Work-life balance is something many people struggle with. So there’s a lot of advice out there about how to have a better work-life balance. But a lot of it misses the mark, in my opinion. I want to take a different angle on the problem and help you find a better solution to improve your work-life balance.
Of course, my angle is also from a permaculture perspective. If you don’t yet know what permaculture is, check out my article, What Everyone Ought to Know About Permaculture.
I used to struggle with work-life balance as a mom working outside of the home. And I still struggle with it now that I work from home. It seems that I never have enough time to do what I need to for my business and also take care of my family, home, and garden. I definitely have a better work-life balance now than I did when I was working full-time outside of the home, but I know what it’s like to be on that hamster wheel of work, cook, sleep, repeat.
Through my study of permaculture, I’ve learned a different way to think of work-life balance. I have three basic steps to follow to achieve better balance. But before I get to those, I have a few things I want to say about why balance in life and work is such a big issue these days.
When Did Work-Life Balance Become a Thing?
If you think about it, we didn’t start talking about work-life balance until women started showing up more in the workforce. Prior to that, we didn’t look at men working forty, fifty, or more hours a week and think their lives were out of balance. And we didn’t look at women staying at home and think their lives were out of balance.
It was when societal expectations of women expanded to include both traditional “women’s work” and “wage earner” that balancing both became a struggle for many.
As gender roles are changing and evolving, and in the economic climate where a single income often isn’t enough to support a family, more and more people, of any gender, struggle with work-life balance.
My heart goes out to all of the single parents out there who are doing it all alone. If that’s you and you’re here looking to find a better balance, I think that these steps can help you as well.
What Is Work-Life Balance?
I think most would agree that work-life balance isn’t about having the perfect division of work vs. non-work hours. To me, it’s more about spending more time doing things that you want to do and less time doing things you don’t want to do.
This of course is tricky when your work, the thing that provides your income, is also the thing you enjoy less. So work-life balance is partly about finding your right livelihood. This article is not about that, but finding your right livelihood is something I’d like to explore more on this blog in the future.
Work-life balance isn’t necessarily about working less. For someone who loves their work and has minimal other obligations, it may feel perfectly fine and balanced to work twelve-hour days.
On the other hand, someone could have a soul-sucking job that they only do for twenty hours a week and still feel out of balance.
Somewhere in the middle is the working parent who enjoys their job well enough, or even loves their job, but struggles to keep up with it along with all the domestic responsibilities of parenthood.
How Permaculture Can Help With Work-Life Balance
Unsurprisingly, permaculture has some solutions for finding a better work-life balance. The cool thing is, that making some simple lifestyle changes can lead to not only improved work-life balance and greater life satisfaction but also stronger communities and a healthier planet.
Now I understand that not everyone will have the same goals or the same ability to make major changes to their life right away. We do what we have to do to survive.
But, there are things you can do today to start improving your lifestyle, even if it feels like you’ll be stuck in survival mode forever. And if you’re like me and have already made some improvements, but still want to do better, these steps can help you, too.
Holmgren’s Work-Life Balance Chart
The way of thinking about work-life balance that I’m about to share with you is right out of one of my favorite permaculture books, Retrosuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future. In it, the author, David Holmgren, adds a second dimension to the paradigm of work versus play.
Although work versus play is a major part of work-life balance, it’s an insufficient metric on its own.
In fact, only considering these two types of activities has led to undervaluing the work of homemakers. Because domestic work is not paid work (when done for yourself and your family), it’s easy to lump it in with play.
In this paradigm, it’s easy to under-appreciate the hardworking homemaker. We may even criticize them for not having a “real job.”
Holmgren has added the second axis of market norms vs. social norms to address this problem. Market norms are anything involving earning or spending money. Social norms occur outside the monetary economy and within the realm of community. The market norms and social norms categories each have room for work and play activities. The difference is whether or not they revolve around money.
Considering both axes (work vs. play and market vs. social) gives a better picture of your current work-life balance and makes it easier to evaluate and redesign your life. This goes for big life changes as well as small lifestyle adjustments.
The 3 Steps to Improved Work-Life Balance
I’ve broken the process of improving work-life balance down into three simple steps. These steps may seem overly broad or simplistic on their own. But along with the other concepts in this article, they can make a profound impact on your life and well-being.
- Assess your current lifestyle with the work-life balance chart
- Envision your ideal lifestyle and where it falls on the chart
- Make incremental changes toward your ideal lifestyle
Step 1 – Assess Your Current Lifestyle
To do this, we’ll use the chart concept from Retrosuburbia.
As I haven’t gotten permission to use the beautifully illustrated images from the book, I’ve made a basic sketch of the chart below. For the pretty pictures and more detailed explanations, you can read the book free online, or get a hard copy from Permaculture Principles in Australia, or in the US, or Ragman’s in the UK. Or, if you prefer, you can get it on Amazon (affiliate link).
