Work-life balance is not a ‘thing’ but alignment is


We are destined to fail at achieving work-life balance because it does not exist, nor has it ever existed, according to an expert on how people experience time.

The field of chronemics studies the space between people, namely how they communicate with others and with themselves as they experience life in a matrix, not just linearly.

“When we talk about time, we need to remember that context and communication really matter,” Dawna Ballard, PhD, a chronemics expert and associate professor of communication at the University of Texas at Austin, said during a session Tuesday. “We think of our concept of time as ‘truth,’ but when we experience other cultures, often we see they don’t function according to our idea of time.”

The modern concept of time as told by a clock was invented during the Industrial Age to control people and events by forcing a direct line between their lives outside the factory and the farm, according to Dr. Ballard. That is not to say that industrial time is bad. It is efficient and perhaps even necessary for organizing large groups of people, she said.

Dr. Dawna Ballard dispels what she calls the myth of work-life balance at a Tuesday afternoon session. Darnell Scott

Dr. Dawna Ballard dispels what she calls the myth of work-life balance at a Tuesday afternoon session.

Time management as a concept evolved out of the ethos of “punching the clock” at the factory, but has carried over to the office where in fact, according to Dr. Ballard, people do not tend to be as effective if they are expected to work in a linear way, since that is not the experience in today’s digital world where interruptions are common. In a survey of 1,000 people, after researchers subtracted the time people spend on email, social media, and other digital interruptions, only 3½ hours of the typical 8-hour work day were left for actual work, and these remaining hours were not consecutive, Dr. Ballard noted.

“In reality, we operate in relationship to time more like we did in preindustrial times than we did during industrial times,” said Dr. Ballard. “Medicine has always had that approach, but the management of it is by people who are still being trained according to industrial [notions] of time.”

The resulting cognitive dissonance contributes to people experiencing guilt for not “balancing” their day properly, according to Dr. Ballard. Because to balance something means separating the pieces and quantifying them separately, people whose lives interrupt them throughout the work day find themselves thinking they have “failed” at achieving a work/life balance, when what they really have done is experience their life as it actually is. “No one likes to feel like a failure, particularly people who are high achievers and who expect to have agency over their lives.”

Dr. Ballard said that an alternative to seeing work and life as components that must be balanced is to instead view these things as being in an alignment that can shift over time. She also suggested challenging the accepted notions of what being productive really means in the context of how one’s life actually is, and to occasionally put down the smartphone and consciously practice experiencing time in an unstructured way.

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