Tech company CEO Max Schireson wasn’t happy with the way his job was running his life, so he quit, explaining in a blog post that immediately went viral how “I decided the only way to balance was by stepping back from my job.”
While quitting your job might be extreme, there’s an almost limitless amount of advice on how to achieve work-life balance. Books, magazines, websites and podcasts overflow with it. But here’s the dirty little secret: A lot of it is crap. Try to follow it and, at best, you’re setting yourself up for even more stress and feeling bad about yourself when you can’t achieve the impossible; at worst, you could “balance” yourself right out of a job.
So, rather than ask experts to dispense yet another list of tips to attain work-life balance, we asked them which ones you should really just ignore if you want to preserve your sanity (and your career).
1. “Do what you love.” It sounds like such thoughtful, touchy-feely advice: It isn’t. “Current career advice incorrectly puts a lot of emphasis on matching work to some sort of preexisting trait… something you’re ‘meant to do,’” says Cal Newport, an assistant professor in the department of computer science at Georgetown University and author of a book about why doing what you love is bad advice. “What leads someone to really enjoy their working life really doesn’t have anything to do with matching that job to a preexisting interest.”
But what if your friends tell you all the time you should really sell your pottery or your cupcakes? Great. Try making money off your hobby first, Newport says. “Money is an incredibly accurate indicator of how valuable what you’re doing really is.’
2. “Negotiate a flexible schedule.” This advice comes in many forms — so-called experts admonish overworked Americans to negotiate flexible hours, telecommuting privileges, job-sharing arrangements — and it tends to ignore some important cultural and financial details.
“A lot of people in working-class jobs have very structured situations and they can’t just come and go as they please,” says Jerry Jacobs, executive officer of the Work and Family Researchers Network and a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. “A lot of people including people who have part-time jobs get scheduled just a few days in advance… just the scheduling aspect of things makes life very complicated and challenging.”
Even if you get the opportunity, a flexible schedule often means sacrificing money, or opportunity, or both. “In the traditional American workplace, there is a flexibility stigma,” says Ellen Ernst Kossek, a professor at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management and an expert on work-family issues. Almost half of American workers say they’d take a pay cut for the opportunity to work from home — so if you want to bargain for more time working from your sofa or porch, be prepared to watch your paycheck shrink. And even if your finances aren’t an issue, getting permission to scale back on the job might not be popular at work. According to the Families and Work Institute, fewer employers that let workers switch from full- to part-time status (and back) today than in 2008.
3. “Set boundaries.” This isn’t bad advice, per se. It’s just way too vague to be useful, and it glosses over one thorny reality: At work, many of us aren’t in a position to set the boundaries, and we can put our jobs at risk if we do. “Many of us struggle to do this… but your boss, your organization, your job has to agree to those boundaries,” Jacobs says. “You can’t set them yourself.” This doesn’t mean you should stay in a bad job; if your boss walks all over you, start looking for another job. But the problem then isn’t that you’re unable to set boundaries; it’s that you’re being taken advantage of.
4. “Take a digital detox.” “I think that’s worthless advice,” Newport says. “Detoxing” blames our devices and the social networks they connect us to for our distraction, but the problem is that we’ve conditioned ourselves to respond to those distractions as soon as they pop up, Newport says. “Occasionally taking some time away from that distraction isn’t going to help you solve that problem any more than dieting one day a week will help you lose weight,” he says. Instead of a short-term “detox,” Newport suggests evaluating if you really need to be on all those social networks in the first place.
5. “Hire a life coach.” No, really — don’t. “Be your own life coach,” Kossek says. Rather than paying someone to ask you what you want to achieve, ask yourself that question. “You have to know what you want and not everybody knows what they want,” she points out. Most companies today have cultures that demands everybody do things the same way — their way — and many workers just take the path of least resistance and follow along.
6. “Take some time for yourself every day.” This is way more insidious than it sounds, and it slips under the radar because there’s a grain of truth to it. Yes, most of us who are stretched thin by our obligations to families, bosses, clients and colleagues probably should carve out time to read, garden, exercise, whatever. But the way this advice is framed, it puts the responsibility on you. Go ahead, find an extra half-hour somewhere — and if you can’t, this advice implies that you’re just overstressed because you didn’t put enough of a priority on that morning meditation or afternoon cup of tea.
“There’s way too much emphasis on how we need to fix these issues on their own and not enough emphasis on how we need to set up a better balance in terms of company policies… and the rules of the economic game,” Jacobs says. Until people start pushing companies to adopt more worker-friendly policies, many companies will be happy to keep passing the buck and make it the employee’s problem
7. “Be courageous.” This basically translates to being willing to walk away from your job if you don’t get what you want. “I think courage is talked about incorrectly in this context,” Newport says. “There’s a lot of discussion out there about having the courage to quit what you’re doing and instead pursue what you love… That’s very misguided,” he says. Courage doesn’t pay the bills, and a potential employer cares how well you can do the job, not whether or not you were “courageous” enough to quit the last one.