Why I don’t believe in work-life balance

It took a serious health scare for me to wake up to what I was doing wrong when it came to work-life balance. Like so many people with demanding careers, I had worked myself sick. By John Karagounis.

After years of working long hours in the banking and finance industry, dealing with its daily stresses, I was low on sleep, high on sugar, and overweight. I had developed chronic back pain along the way too, which discouraged me from exercise. I felt like a mess.

As the CEO and Managing Director of The CEO Circle, I could see firsthand that I was not an isolated case. Many of the more than 500 CEOs I have interacted with over the past decade have exhibited the symptoms of this malaise as well.

Luckily, my wife Nicky provided the nudge I needed to turn my health around. Her insistence that I get a full battery of tests done to get to the bottom of my health issues led to me being diagnosed with a severe case of sleep apnoea. It also led me to rethink the concept of work-life balance, which is something I’ve explored in my new book Why I Wrote This Book: For Greater Success.

Like everyone else I strived for what is called work/life balance. All this striving seemed in vain though. When I was at work I felt like my family was missing out and when I was at home I felt like I was neglecting work. I was constantly weighing one thing against the other and never achieving this elusive balance. I felt like I was perpetually failing. I was applying a quantitative approach to an essentially qualitative problem.

For me the penny dropped when I understood there was one crucial element missing, the most important of them all, the one everything intersects through — self. In all my work-life balance bean counting, I had left myself out of the equation.


It was then that I understood this notion of work-life balance doesn’t really provide the right framework for thinking about or solving this problem. There is no balance; it’s an imbalance we all have to deal with. Life can be messy. You have to look at all the competing priorities in your life and integrate and calibrate them as best you can, often on the run and improvised. Making it work to the best of your abilities for you, your family, your work, and your community.

Essentially, however, you have to be front and centre as part of the solution.

There will be times where you have to be focused 100% on work and other times on family or on community. You have to do the best you can and not punish yourself. But importantly, you have to find time for you. Until this moment of realisation, I had thought that by taking from myself, I was giving to others. But that’s not how it works. Instead, by investing in myself I was able to give more to others.

I’ll give you a personal example of what I mean. I used to go to the gym on the odd occasion, but I wouldn’t tell anyone. I would put something else in the diary as I thought it was a selfish and unproductive way to spend time. If anyone should see me or find out about it, I would apologise. I was always thinking about the split between the time I spent at work versus the time I spent with family and friends.

Eventually I stopped going and my health issues slowly got worse. Yes, that few hours a week at the gym was now reallocated in my work-life balance ledger, away from ‘selfish’ pursuits and back to work or family, but at what cost?

I failed to understand that going to the gym was actually providing me with an activity that improved the quality of my time at work and with my family by making me a healthier and happier person.

We shouldn’t have to apologise for spending time on ourselves, whether it’s going for a walk, to the gym, doing yoga or having quiet time for us to simply be. Nor should we feel guilty for focusing and investing time in ourselves by pursuing hobbies and interests.

Instead, we should celebrate it. Move, exercise, meditate, breathe, read, eat well — be at the top of your game! Be a shining example to your family, friends and colleagues.

Allocate time for yourself to de- stress and recharge so you can be at your best with family or work.


Almost all of us have this sense that we should be doing something other than what we’re doing right now. This is typically what this hamster wheel of thought looks like. I’m at the gym thinking about why I should be at home instead. I’m at home and I’m sneakily looking at work emails instead of actually enjoying the company of the people I love. I’m at work and I’m daydreaming about getting home — so I can check work emails.

Be where you are. Be with the people you are with. Do what  you are meant to be doing in that moment. Don’t be present in body but absent in mind. This is the essence of mindfulness. Set limits with work so it does not creep into other parts of your life. No work emails or calls when at home.

Avoid distractions. When you’re at work, really be at work.

Allocate blocks of time with your family in your schedule in the same way you do with meetings and work commitments and ensure that you are present in every moment. Give of yourself. But make sure to give back to yourself too.

Approach all of this in the same way you would manage your work obligations. Review how you spend  your time during a week. What areas are being neglected and how can you redress this? Review how you spend your time every week to make sure you are doing what is most important to you. Use the amazing technology at your disposal to become more efficient.


When you understand that you are the common factor that runs through your family and friends, work, and community life, you shift your thinking from balance to integration. You see that the dischord in your life can become harmony because you become more conscious of the role you play. By focusing on giving back to yourself, you gain the self-awareness to see how you fit into the tapestry of your life. You put yourself back into the picture.

What I’m saying is simple: find time for you. Find time to simply be; find time to replenish your reserves; to reflect; and to reconnect to what’s important.

Look after yourself and you will find you can better look after the people and things in your life that matter. BFM

A passionate thought leader, keynote speaker and facilitator, John Karagounis leads The CEO Circle, Australia’s leading exclusive peer group forum for business leaders.

For more information about John’s new book Why I Wrote This Book: For Greater Success please visit johnkaragounis.com.

Business First is a peer-to-peer magazine: written by CEOs and other high level executives, with interviews with some of the country’s best leaders.

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