Forget Work/Life Balance, It’s About ‘Dynamic Equilibrium’-‘Think Like a River’

Our goal
is to manage
the always-changing
equilibrium between these
areas, rather than to establish
a rigid relationship between
them, however
‘balanced’ it is.

Dr. Julie NewellDr. Julie Newell

By Dr. Lisa A. Rossbacher, president, and Dr. Julie Newell, professor and chair of Social and International Studies, both at Southern Polytechnic State University GA

In a 2010 study, 89% of the Americans surveyed said that work/life balance is a problem in the United States.

We agree that the concept of balance is a problem, but the real issue is how we think and talk about it. We need to think more like a river, and less like a balancing act.

Balance is a static condition. The metaphor of a fulcrum suggests that the goal is to invest equal amounts of time and energy in work relative to home and family. Balance is an elusive and ultimately unattainable condition.

Southern Polytechnic State University, part of the University System of Georgia, is a comprehensive university with a special mission to focus on science, engineering, technology and design. Although it has been coeducational since its founding in 1948, women have never been more than 22% of its students.

It has a strategic goal of increasing the number of women students recruited and retained by supporting the leadership of women faculty and administrators.

In spring 2012, we launched a Women’s Leadership Initiative. About 30 women, equally divided among faculty and administrators, met during the semester to discuss factors affecting women leaders.

In discussing work/life balance, we agreed that the concept of “dynamic equilibrium”—which we borrowed from the geosciences and life science disciplines—is more useful than “balance” in managing time and priorities.

‘Dynamic equilibrium’

We advocate replacing the term “balance” with “dynamic equilibrium,” which we believe is a much better way to look at how we manage our resources, both time and energy.

As a geologist and historian of science, we know that dynamic equilibrium is important in geology. The concept describes the energy balance in a landscape, in which the landforms adjust fairly quickly to changes.

For example, a stream is affected by the characteristics of underlying rocks and soil, fractures, vegetation, uplift, precipitation and groundwater levels. The stream will “work” to adapt changes in any of these factors by eroding the surrounding banks and channel floor, deepening its course or depositing sediment. Over time, changing climate affects dynamic equilibrium too.

In a sense, we all manage the landscapes of our lives in similar ways. When we have more work to do, we shift our energy to pick up the load. When family or personal demands increase, we shift our focus there and let work slide a little.

When we reach the new equilibrium point, we readjust, but that equilibrium point is always changing.

The response isn’t always instantaneous. A stream adjusts to a flood over a period of time. A “flood event” in our personal lives—a major health issue, a family crisis, or some other life-changing event—can have an impact beyond the immediate event, and the adjustment period may be extensive. In other cases, we may bounce back quickly to a new point of equilibrium.

We’ve all experienced the impact of a climate change on the office environment type of climate; we generally adapt fairly quickly to small changes, and then we reach a dynamic equilibrium. The overused phrase “the new normal” is actually useful in describing this new adjustment point.

The longer-term changes in our environment may sometimes escape us until we suddenly realize that we are spending far more (or less) time on a particular activity than we used to. We can then make the decision to continue or to find a new equilibrium. Each of us has a different time frame over which we seek dynamic equilibrium. In higher education, the academic year can provide a useful structure; over the course of a year, we find the opportunity to invest our resources in both the full range of activities—both professional and personal—that make us complete individuals.

Some people want to establish equilibrium over the course of a week or month. Others have pointed out that, “A day is too short, and a lifetime is too long.”

Boundary issues

The pervasiveness of electronic communications creates challenges in finding the boundaries between work and non-work activities, which also affects our equilibrium.

As one example, email and text messages intertwine all parts of our lives. We check our work messages on evenings and weekends, and we receive messages from our family and friends during the workday.

The pace of our lives makes it difficult to compartmentalize our time and attention completely. If we did, we could miss a request to pick up a child early from school or to provide some critical data for the dean.

For most of us, the goal is to manage the alwayschanging equilibrium between these areas, rather than to establish a rigid relationship between them, however “balanced” it is.

We believe the concept of work/life balance carries several insidious messages. One is that work can be completely separated from the rest of our lives. For those of us who are part of a strong academic community, our work colleagues may also be our friends.

Many of us in higher education have a deep commitment to our institutions and their missions; disconnecting this from the rest of our lives would require painful, perhaps even fatal, surgery. Our work is part of who we are.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, said in an interview, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There’s work, and there’s life, and there’s no balance.” We disagree.

Another dangerous message is that the goal of achieving “balance” is ultimately possible. Maintaining a static balance point is unachievable—and that point doesn’t exist, anyway. Setting this as a goal is doomed to failure!

A dynamic state

Dynamic equilibrium allows for the fact that some jobs require more work and more attention than others. Individuals chose the work that best fits their sense of equilibrium.

Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, recently told a group of women executives: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance…. [Instead] there are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.” Those choices enable each of us to find and maintain equilibrium.

Dynamic equilibrium is a state that can adapt to changes in the environment, whether physical, social, cultural, emotional or intellectual. The forces acting on a geological system adjust as the conditions change, creating a stable system that can respond as needed when external forces disrupt it.

We see higher education as a different type of system. Our own jobs and lives are being disturbed by outside factors all the time. Budget cuts, short deadlines, necessary decisions, family issues, health concerns and interpersonal conflict all have the capacity to disrupt the equilibrium.

Our responses and how we adapt to these influences help us to establish the dynamic equilibrium between work and the rest of our lives. We are constantly adapting and adjusting to the change around us. We are all dynamic in seeking equilibrium.

Think like a river!

Dr. Lisa A. Rossbacher at
Dr. Julie Newell at

Rossbacher, Lisa A. & Newell, Julie. (2012, November). IN THEIR OWN WORDS:Forget Work/Life Balance, It's About 'Dynamic Equilibrium'-'Think  Like a River'. Women in Higher Education, 21(11), p. 22-3. 

Back   |   Read Archive