Survey after survey reveals that American workers feel it’s increasingly hard to maintain a work-life balance. We’re working too many hours, sacrificing “me time,” family time, and sleep to cram in more productivity. One disheartening report found that 20 percent of participants worked more than 20 hours from home in addition to regular office hours. For all our social and technological advancements, it seems we’re increasingly stuck in an unfortunate cul-de-sac of our own making. Shouldn’t we be beyond this by now? How is it that we can’t seem to innovate, design, reason, or hack our way into a better collective work-life balance?
There are, of course, legitimate and wise ways to combine tasks and increase productivity—issues I’ve written about before. Biking to work to make your commute time work for you (and free up time after work for family) or working from home to wholly eliminate a commute most days can be a smart option for some people, but not all of us have that choice immediately available to us. Staggering schedules with a partner to cover childcare or working flex hours to optimize efficiency can be helpful at times, but they’re not a panacea and can impose their own stresses. Making matters even more complicated, both time and energy figure into this picture and each impose their own inevitable limitations. We might cram our work into shorter days but then find we’re exhausted when we get home to enjoy our extra time.
Truth be told, there’s only so much that reorganizing hours while maintaining the same expectations for output. At some point, it’s just a shell game that lets us feel like we’re taking action but results in little benefit. Likewise, we eventually hit diminishing returns in doubling up activities. Walking at a treadmill desk in the office or reading a great novel on the train, fitting in a workout and a quick lunch during the noon hour are all smart choices. But beyond these, the options can start to wade into the less advantageous swamps of multitasking pretty quickly, at which point we’re missing the key point anyway.
What we want from life balance can in most cases be boiled down to ease and fulfillment. I say ease in the sense that we’re not frantically rushing from task to task, juggling goals and projects, making the whole endeavor a miserable slog of checklists rather than a chance for enjoyment. Ease is slow, experimental, meandering, organic. Fulfillment isn’t a quantifiable or predictable recipe, but a varying, personal experience rooted in too many factors to name.
We want life balance in the sense that we want a chance to naturally, unhurriedly experience all the good of life: family connection, socialization, exercise, hobbies, leisure, creativity, rest, self-care and career. Is it really such a tall order? Well, yes and no.
Just where did the myth come from—this belief that we can have it all at the same time? You know, the idea that we should be able to simultaneously balance all the minutiae of our daily lives, our ongoing dreams, and some healthy self-development goals against the immaculate backdrop of a perfect home, great career and impressive social life.
Compared to the days of manual agrarian labor and the early industrial revolution, we have more time on our hands, right? Why shouldn’t we be able to make it all work and live the utopian dream already?
These are the times when a Primal lens can offer needed perspective. Wasn’t Grok, after all, the initial example of natural work-life balance? Can’t he be our emblem for seeking the perfect symmetry of effort and leisure? I’m sorry to burst the bubble, but most definitely, no.
Let’s look at the reality. The average workday for hunter-gatherers was by most estimates in the 3-5 hour range, and this included food acquisition. Unless they experienced food scarcity or moved camps for seasonal migrations, the rest of the time was leisure. In contrast to most assumption, it was a lifestyle not all were interested in giving up for the toils and hours of agrarian life when given a choice.
The universal and timeless fact is, there’s an opportunity cost when we choose to focus on one facet of life in comparison (or exclusion) of another. We can enjoy more leisure as Grok did (with all the opportunity for rest, socialization and self-development that could go with it), but we can’t pretend to have his life and still maintain all the professional ambitions and material affluence of our own. Hunter-gatherers understood the price and the benefits of their choice, and we need to appreciate the same about ours.
You could say that in some ways our capacity to envision and desire so many interests in life is both a blessing and a curse. We have the ability to simultaneously pursue many priorities but not in equal measure or with equal results. And in the midst of that frustration and disappointment, there’s the entry point.
