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Boundaries, Not Balance


When you were a kid, you probably went to a playground. I’m sure you can imagine all the equipment you could play with: swings and slides, bridges and monkey bars. Now, I want you to think about the teeter-totter. When you played on the teeter-totter as a kid, the person who sat on the other side needed to be about the same size as you. Why? You know! If the other person was bigger–like your parent, for example–when they sat down, you went up and stayed there. If the other person was smaller–like a younger sibling, for example–when they sat down, you were still on the ground, unmoved.

When you were a kid, at some point you learned about the six simple machines:

  1. Lever

  2. Wheel and axle

  3. Pulley

  4. Inclined plane

  5. Wedge

  6. Screw

When we learned about levers, we learned about the fulcrum or the point on which a lever rests. Teeter-totters are a form of a lever. We need someone of similar size to sit on the other side of a teeter-totter because the fulcrum of a teeter-totter is in the center of the lever. As such, to get one side to move up and down, a weight of equivalent size is required.

If the fulcrum was moved closer to the heavier person, a lighter person would be able to sit on the other side of the teeter-totter and lift the heavier person; balance could be achieved even with a discrepancy between the weights of the two people. On the other hand, if the fulcrum was moved closer to the lighter person, the lighter person would need to acquire more weight than the heavier person to lift the heavier person.

Why am I writing about teeter-totters? In the post, “Balancing Act,” from 2017, I wrote about trying to find the elusive work-life balance. I ended the post by saying:

While I am a much better mother because I work (I promise you, I would make a really, really bad stay-at-home mom) I would be a much better mother if I figured out how to do less work at home. And, that doesn’t mean I should stay later in the office and hide my work—it means I should work just as hard at being more efficient with my work as I do at doing my work. I am sure I would also be a better wife, friend, and overall human being. That’s because it is human to need and crave a time for things other than work.

So, this is not a letter where I share all my pearls of wisdom, but it’s a letter where I share that pearls form because of the irritation caused by the small grain of sand that becomes calcified over time. Thus, with any hope, my small irritation can become a pearl in the near future.

Here I am six years later and I am irritated. I now reject the idea of work-life balance–I don’t think it exists. We are not on some sort of existential teeter-totter trying to find the correct amount of work and free time to be able to maintain equilibrium. Mathematically, one could easily argue even the most overworked person spends more time away from work than doing work (though this would include hours spent sleeping, eating, etc.). Life is not lived by sheer time calculations though. Life is lived according to the quality of the experiences. I can spend ten minutes doing something horrific and be scarred for life whereas I could spend ten years doing something I enjoy and be better for it.

Rather than balance, which creates a false sense of this or that (or maybe this and that), I have started to give consideration to boundaries. Let’s go back to the playground. Balance is trying to play on all of the equipment with equity. Some might see this as playing on all of the equipment for the same amount of time. People who understand the difference between equality (being the same) and equity (being fair) would try to achieve equity; if they like the monkey bars best, they would allow more time for the monkey bars. This is better than aiming for a rigid balance, I suppose. Boundaries, however, are not about this piece of equipment versus that piece, but about saying there is a fence around the playground. I get to use any of the equipment I want to but I will not go outside of the fence and try to play in the parking lot where it is not safe.

Work-life boundaries refer to the intentional and conscious separation between one's professional responsibilities and personal life. These boundaries are crucial for maintaining health, preventing burnout, and fostering overall well-being. Work-life boundaries are highly individual and may evolve over time based on personal and professional circumstances. The key is to establish boundaries that foster a fulfilling life that is sustainable for you. Below are some boundary suggestions to consider from ChatGPT.

Here’s the hard part about boundaries…unlike a literal fence around a playground which is easy to spot, as adults our boundaries regarding our work or personal time are ones we have to erect. Furthermore, even when we do create them, they are still invisible to others unless and until we name and enforce them. As Adam Grant wrote, "When people overstep, it's not always because they don't respect your boundaries. Often it's because you haven't drawn your boundaries. If you don't tell them where the line is, how can learn to stop crossing it?"

In other words, if we don’t know where our boundaries are and/or we don’t communicate to others where they are, then we can’t be upset when the boundaries have been breached.

The metaphor of the teeter-totter and the playground serves as a powerful analogy for the ever-elusive pursuit of work-life balance. Just as the fulcrum of a teeter-totter requires careful placement for equilibrium, so too do the demands of work and personal life require intentional and conscious separation. So, as we navigate the playground of life, let's recognize the necessity of boundaries and take proactive steps to establish and protect them, ensuring that our time is spent not merely in pursuit of balance but in the pursuit of a life well-lived.

So, this is a letter where I share a pearl of wisdom with the continued acknowledgment that pearls form because of the irritation caused by the small grain of sand that becomes calcified over time. I am excited to see how this pearl changes over time.


P.S. In the process of editing our work, Alice Keeler, the co-author of my third book, and I used a great tool that allowed us to be in the same PDF document at the same time and add our comments. Thus, my Catch of the Week is Kami, an online document annotation and markup tool. You can highlight, underline, and strikethrough text in PDF and other document formats. You can also add text boxes, shapes, and images. Kami works with Google Drive and Google Classroom. With Kami, you can easily collaborate on documents in the classroom while avoiding the hassles of printing documents.

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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