretch us and bring out our most creative, most productive selves. That sensation can occur when we are engaging in hobbies, but it can also occur when we do work that is well-matched to our strengths.
What Is Flow?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) defined flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Now that I understand. I would write for work and then I would write for fun. And, contrary to stereotypes, the flow does not require that our jobs be "glamorous" or artistic. It does not have to be "white collar" or knowledge work. The beauty of any job is in the eye of the beholder. I know a seamstress who would work all day, come home, and sew some more—for fun. I knew a mechanic who would come home from work and fix things—just because. And I know plenty of content creators who are very unhappy with what they do.
The Dangers of Extremes
But...wait a minute…flow is wonderful and, yet, to achieve it, “people will continue to do [the flow-eliciting activity] even at great cost.”
This I understand as well. I am one of those intrinsically motivated (and autistic) people who would continue to work way past the hours considered to be reasonable by most. Even at a great cost. Without a micromanaging boss (actually, a micromanaging boss would damage my motivation). I work because I want to see the results. Because the process challenges my creativity. Because I want to create something beautiful. Despite the cost.
I also take on more work than I should because I enjoy the work. But this can be dangerous—and result in overwhelm.
As with most good things, there could be too much flow in our lives, just like there can be not enough.
Life–Work Balance Is Flow + Boundaries
I am an open-water swimmer. Lakes and rivers are my jam. It is hard for me to think about something more wonderful than a full, flowing, babbling stream.
It is hard for me to think of something sadder than a dried-out riverbed.
On the other hand, few things are as terrifying and destructive as floods—lakes, rivers, and seas coming out of their boundaries, water destroying all on its path.
There is tension between flow and boundaries. The balance, then, can be defined as flow + boundaries, and we can be out of balance in two ways:
- Strong boundaries, but weak or no flow. Work is a chore, a drudgery. We resist it. We only take on things that are easy. Work does not feed our souls. Sometimes, we get in trouble for not pulling our weight. We may try taking it easy, but what we really need is the right work— work that challenges us and invigorates us, helps us develop.
- Strong flow, but weak boundaries. We love what we do. We are passionate about our craft, the purpose of our work, or both. But sometimes we take on too much, and we can become overwhelmed. Others try to put more on our plate because we are "so good at this." Over time, doing too much—even if we enjoy it—can undermine our well-being.
Strong flow + strong boundaries support a life–work balance. A full, sparkling, safely flowing river—with strong banks.
With gratitude for the many contributions of the great psychologist Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi (September 29, 1934–October 20, 2021).
An earlier version of this article appeared in the author's LinkedIn newsletter on November 19, 2021.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.
Farré, L., Fasani, F. & Mueller, H. (2018). Feeling useless: the effect of unemployment on mental health in the Great Recession. IZA Journal of Labor Economics 7, 8 https://doi.org/10.1186/s40172-018-0068-5