We all grow up with grand visions of infinite achievements. Yet we also all hit a point when we realize we indeed won’t learn 7 languages, make a billion dollars, have the perfect marriage and 3.5 wonderful children, become leader of the free world, pitch for a professional baseball team, enjoy peace by a quiet lake every night and still have time to run that specialty bookstore and tackles shop on the side. We grow up, absorb the mathematical possibilities of a general life expectancy, and learn the unappealing lessons of compromise. Eventually, we come to some degree of peace around this. And, what then, is so different about fully acknowledging the constraints of a 24-hour day?
Even as we trim back our lofty ambitions, we do well to continue the exercise with more editing zeal. What is it that we really want from life? How do we want to allocate that proverbial pie chart of time for optimum and genuine life satisfaction? And what are we willing to forgo or limit to get it? Do we have the guts to throw out the notion that we have to be (and are even capable of being) stellar at work, family life, social life, health and self-enrichment concurrently?
Where one true commitment advances, one or more lesser interest retreats, and it’s fine—if we accept it as such. Doing so not only will help us move into a life that is more fulfilling by our personal definition, but it also lets us finally drop the fraught, exhausting balancing act of maintaining more than we can reasonably handle, let alone find joy in.
If you’re honest with yourself, could you be happy with a minimalist material lifestyle in order to devote more time and energy to family or creative pursuits? On the other hand, maybe you’ve never really envisioned having a family and don’t desire a large social circle, but you feel deeply called to fulfill a professional mission that holds great personal meaning for you. Or maybe you’ve just always prioritized career and financial success. There’s no judgment in the question, but there is necessity to it. If we accept that the picture can’t be balanced, what do we as individuals want the picture to look like?
And I think it’s important to mention also (and this is something easier to see the longer one’s been around) that there are natural seasons to life when certain lessons, realizations or priorities tend to rise to the surface. At times we go through “chop wood, carry water” stages that are short on adventure and long on labor. Grok knew this, too.
What we feel mired in one decade becomes less of a focus the next. Our circumstances change, and so do we. It’s not necessarily something we can predict, but we can bring awareness and thought to the process. Time and perspective for reflecting on our lives obviously plays a role, too. It’s in these transitions from phase to phase that windows of opportunity can open if we’re committed to making it so. I’ve known people who have gone on to entirely transform their lives in later decades, beginning amazing second acts that no one saw coming. Having the health and vitality from Primal living most certainly helps open up possibilities.
So, what if you feel like you’re in the thick of life and unable to make any dramatic changes, or you’re unsure how you’d reallocate your life given the choice? Understand that there are no absolutes. Get curious about what you want. Be experimental. What feeds you? What do you want to make sure you do every day? Maybe you juggle parenthood and a full-time job along with various and sundry other household and life duties but still manage to spend 20 minutes in your workshop doing whatever creative hobby matters to you. Or maybe it’s that you make sure you get an hour in the woods each day. Or something else.
Surrender the assumption of balance as equality, the sides of a scale always matching up. Let it be more about how you feel at the end of the day. If you can make a commitment to offering yourself quality time—for you—and truly devote it to something every day (or nearly so) that fulfills you well beyond all the passive entertainments, technological compulsion and multitasking (madness) we get caught up in, there’s your opportunity. In fact, apply the Grok model of simplicity, single-mindedness, and flow to that one thing you do for yourself. See what happens over time.
Alternatively, venture to ask the bigger, bolder question of how you want to show up as a parent/partner/artisan/hobbyist/activist/friend/humanist/etc. today. We can ask the bigger question of how we want to show up as “X” each day. This question moves the focus from accomplishment to presence. We don’t necessarily need to “do” anything big or special in any of those roles, but we might bring a deeper mindfulness to them and experience ourselves as more fulfilled as a result.
Because ultimately, a satisfying balance won’t come with parsing out hours and minutes. It comes from staying in touch with what you consider the most essential parts of yourself—who you love, what fascinates you, how you want to contribute to the world, what you want to experience most in this life. Add these to the most fundamental, Primal of questions.
Thanks for reading, everyone. I’d love to read your take on creating a Primally balanced life as you see it. Share your thoughts, and have a great wrap-up to the week.
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About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.