Why boundaries are better than work-life balance

One phrase we hear (and use) a lot is work-life balance. But what exactly does that mean? And is it really the healthiest state to aspire to?

Jessica Chivers, managing director of The Talent Keeper Specialists believes that pursuing a work-life balance doesn’t necessarily lead to the most productive and satisfying state for most of us – and that it’s boundaries instead that we should be aiming for.

Why I hate the phrase ‘work-life balance’

Through my work I have the privilege of hearing other women’s aspirations, concerns and insights into the minutiae of what it takes to be at their best – and one thing that comes up time and again is boundaries.

I’m not talking about the physical, neighbour dispute type of boundary, but the demarcations we use to ensure we spread our energy around a range of pursuits. And I believe they’re a much more effective alternative to pursuing ‘work-life balance’ – a phrase I personally detest.

‘Work-life balance’ implies that the work we do is separate from ‘life.’ This is clearly nonsense – a rich life involves gratifying work. The dichotomy ‘work-home balance’ is little better as it suggests both in equal measure and experienced separately is preferable.

I don’t buy the idea that work is separate from life, and neither do the women I work with – women who find they flourish because they can and do fit professional tasks in at home in exchange for being able to leave early, come in late or work from home.

I also appreciate that for some people, their paid work will always take a back seat to their home life, and vice versa. Life isn’t equal and it isn’t fair. Didn’t we all learn that as children?

What can we seek instead of balance?

So if I’m trashing ‘work-life balance,’ what can you replace it with instead as a model to work towards? As an alternative, I give you not one but three important tools:

  • Appreciative inquiry.
  • Boundaries.
  • Intuition.

Appreciative inquiry

Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a tool that emerged in the 1980s from organisational behaviour studies, and involves noticing what processes are working.

In our context, AI is about noticing what you are doing when life feels good and doing it more of the time, and is a tool I use with clients to generate concrete actions that are likely to improve a given situation.

For example, one client was returning from maternity leave and faced the challenge of winning over a couple of people in the company who reported to her. In our coaching time she mentioned that they seemed suspicious and weren’t buying into her tried and trusted methodology on a given project.

Through appreciative inquiry-type questioning we ascertained that the relationships with these people are at their best when she is in ‘listening mode’. As a result we decided that the focus for her first week back after maternity leave was to get alongside these people and listen to what’s been going on – what’s been working while she’s been away and what needs tuning up.

The strategy left her feeling confident that she would get off to a strong start and demonstrate her desire to build a trusted partnership with her colleagues.

If you wanted to apply AI techniques to your own life, reflect each day on what went well and why, and use the information to consider how you can be at your best more of the time. By writing down your intentions you will take the first step in making it happen more of the time.


I’d put money on the idea that people who work a clearly defined, 50-hour week Monday to Friday and focus fully on family, rest and play out of these hours are far more energised, happy and well than those who work less hours but do them in a blurring, always-half-a-mind-on-it type way.

For this reason I re-emphasise that I don’t think it’s so much about a ‘balanced life’ (all things in equal measure) as it is maintaining clear boundaries around different parts of life, to avoid feeling worn out through distraction and dilution of effort. Quite simply, boundaries help us bring our whole selves to bear on one thing.

So what does that mean in practice? To give you some examples:

  • When you’re in work-mode, it’s not a good idea to be in charge of children, however nicely they’re playing.
  • When you’re in family-mode, make a point of putting your mobile away and work papers out of sight.
  • When you’re in rest-mode, take yourself out of sight of anything you’re going to feel the need to action.

I’ve found that a few well-chosen boundaries can make all the difference to how good life feels. I personally have five notable ones that work for me:

  1. No business activities before the children are at school, unless another adult is here.
  2. A 9pm cut-off for business activities.
  3. A boundary around mealtimes – we all eat together when we’re in and electronic devices are banned.
  4. Ring-fenced time to run 3-4 times a week.
  5. Time every weekend for the four us to be just the four of us.

Over time, these time boundaries are the bare minimum I’ve learned that I need to feel good. Outside them pretty much anything can happen and every week is different.

That said, I’m not perfect and have work to do on not blurring the boundaries between work and home at tea-time (where I have a bad habit of interweaving rustling up dinner with doing simple business tasks – despite knowing I feel better when I simply focus on domestic stuff at this point in the day).


So how can we get better at sticking to boundaries? Before I hit a boundary there’s usually a little voice that let’s me know I’m approaching it.

I call this intuition. I believe our minds are incredibly good at monitoring, keeping track and signaling to us when we’re about to divert from making a good decision.

To give you another example – I am a time maximiser and I get a thrill from getting a lot done in a short space of time. And I’ve noticed that, when I see there is a small window between finishing one thing and needing to be somewhere else, I very rarely pause and use those few minutes to metaphorically inhale or exhale (unless I’m working with clients – I always take time to ‘centre’ myself between sessions).

Instead I immediately think ‘what can I quickly ram in here?’ And when I do, my intuitive, self-regulating voice will say: “Is that really a good idea?” to get me to stop. Rarely is the voice not there at these points, and when I listen to it I generally fare better than when I ignore it. I just need to work on listening to it more!

Find your own boundaries in your life

What about you? Are you clear where the boundaries lie on your own life? And how good are you at noticing and respecting them?

If your life is a blur between work, family and everything else, maybe it’s time to put these tools into practice and start clearly defining where each begin and end – and enjoy the time you spend on each more productively and exclusively.

Jessica Chivers is managing director of The talent Keeper Specialists and author of Mothers Work! How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work (Hay House, 2011). Jessica also writes a regular blog.