Work-Life Balance Advice Is BS

Here's a cautionary tale about work-life balance.

My first year out of university, I almost declined an assignment from the alt-weekly I dreamed of working for. They had published a few stories I pitched, and begun giving me ideas they thought up in story meetings. I was building momentum.

Then one day I put on the brakes. I was writing another piece for the business magazine I worked at and the deadlines were too close together. I was overwhelmed. I said no.

I was also 21 and fresh out of school. I wanted to be a writer. I had this nagging feeling that I had done the wrong thing.

That night I went out (yes, I'm aware of the hypocrisy, but I had tickets for a festival opening) and ran into a former journalism classmate. I told her my dilemma, and she promptly advised me to take the assignment. Make time, she said.

Luckily, the editor hadn't found someone else.

Her attitude has stuck with me as the counterpoint to prioritizing work-life balance.

The anti-work revolution is well underway. We're constantly bombarded with techniques to spend more time with the people we love and less with the e-mail we hate. It's a worthy goal, since most of us now carry portable offices in our pockets, but it shouldn't become gospel. We should strive for work-life balance, but know when to ditch it.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO, has become a punching bag for balance advocates who view her can-do attitude as a recipe for burnout. Most recently, her workplace manifesto, "Lean In", was panned by Rosa Brooks, a law professor and Foreign Policy columnist whose rally cry is "Women of the world, recline!"

Brooks followed Sandberg's mantra and it left her professionally successful and personally miserable. She writes: "I never saw my friends, because I was too busy building my network. I was too tired to do any creative, outside-the-box thinking. I was boxed in ... Perhaps the modern equivalent of Woolf's 'room of her own' is the right to stop 'leaning in' all the time. There is, after all, much to be said for leaning out -- for long lunches, afternoon naps, good books and some nice, slow hours in the La-Z-Boy." It's hard to disagree with more naps, but the reality is more complex.

Most fields are now extremely competitive. A university degree is the new high school degree. There are fewer blue-collar jobs. People get a Master's and move in with their parents. Most career trajectories have gone from marathons at one company to sprints at many. Fat pensions, cushy benefits and eight-hour work days are as vintage as that T-shirt you're now allowed to wear to work. Technology has turned us into 24/7 work machines. Rather than indulge in nostalgia, we should adjust to new demands.

The older you get, the easier it is to rest on your laurels and confidently decline opportunities. The hardest-working colleague I've ever had recently told me she now guards her weekends like a hawk. But it took her years of early Saturday mornings and late Sunday nights to get there.

When you're young, it can feel really hard to say "no" to anything. Especially in creative industries like journalism, theatre or fashion where you feel lucky to have a job and completely disposable. Talented people get burnt out, disenchanted and insecure by working too hard on assignments that don't fulfill them.

The solution, people often say, is to work smart instead of hard. Rather than stay at the office until 10 p.m., use time more effectively so you can have a life. But I've always felt the philosophy lacks nuance. Of course you should figure out how to waste less time on the job, but some tasks and projects demand long hours, no matter how "smart" you work.

Working smart is knowing when to work hard, rather than avoiding it all together.

Really, we should work selfishly.

Don't be the person who constantly spends extra time on an assignment you don't care about just to please someone else. Don't say "yes" to things that will sap your strength but won't benefit your career. Work hard when you have something to gain.

Before taking on more, ask yourself "Will I learn something new? Make a valuable connection? Get my work in front of a new audience? Be fulfilled?" If the answer is "no," throw on those sweatpants and order a pizza. If it's yes, lean the hell in. Ditch work-life balance.

You might give up sleep, eat too much takeout and forgo personal hygiene. But save the privation for the stuff that's worth it.

When I look back on my freelance conundrum, I don't remember the stress of juggling two writing assignments (and now that I have more experience, that workload is laughable). I remember the alt-weekly editor saying "I really appreciate you jumping on this," getting more work, and being invited to the company Christmas party. I remember the gain, not the pain.

For now, I'm fine with the fact that writing this piece meant my dishes didn't get done. I'll do them on a day when I don't have an idea.