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Give up on Work/Life “Balance” Now

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Ed. note: The real title of this post should be “Give up on Work/Life Balance Now Provided You Actually Care About Succeeding With Your Work and Having Fun In Your Life” but that felt too long and silly.

balanceYou hear it everyday.  People want more balance in their lives.  They’re tired of having to work long, hard hours without recognition or reward.  They end each and every day exhausted beyond belief and dream of spending their days diving the Great Barrier Reef.  They want more ‘balance’ (which usually equates to more television – sorry, can’t help the snark!) yet when you push them on what ‘balance’ means to them, they really mean “I want to work less”.  They probably don’t talk about wanting to work more while sitting on a beach in Tahiti counting the waves.

In today’s world, the work/life balance of the 1950s desk jockey is a pipedream.  Sorry, it doesn’t exist anymore no matter how hard you wish for it.  Pulling in your driveway every night at 5pm after a day of slow work for a supper prepared for you isn’t going to happen for most people.  The business world is more competitive than ever, we’re connected to the office via “direct neural interface”, and change is happening on a daily or hourly basis.  The pace has quickened to a dizzying point and we’re expected to keep up or get off the train.  And getting off the train means greater sacrifices than most people are willing to make.

How many emails do you receive away from the office?  How many tweets, texts, news items, calls, or meetings are you dealing with outside of normal work hours?  You know, during that time that you should be ‘living’ and not working.  Probably lots – and it’s just going to get worse, my friend.  Of course we won’t count the life stuff you do while at work, right? ;)  People tend to conveniently forget that!

Regardless of what we do or who we work for, we should just stop talking about balance entirely.  Ultimately contentment isn’t about balance.  It’s about feeling important again.  And it’s ultimately about having control and perspective over everything in your life and work.

Here’s the thing all those self-help experts don’t tell you when they say “work smart not hard”: True balance is contrived and results in mediocrity.  Achieving a 50/50 balance between work and life is never going to happen if you want to actually achieve anything.   It implies splitting your time, energy, and effort down the middle arbitrarily – neither should ever encroach on the other – and compartmentalizing your life into a block known as ‘work’ and another block known as ‘life’. 

This of course means that work will suffer at times… and your personal life will suffer at other times… because while you expect your work and life to fit into a puzzle with equal sized pieces, it’s just never the case unless you have the most mindless work imaginable.  And you’re then filled with regret and resentment towards your work most of the time… and the cycle continues.

The truth is: Sometimes you simply need to work more.  Sometimes you need to play more.  Sometimes you need to work less and frankly, sometimes you need to play less.  Sometimes work will impact your life (a long, hard week or month) and sometimes your life will impact your work (an extended trip for the holidays).  It’s a lot more fluid than people realize.

So instead of fixating on a clean separation and a pure equal balance of our time, we should be talking about “smart integration”.  Integrating work into your life in a way that doesn’t raise your blood pressure, giving you ample time to produce, while keeping you in-tune with the things outside the office that recharge your batteries and also giving you purpose (side note: your work should fill you with purpose – if it doesn’t, you should find a new job!)

By thinking about work and life as an integrated whole you’ll feel less resentment about your work when it impacts your life, knowing that your life will inevitably impact your work too.  Don’t think about it being a balanced scale that you judge on a day-to-day basis, think about it as a marathon – sometimes you run fast, sometimes you run slowly, and sometimes you run slowly just to run fast later.  It’s not clean, but it’s reality.

By the way, I’ve worked for small companies, large companies, and for myself at various stages of my career.  And in all of those circumstances I’ve been expected to “keep pace” with everything around me whether it was a startup, a large corporation, or just me alone in my jammies in a home office.  Pretend all you want that it’s “different” if you find the right formula, but trust me, it isn’t.  There’s always work to be done if you want to achieve anything!  And that’s a good thing otherwise you wouldn’t be able to differentiate yourself.

So what are some things you can do?

  • When work is slow, take time for your life.  Catch up on things you needed to do but couldn’t.  When life is cruising along, dedicate yourself to your work and clear the path to make it easier to traverse later.  Leverage your time best by identifying the ebbs and flows in your work and taking advantage of them.
  • Stop overestimating the amount of time things take you to do.  I do this constantly – procrastinating because I suspect things will take a long time to spin up and finish.  When I do end up starting something, I almost always realize that it wasn’t worth the worry – so now I’m training myself to just stop worrying about unfinished things when I’m not in work mode.
  • Don’t fret about staying connected on vacation; just make sure you exercise self-control.  You may find it’s more stressful being completely disconnected than if you check-in for 15 minutes each day (I do)… or you may find you operate just fine being disconnected.  Your answer may be different from mine; determine which type of person you are and then don’t beat yourself up for being that way.  Note that one thing you should do if you completely disconnect for a period of time is book a whole day for yourself to get caught back up when you return, otherwise you will be underwater for weeks.
  • Read Controlled Bursts of Focus to Leap Ahead and Find Balance.  The recommendations in that post apply here as well, especially the notion of emergent focus and limiting the things you’re focusing on to the most important.
  • Mentally invest in a ‘tracking system’ to monitor all of your outstanding items at work.  This is critical to finding peace while away from the office.  You need to know that you have control over your work in a deep and meaningful way such that when you’re away from it, you aren’t continually spending cognitive cycles worrying about it.  Close the laptop lid and walk away knowing you’re on top of things, and you have the appropriate amount of time dedicated to it later.  It can be blissful.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff at work.  Stop trying to be all things to all people; that’s how you get into trouble!  You don’t have to answer every single email that crosses your inbox, and you don’t need to be involved in every single decision.  Figure out what’s most important for you to focus on and then dedicate your time and energy to that.  Reminding yourself of the 80/20 rule (aka Pareto principle) every so often is a good thing to do.

Hope this helps – please comment below if you have thoughts or questions!

Written by Mike Torres

December 13th, 2010 at 5:24 pm

  • awesome as always…
    hey i just used alliteration there 😀
    and i used it again
    and again… and again LOL

  • Comet4771

    Great information and perspective. Thanks!

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