To make the work-life balance chart, draw two axes that cross in the middle to create four quadrants. The vertical axis has “work” at the top and “play” at the bottom. The horizontal axis has “market norms” on the left and “social norms” on the right. Put together, these axes create four quadrants representing the four basic ways we can spend our time.
The Four Work-Life Balance Quadrants
In the sections below I’ll briefly describe the quadrants, enough for you to understand where the activities in your life fall, in order to complete your own analysis.
I’ve included example lifestyles, not necessarily as options for you, but to illustrate the feel of each quadrant. Your current and ideal lifestyles will likely be somewhere in the middle.
Profit and Loss
The top left quadrant is “profit and loss.” This is the time spent earning money. This is any kind of paid work, including work for an employer or client, freelance work, and time spent building or operating a business.
An example of a lifestyle centered in the profit and loss quadrant is someone trying to get ahead by “working for the man” and cutting down on expenses.
The bottom left quadrant is “consumer heaven.” This is the time spent buying things and participating in consumer-based leisure activities, such as watching movies or television, playing video games, going out to eat, and shopping for food, clothing, and other necessary and non-necessary items. Formal education and paid classes also belong here.
An example of a lifestyle in this quadrant is the “hedonic treadmill.” One with plenty of disposable income from moderate work hours or investments who structures their life around consumer-based leisure activities.
The top right quadrant is “permaculture productivity.” This is time spent working on unpaid tasks, traditionally considered “women’s work,” such as cooking, gardening, mending, and child care.
A “permaculture productivity” lifestyle is one that has minimized participation in the monetary economy, focusing labor on household resilience. Both income and expenses are low. I like to think of this quadrant as a modern-day “Little House on the Prairie” lifestyle but with more community support and exchange with neighbors.
The bottom right is “voluntary simplicity.” The term “childhood wonderland” describes it well. This includes time spent at play, learning new skills, socializing, exploring nature, storytelling, eating home-cooked meals, and personal hygiene.
A lifestyle in the extreme bottom right of this quadrant is “monastic frugality.” It’s someone whose basic needs are minimal and supported by the community. Their focus is on service to others and spirituality.
Find Your Current Balance
To assess your current lifestyle, think through a typical week and put each waking hour into the relevant quadrant. To make it simple, allow nine hours for sleep, leaving fifteen hours a day and roughly one hundred hours per week of “waking hours.”
Sketch a simple chart on a piece of paper and go through a typical Monday in your mind, hour by hour, and put a tick mark for each hour in the relevant quadrant.
Examples from My Schedule
For example, on weekdays during the school year, I get up by 7am. I do some yoga, feed the baby, eat breakfast, do some dishes, get the middle kid ready for school, walk him to the bus stop, and get home by 9am. A mix of child care, chores, exercise, and eating make up that two-hour block of time. On my work-life balance chart, I put one tick mark in the top right quadrant and one in the bottom right quadrant to represent this block of time, assuming it is roughly half work and half self-care.
From 9 am to noon I take care of the baby while doing more chores. Three more tick marks in the upper right. Around noon the baby takes a nap and I work on my business for a couple of hours. Two tick marks go in the top left quadrant.
Most weekdays are roughly the same, so I multiply the total tick marks in each quadrant by five. One day a week I go grocery shopping, so two tick marks shift from the top right to the lower left.
My weekends look much different so I did separate charts for Saturday and Sunday.
Plot Your Lifestyle on The Chart
Once every hour of the week is accounted for, add up the total number of tick marks in each quadrant. Since the total number of hours is 100 (actually 105 hours, but we’re estimating anyway), the number in each quadrant is the rough percentage of time spent in that quadrant.
Based on these percentages you can plot your lifestyle on the chart (estimating is fine) to get an idea of how your life is weighted.
If you have a partner or other family members you share the workload with, it might be helpful to analyze each of your schedules separately and combined as a household.
This exercise can also help with the equitable division of roles in a household or relationship as you adjust your lifestyle for a better work-life balance.
Step 2 – Envision Your Ideal Lifestyle
Now that you’ve assessed your current balance of time, take a moment to reflect on what you’ve discovered. How do you feel about the ways you’re spending your time? What aspects are you happy with? What aspects would you like to change in the future?
Remember that work-life balance isn’t only about the distribution of hours between the quadrants, but also what those activities entail. You might want to spend eight hours a day working, but hate your current job and want to find a new one. Or you might love your job but want to spend only six hours a day at it instead of eight or more to make room for the other important parts of life.
As you ponder this, here are some related ideas to think about.
The Work-Consume Cycle
When work and life feel out of balance, it’s often because we feel overworked or like we don’t have enough time to do important things in life, such as spending quality time with family and self-care.
