Work-Life Balance: Juggling, Spinning or Surfing?

I have encountered three metaphors for what most people call the ‘work-life balance’ issue. These are: juggling, keeping multiple plates spinning on sticks, and surfing. Each has its strengths and flaws. All share in common the problems that arise from calling the whole thing a ‘balance’ problem in the first place, but the ‘balance’ point of view has some merits. Here is a straight-faced analysis. I conclude that ‘surfing’ is the best-of-breed within the whole ‘balance’ category or metaphors. Here is why.

This having been an insane week at work (and it’s only Wednesday), work-life balance issues have been at the back of my mind. Let’s admit that ‘balance’ is perhaps not a good way of looking at things, since it suggests a zero-sum trade off. Some thinkers, like Dan Pink, prefer the idea of ‘blending’ work and life. But let’s not go there, and instead see what we can do with ‘balance,’ since it is here to stay. Here is an illustration of the three main variants I’ve seen, for your entertainment (mainly more stylus drawing practice for me):

Work Life balance


This is the most common metaphor, and has the advantage of emphasizing motion and rapid switching. It also suggests the need for synchronization, harmonious rhythms and keeping a certain overall situation awareness alive. It has the disadvantage of suggesting that there is no true multi-tasking going on. It also suggests that everything that happens only happens because of you, and the world (a.k.a “gravity”) will cause things to collapse if you slack for even a second.

Spinning Plates

If you’ve never seen a stage artist perform this act, you may not get this, but I’ve heard more than one person suggest this as the right metaphor. You get one plate after another spinning and then keep them going by darting among your various sticks and adding sharp impulses to plates that are starting to slow down and wobble. What I like about this metaphor is that it gets at the fact that we react to squeaky wheels (excuse the mixed metaphor), and pay attention to one thing at a time, usually the most dangerously out-of-balance one. It also suggests the key role of momentum: the world isn’t an entirely unfriendly place. Gravity may work against you, but momentum exists. You can breathe occasionally. Finally it suggests that there is actual energy involved, not just control. You have to run around a bit.


I don’t surf, but I like this one the most for one simple reason: it suggests that balance is a very dynamic situation, and that all variables are inter-related and trade off against each other. If you stood up straight all the time, you’d fall in the water. Sometimes you have to lean over extremely towards one side to make the whole thing balance out. What is ‘balanced’ right now might be dangerous unstable the next instant, and you lean over the other way. This metaphor also suggests the role of a basically uncertain environment (as opposed to a deterministic unfriendly or friendly environment). Waves are coming at you all the time. What would be extreme imbalance in calm waters is balance in a raging sea.

It also suggests that these chaotic destabilizing forces also provide the forces to drive your life. Calm waters leave you becalmed and not surfing at all, but expending your own energy to paddle. Finally this metaphor also suggests that grace, beauty and a sense of effortless engagement of the environment are key. Note that it is engagement, not control. A Zen surfer (and I am guessing here) sometimes lets go and trusts the waves and his natural sense of one-ness with the sea to lead to forward motion. At other times, he tastefully injects a swerve here and there to position himself to best leverage the next movement of the water. The surfer is also reactive and opportunistic, listening to the waves and going where they suggest, rather than enforcing his own goals dogmatically.

What do you think?

Do you like one of the other metaphors? Do you have a whole different one?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I like the surfing metaphor best. It allows for the possibility that you may be wiped out by a wave and float aimlessly for some time but be still supported by the water. The other metaphors are wrapped up in control and stimulate the fruitless search for control. The implication in juggling and plate spinning is that “things” may collapse without your control but you remain standing to pick them up again. Not true! especially over the long term.

  2. I think the spinning wheels is the best metaphor. See… when you talk of work life balance, there are more than just 2 wheels involved. Work has within it money, and relationships, and various legato (proactive) and staccato (reactive) projects that come and go. Life has within it family, and wellness, and so many other things. I think you get the wheels spinning, and then step up to monitor them, and swoop in whenever one of them slows down, or encounters a hiccup. I think the surfing one assumes too simplistic a model of what it means to go through life. Also, there is a notion of a “zen wheel master”, I can see one… women generally get to this stage faster and more gracefully than men. That is one man’s opinion :)

  3. I suppose even in juggling, if you drop too many balls, you get fired from the show. I am curious as to why surfing seems simplistic to you Amit. Seems to be the most complex of the lot to me, what with all the tossing and buffeting and finely judged moves.

