During the question and answer at a recent workshop, a gentleman asked what he should do about his four-hour daily commute. Let’s call him Mr. Fourhour.

Two hours each way to work.

He felt that God had given him his job. The work was a good fit, the pay was excellent, and it seemed to be a platform for spiritual as well as professional impact.

He also felt that he could not uproot his family and ask them to move.

After some more dialogue, it was clear that he also felt that he was letting his family down.

He asked me what I thought he should do.

What would you say to Mr. Fourhour?

We’ll come back to our friend, at the end of this piece. His question raises the work-life balance dilemma, the third leading cause of work-related stress according to our current poll.

The Wrong Question as Soon as it is Asked. 

Work-life balance challenges are the #3 cause of work-related stress in VOCA’s research (VOCA is the agency where I serve).

But as soon as we ask about work-life balance, we have asked the wrong question.

Work-life balance assumes your life is neatly divided into two categories: work and life. I now have a work self and a life self. Different rules. This bifurcation opens the door to all sorts of dehumanizing abuse of ourselves, by ourselves and by others.

Framing the conversation as work-life balance also falsely implies that work is not part of my life; it is not a domain where I experience a sense of being alive. I grind it out at work so I can live elsewhere. For most of us, there are times at least when we do feel alive at work—when we’re in the zone called flow. For all of us, there are grinding dimensions to the life side of the equation: filing your taxes, cleaning your apartment, getting in shape.

So if not work-life balance, how should we frame it and how do we push past the underlying stressor reflected here?

Proportionality is the Question.

Instead of what to do with “poor work-life balance,” let’s ask, “what should I do when work consumes too much of my life?” It’s a question of proportionality, not balance. Work is part of your life. In most cases, work will always be a big part of your life. The balance issue comes in when work is too big.

When Work is Too Big

Stress caused by “poor work-life balance” is stress caused by work being too big in our lives. How do we discern what to do about this feeling?

1. What is common in your industry, role, and season?
We tend to romanticize the past. But certain professions—soldiers, sailors, artisans, shepherds, and even religious clerics, have spent months away from home as part of their vocations.  In today’s knowledge worker economy perhaps we had unrealistic expectations about how easy it would be to work less and be just as productive. I meet people regularly who tell me that they want to start their own company so they can have more flexibility. There’s some truth to the notion that being your own boss offers creative options with your schedule, but it is overblown. If you want to start a company that will provide you with a real income, then you will have to work hard over long hours, especially in the beginning. If you know this is normal, you can also start to understand how many hours are necessary. Then you can make a decision about whether or not you need to stay where you are or alter your career trajectory.

2. How much of your overwork is caused by misaligned talent and poor productivity habits?
We will come back to productivity in a forthcoming post. Suffice it to say, if you don’t manage your schedule, other people will manage you. The other issue is talent.

At VOCA we believe we can provide an objective measure of your talent.  Clients who work with us discover two things: 1) talents they did not know they had, and 2) misalignments between their jobs and their talents. So you have a people-impacting, creative, problem-solver, filling out forms and checking boxes.  She’s bored. No kidding. Her work isn’t energizing and it takes more time to get it done. This leads to more hours at work, and this makes work bigger than it needs to be.

3. What values are you compromising?
It’s important to ask what values you are compromising by letting work become too big. Mr. Fourhour is compromising his commitments to be an active and engaged father and husband. This incongruence is calling to him. For you, it may be keeping time for friends, for some sort of community beyond work, for a hobby or sport that gives you life.  There’s nothing wrong with sucking it up for a season, but long term compromise creates deeply embedded stress.

4. How are your structural commitments exasperating work-bigness stress?
Structure commitments have to do with the “givens” we create in our lives. Where you live, how much you pay for housing, and how much debt and the length of your commute are examples of significant obligations that define how “big” work is in your life. For instance,  I’ve always made decisions to keep the commute low. Tons of research verifies that shorter commutes correlate to less stress.

And moving several times in our lives has shown us that you really can start over, grow roots, and your real friends stick with you no matter where you are.  As parents, we bought into the myth that staying in one place for raising our kids was good for them. When we moved to New York City four years ago, we did an experiment—moving with teenagers into a completely different school system and environment. We found out that this was actually good for our kids.  Staying has advantages, but going does too.

So I challenged Mr. Fourhour to think about moving if the job was so good.  Either that or find a new job.  Staying in the fourhour lane seemed unsustainable to me.

5. What risks are you willing to take to make this better?
The last question has to do with risk.  You have to let go of the trapeze you’re hanging onto to reach the next one, which hopefully will be better. New York City is a revolving door. Some people come here and love it. Some people come here and hate it. Understanding that the density and the pace are not for everyone, and that’s ok—colleagues, clients, and friends have elected to move on. The balance issue is often easier in other places, so they say.

Either way, moving is a risk. Leaving a high-profile, pedigree job is a risk. Staying at a job that is filling every corner of your life is a risk too. Ask yourself, “Is this really a problem?” If so, what is the downside of doing nothing?