When we feel overworked it’s tempting to overconsume on our time off. It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle of earning and spending, but never really feel fulfilled.
When we spend too much time in the bottom left corner of “consumer heaven” we have to work harder to support that consumer lifestyle, leaving us more tired and burned out, and even more likely to indulge in purchased comforts such as convenience meals, shopping as therapy, and nightly Netflix watching. I understand. I’ve been there.
All this isn’t to say that any time you spend in consumer heaven is bad. Buying things is a necessary part of modern life. With our life support systems of food production and the supply chain separated from our everyday lives, our survival is dependent on the market economy.
It’s when the time spent in “consumer heaven” becomes out of balance that it negatively affects our mental and physical health. It also damages the health of the planet (think throw-away culture and unsustainable manufacturing practices). And it weakens our communities (because we don’t have the energy to contribute to our local communities when we’re tuckered out from running through the cycle).
Too Much Work
But maybe you’re thinking that overconsuming isn’t the problem, it’s overworking that’s throwing your life out of balance.
Maybe you’re a working parent and nearly all of your time is divided between paid work and domestic work, leaving very little time for play, no matter whether that play is part of the market economy or the social economy. The point is, that you’re overworked and overtired.
If this is you, pause for a moment. This isn’t the time to think of all the reasons you’re stuck in this lifestyle. I know that you need to pay the bills, the family needs to eat, and have a relatively clean home to live in. Push those thoughts to the side for a moment and dream.
I mentioned a few paragraphs back how overconsumption is harmful to our health, the health of the planet, and the health of our communities. I think these points deserve further examination. This is, after all, a look at work-life balance from a permaculture perspective.
I explained permaculture ethics in more detail in my article, What Everyone Ought to Know about Permaculture, so give that a read if you want more background on them.
If you’re a permaculture person grappling with the work-life balance dilemma, one of the first things to look at is how your lifestyle aligns or misaligns with the permaculture ethics of People Care, Earth Care, and Fair Share.
Better care for people goes hand in hand with work-life balance. If you’re out of balance, you may not be receiving the care you need, or you may be unable to give the care you want to, to the people you love – your family, your friends, and your community.
Working toward better People Care in your life will help restore your own work-life balance. Start with yourself. It’s okay, even necessary, to care for yourself first. Just as they say on an airplane, in case of emergency, secure your oxygen mask first before helping others.
Sadly, our dollar-driven economy mostly overlooks sustainability. Corporations grow through the exploitation of natural resources and human labor. Of course, some businesses are more exploitative than others, but it’s nearly impossible to get ahead in the current system without committing some degree of exploitation. Often these injustices are committed without realizing it, or without understanding the impact. But they’re committed nonetheless.
Reassessing your work-life balance can be an excellent opportunity to live more sustainably. Quite possibly, the same changes that help us feel more in balance in our lives can also be less destructive to the environment.
These changes might be major life pivots or small habit changes.
For example, Sally (a fictional character I just now made up and named after my childhood cat) used to spend a few minutes in the morning scrolling on social media. She decided to swap out that habit for a morning meditation practice. This change helps Sally feel more grounded and balanced throughout the day but it also reduces her time spent on a “consumer heaven” activity, which social media usually is (despite its name). In addition to the benefits of her meditation, she has also reduced her exposure to advertisements promoting more needless consumer activity, which always has an environmental impact. It’s a win-win for both Sally and the environment.
The third permaculture ethic has different meanings depending on who you talk to. Originally, Fair Share was about limits to growth and consumption. Later it became more about not hoarding resources and sharing excess yields.
In the context of work-life balance, Fair Share can be explored at the household scale. Every member of the household should pull their own weight in a mutually agreed upon, equitable way. This includes age-appropriate chores for kids and thoughtful division of household duties and income generation between partners.
Division of labor shouldn’t necessarily be equal, but it should be equitable.
Doing Our Best
As compassionate human beings, who care about each other, the planet, and the future we’re leaving for our children and grandchildren, we strive to do better.
Understanding the impact our lifestyle and daily decisions have on the earth and each other is the first step to doing better.
But beware, as you dig deeper into the ecological and human rights impacts that our consumerism has, it’s easy to fall into despair. It may feel impossible to live a perfectly sustainable and ethical life (because within our current system, it is impossible).
It’s tempting to throw your hands and give up.
Doing our best is all we can do. But, as we grow and change, both individually and as a global community, our capacity to do better will grow as well.
Imagine Your Ideal Life
With all of the above in mind, take a moment to sit down with your work-life balance chart in hand and do some dreaming.
This is the time to dream big.
What does your ideal lifestyle look like? Where does that lifestyle fall on the chart? In an ideal world, what sorts of activities would you spend your day doing?