  4. I don’t like spinning plates at all — it makes my heart beat faster and sweat form at the brow. Too stressful! They all HAVE to spin at the right speed. Too much pressure!

    I think juggling is better because there is a connotation of fun/entertainment (not sure whose!). Also, I feel more in control with it, bit more tangible and also a routine. You know Ball 1, ball 2, ball 3.. with spinning plates, you don’t know if it’s 2 or 3 or 5 that needs attention.

    Surfing doesn’t seem applicable at all – you never get a chance to stand up straight and enjoy the ride. what does this say about your personality? Are you going to check with Myers-Briggs??

  5. Definately surfing.
    I’ve used it to describe my own work/life balance for many years now!
    One of the most important things for a surfer is to recognise the right wave from a distance. Not easy because he must have developed a feeling for the rythem and patterns of the waves. He must already know what type of he wants and be able to spot it long before it starts growing.
    Choose the wrong wave and you waste much energy and lose possible a much better opportunity. Start paddling too soon in front of the wave and it crashes over you. Paddle too late and you miss is. But react at the right time and suddenly things will go naturally, for a great distance, seemingly without effort.
    This is a great “high” feeling for a surfer (and also in life) and the surfer then immediately returns to find and even better wave.
    Not many people I think would want to juggle even more balls or spin even more plates…

  6. Excellent thought, especially the idea that if you time things right and pick the right wave, “suddenly things will go naturally, for a great distances, seemingly without effort.”

    I am in the middle of a couple of such timing/commitment decisions myself, and it is really hard to judge what the right direction/timing is, but I’ll make the decisions in a week or two, and we’ll see if I made the right one depending on the aftermath :)


  7. Bonnie Davis says

    Eileen McDargh uses the metaphor of “sailing” in her articles and books on the subject of work/life balance. Here is a link to one of her best articles on the topic

  8. Ride the wave . . . don’t fight the wave.
    I try to remember that on a daily basis. You can’t control your environment, only your reaction to it. Trying to fight the waves will leave you worn out, bruised and breathless. But when you find the way to ride it out, it can be a truly spiritual experience.
    My two cents.

  9. I just came across this post through a Google search I was doing.

    I actually like the spinning AND the surfing metaphor. The spinning seems to represent the actual ACTIONS involved in balance. The surfing seems to represent the MANNER (attitude, perhaps) with which we balance.

  10. Annual rerun is a good idea. This crisp thought-provoker is worth re-reading especially around New Year when we all get infected with look-backitis and plan-o-mania.

    Surfing is richer and closer to life, even if we include other people throwing balls at you or inserting new plate stands and removing some in both cases.

    Waves keep coming and contemplating the ocean can be overwhelming but we can ride it, use its larger power to our advantage. This takes identifying the patterns behind the rise and ebb–the laws of physics operating on the water and the wind and on our bodies. The laws appear stable but our knowledge of them keeps evolving with newer experience.

    We can make ourselves adept at changing direction but some turns are easier than others. Better quality surfing boards and clothing can help but skill can outwit equipment.

    Some prefer to stay within tried waters, some crave the adventure of the new. The waves sometimes have their own intention of where we should be. Anger against such waves fritters away energy that could be more usefully deployed in regaining the sense of control.

    You vaguely recall starting the journey without choosing to do so, and once in the middle, you cannot easily opt out. Giving up and drowning is discouraged.

    Maybe we need newer metaphors for this century to capture nuances missed out in the above. Like cooking an elaborate meal for friends visiting for dinner (overdoing can spoil, catering to others’ preferences involves more caring effort, balance is required in condiments, taste, effort/time and presentation).

  11. surfs
    a wave
    from a distant
    sun that
    pushed a
    of air far flung
    that moved a
    small collective
    drop upon
    this ball we
    sit atop
    on distant shore
    it crests begins to
    form but now
    its’ face is
    fierce and worn
    bearing down upon
    my board I think
    is this really
    what I’ve waited
    for or should
    I wait for something


  12. Lalo Mtz says

    Each metaphor offer SOME aspects of the life challenge.
    You can always over-extend any of the metaphor to make it fit in a point of view but I suggest to use them as different lens (another metaphor yet) to see the “problem” (balancing life).
    If you feel you lack the ability to focus, to plan or organize then it will help you more the spinning metaphor.
    If you feel you lack the ability to accept reality, to find life purpose or enjoyment then it will help you more the surfing one.