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Balance is a Myth: Burnout + Why Even The Best Routines Can’t Save Us

Meaghan Hunt  |  August 29, 2022

When productivity is toxic. Here's how to start living your own productivity narrative and let go of your goal of achieving ultimate balance.

The Great Resignation may be old news, but toxic productivity culture isn’t (yet). I read Madeleine Dore’s book I Didn’t Do The Thing Today: Letting Go of Productivity Guilt in May of 2022. Within 60 days, I’d stepped back from a 15-year-long career in public service, pivoting to a fully-remote, fully-freelance, self-employed life, operating at an entirely different cadence. I do not think the timing was coincidental.

Dore’s book isn’t exactly self-help, and it’s not strictly journalistic. I’d call it a philosophical exploration. And on the heels of writing a HerMoney piece on burnout specifically, I was curious to learn more about how I’d reached such a crux of personal and professional exhaustion. More broadly, why was burnout at the fore of so many dialogues in media– why now?

Women’s routines were thrown for a loop during the pandemic. Numerous studies point to labor market disruption for women in particular; one from the Boston College Center for Work & Family warned of a “female recession” to come. For those of us who have remained in the workforce, remote work is here to stay, meaning the juggling act has changed permanently. 

But back to routines: we’re obsessed with them. “Routine is often touted as the salve to all kinds of dilemmas,” Dore writes, adding  that “even striving for balance and self-care has become a to-do item.” Most cuttingly, “A routine can provide a sense of security and control in a world that is uncertain and outside our control.” Ouch, Madeleine– by page 30 of her book, I knew we needed to talk. The more I read, the more I saw her research as holding the keys to my questions about burnout and why the new work/life mix has been breaking so many of us.

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Self-care, too, is a buzzword, tossed around just as much as (and often alongside) “burnout.” And here’s where things get interesting: I think women are burning themselves alive because, as Dore points out, we’re adding self-care to our already crushing to-do lists. And we’re trusting that building a structure around these lists– some bulletproof routine– will bring us peace. If we only schedule a yoga class, schedule time with our spouses, schedule time to respond to work emails, schedule playground time with our kids, schedule enough time to rest, we’ll magically achieve the work-life balance of our dreams.

I’d spent my adult life chasing something that will never exist: a regimented, mindfully-constructed balance of physical, mental, and financial health, professional achievement, tidy spaces, functioning personal relationships, and cultivation of what writer Eve Rodsky refers to as “unicorn space.” All of these things, all at once. The reality is that facets of our lives ebb and flow and very rarely thrive concurrently. 

I chatted with Madeleine for this piece before I knew I’d be shortly joining the great resignation myself. I asked her why we continue to support a cultural myth that balance is attainable when we know full well that it isn’t.

Carefully stating that she didn’t have the answers, Dore reminded me that “We have whole industries dedicated to selling us this idea of balance,” which is wholly unattainable. “We’re forever caught in the hamster wheel.” She went on to explain that social media plays in here– “The comparison trap, the consumerist trap– we forget we’re looking at a highlight reel. We gain the impression that other people are keeping up with their to-do lists, other people are achieving work-life balance, other people are getting it right. Somehow we’re the ones who aren’t; we’re the ones who are messing up; we’re the ones who are ordering takeout because we’re [exhausted]. 

“We’re piling on all this self-blame for what’s a systemic issue. That can be what really keeps us stuck: how quick we are to blame ourselves for being the only ones not getting it right. The lives we’re being sold– be it by companies or by neighbors– on social media are unattainable and deflating. It’s difficult to untangle from.” 

Every planner I’d ever purchased, every habit-building app, and every hour lost in the Container Store– trying to bring order and “balance” to this complicated thing called life– came to mind during our conversation. In postwar America, advertising sold women Tupperware sets and new appliances, promising domestic bliss with the right purchase. In the post-pandemic consumer landscape, we’re sold different products with a similar assurance: that through organization and intentional living, we can achieve Balance if we only try hard enough. Exhaustion, emergencies, blurred boundaries, and impossible standards be damned.

The truth underlying my own burnout is that balance is unachievable. In a given week, I’ll let a single ingredient shortage at the grocery store throw off my perfect, balanced meal plan (cue the Starbucks drive-through and resulting guilt for having a brownie and iced espresso for lunch). My coiffed capsule wardrobe is suddenly complicated, trying to contain four pant sizes because I’m navigating my late-30-something body, which is, as 2 Chainz lyrically dubbed the term, “Quarantine Thick.” And sometimes, the most carefully-planned Date Night is thrown off because I have a raging headache (is it stress? Hormones? TMJ? Allergies? COVID?). 

Despite Sunday’s best efforts, I’ll find myself at 6:30 on a Thursday evening ordering takeout for the third time within a week, beating myself up because my living room is wrecked and I don’t have the energy to tidy it. I could blame any number of realities beyond my control, or I could just give myself a break– but I choose neither, instead trying to schedule my way toward a better day tomorrow.

My colleague Molly Triffin covered work-life balance for HerMoney back at the beginning of the pandemic, illuminating just how badly the deck is stacked against women, working moms in particular. Over the last year, I’ve concluded that “balance” as we know it is merely an industry perpetuated by a broken system that keeps us hustling. I can spin plates, but not as perfectly as my Instagram feed might suggest.

Taking notice of your own productivity narrative is the first step to gaining control over it, advised Dore when we spoke. “Curiosity is the first step– noticing. Then we can start to either forgive ourselves if need be or shift the story.”  And the story I’d been feeding myself– of bento-box healthy lunches, curated closets, and a successful work-life balance being everyone’s norm– simply isn’t a feasible reality. Letting go of the balance illusion was my first step toward recovery and self-forgiveness.

In the process of writing her book, Dore told me she learned that a “copy-paste” approach to living a successful life is a “fool’s errand. We have different energy levels, different neurodiversity, different safety nets, different cognitive abilities, different circumstances, different emotions,” she reminded me. “A day fluctuates, but also we as human beings fluctuate.” The things we need change from one day to the next; there is no panacea.

Burnout isn’t going anywhere. Women have long been invited to consume their way toward happiness, but I’d argue that “balance” is the more vogue unattainable ideal of today. In 1952, women were portrayed in print advertising as positively manic with joy over their matching appliances. 70 years later, we have been hoodwinked into thinking that a color-coded calendar– with time allotted for work tasks and self-care alike– will bring us a state of harmony and peace. But understanding the narratives we feed ourselves– and who’s profiting from the myths– can be far more productive steps toward overcoming burnout and finding real tranquility.

Madeline Dore’s book, I Didn’t Do The Thing Today: Letting Go of Productivity Guilt, is available at your local library or wherever books are sold.

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