This will be different for everyone.
- Maybe you want to eventually quit your job and go full-on permaculture homesteader and YouTuber.
- Maybe you enjoy or even love your job but need to find more time to refill your energy banks.
- Maybe your big dream is to move out of the city, buy a piece of land, and start a permaculture farm.
- Maybe you want to break the rental housing cycle and buy your own quarter-acre lot in the suburbs so you can do some gardening and plant a fruit tree guild or two in the back.
- Or maybe your dream is something completely different.
Whatever your dream is, hold on to it. Your dream is the thing that will give you the motivation to make the small changes in your day-to-day life, and the more extensive changes needed to create the well-balanced life you desire.
Step 3 – Make Incremental Changes Toward Your Ideal
So now you have an understanding of your current lifestyle, and where it falls on both the work-play and the market-social spectrums. And, you’ve thought about how you’d like your work-life balance to change.
You might have a huge, life-changing goal you’re striving for, like quitting your job and moving to the country, starting a daycare business so that you can stay home with your kids, or starting your own backyard nursery.
Or you might have smaller changes in mind, like reducing your work hours or downshifting to more sustainable habits. Maybe you still don’t know exactly how you want your life to change, just that you want more balance. Hopefully, after reading the first part of this article you at least have an idea of the types of changes you want to make.
In this final step, you’ll actually make the changes you want to see in your life. I can’t tell you how to do this specifically, because I don’t know what your goals are and even if I did, I may or may not know the steps needed to achieve them.
What I can offer are some general ideas that have helped me make changes in my life. These are creating specific goals, taking slow but steady action, making one change at a time, and embracing delayed gratification.
Create Specific Goals
Break your goals down into small steps and put those items into your calendar or to-do list. The reason for this is that big goals are daunting. Break them down into small steps that can be accomplished in one sitting.
For example, if your goal is to clean out the garage, never put “clean out the garage” on your to-do list. Instead, put “declutter one box.” If your goal is to write a novel, don’t put “write” on your list. Instead, put “write 1000 words,” or “write one chapter.”
You get the idea.
No matter how big your main goal is, it can be broken down into smaller goals that don’t seem so daunting, and even smaller goals that can be completed in one sitting.
Slow but Consistent Progress
If you have a big goal in mind and you know what steps to take to reach that goal, then start taking action. And take action regularly, even if it’s just a few minutes each day or even each week.
It really is amazing how small bits of consistent effort add up.
This slow and steady approach works for goals with a large time requirement, such as writing a book or starting and maintaining a garden. It also works for goals that are more about changing habits than creating a product.
This brings us to the next section.
One Change at a Time
Rather than trying to make all of the changes at once, just pick one habit at a time. Maybe it’s waking up half an hour earlier, or implementing an after-dinner walk. Maybe it’s taking one weekend afternoon a week to batch cook your meals for the week so that you aren’t tempted to eat out or rely on convenience foods.
Whatever habit you’re establishing, only focus on one at a time and give yourself at least a week or two, if not a month or more, to establish the habit before adding more.
Embrace Delayed Gratification
It’s easy to get used to having what we want as soon as we want it. Here in the US, we have 24-hour grocery stores, fast food, and streaming movies at our fingertips. But sometimes taking advantage of these conveniences isn’t the best way to achieve our lifestyle goals.
When I moved to Australia, it was difficult to get used to the limited store hours. On more than one occasion, I showed up at the grocery store after 5pm on a weekday, or before noon on a Sunday, forgetting that they would be closed. At first, I was irritated, but then I thought about the impact of these limited hours on the employees, and I felt much less bothered by the inconvenience to me. Limited store hours make work-life balance more attainable for employees, and I can totally appreciate and respect that.
Being able to buy something on a whim at any hour, pick up fast food on the way home from work, or stream a video without leaving home might even be counterproductive to achieving a more balanced life.
By waiting even a couple of hours before deciding to do any of these things, you may realize that it’s not the decision you want to make for yourself or the way you want to spend your hard-earned money.
Another point I want to make about delayed gratification is that everything has its season. Embrace that. Hard work now pays off later. The seeds we sow in spring yield harvests in autumn.
Your life may feel out of balance now, but realize that it won’t be this way forever. There’s a path for you to change your situation in life. But don’t get so caught up in the end goal that you forget to enjoy your current season and the journey to your next, perhaps more balanced, season of life.
Work-life balance can be hard to reach in this day and age, with high costs of living and a culture of consumerism. But rethinking work-life balance, from the perspective of not only work versus play but also the market economy vs. social economy, can shed light on why your life may feel out of balance.
I hope this article has opened your mind to a different way of thinking about work and life and given you some ideas to help you as you navigate your own path to a better work-life balance.
Make sure to check out Retrosuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future.