We need to talk about work-life “balance” (again!)

Today’s ramblings take us down the well-trodden path of work-life balance. As with my previous posts, this blog is less about me sharing anything particularly “new” and more a mechanism for me (and hopefully others) to understand how different people approach different life questions.

Today’s question on “how we spend our time” feels like a big one!

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” Annie Dillard

Caveat: Whenever I get the urge to write about a topic I know that Maria Popova at Brain Pickings has already done a far better job of creating something insightful to share with the world… Case in point!

“The equilibrium between productivity and presence is one of the hardest things to master in life, and one of the most important” Maria Popova

Balance vs Integration

I have always found the notion of work-life “balance” a difficult one to grasp… Conventional wisdom just doesn’t seem to make sense. For me, “work” is big part of life, not an opposing force to “life” on the weighing scales. This notion of balance leaves me stuck in a constant re-balancing compromise, where more of one results in less of the other… This understanding of work-life balance is both elusive and exhausting! Can’t I just have it all!

About 3 years ago, I noticed that the people I find aspiration are people who seek work-life “integration”, where both “work” and “life” support and reinforce each other.

I am not alone, and this feels to be very much to be the new narrative companies are adopting, with organisation investing more and more into promoting employees to bring their “whole self” to work (a different topic for another day).

Good old Jeff Bezos is one of these aspirational figures:

“Work-life balance is a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off. It actually is a circle. It’s not a balance.” Jeff Bezos

For Jeff and others, the relationship between his work-life and personal-life is reciprocal:

  • “If I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy”
  • “And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy”

Problem vs Polarity

Further to this, maybe people find it hard to “balance” these competing parts because it might not actually be a question of balance? I often feel that I, and others, approach the work-life question as a problem to solve. But maybe the reality is that this is not a problem to solve. Maybe a better way to think about this is a polarity to manage?

The more you look, the more you see that there are lots of polarities in our crazy world: short term vs. long term, innovation vs. efficiency, change vs. stability, compassion vs toughness, work vs life… Each of these can be seen as directly opposed and in conflict. But, in truth, these polarities are complementary and interdependent.

Work AND Life vs Work OR Life

Barry Jonson’s Polarity Thinking Framework (gotta love a good framework) can give us some guidance on how to approach such polarities, and an essential starting point is to step back and ask what is the common higher-purpose of our “work” and our “life”.

For me, the higher-purpose is to live each day in a fulfilling and meaningful way (shoot me, I am an idealist), and both “work” and “life” play a huge part in that. I personally find the “and” vs “or” view a more constructive way of thinking, but I also recognise that depending on your life-stage, circumstance, privilege (luck) or mind-set you will have a very different perspective.

Segmentors vs Integrators

Two such differing perspectives are discussed in Adam Grant’s TED podcast WorkLife. Adam talks about two different strategies people use to manage their work and non-work lifes (albeit on a spectrum) — Integrators and Segmentors.

  • Segmentors: “In my life, there is a clear boundary between my career and my non-work roles.”
  • Integrators: “It is often difficult to tell where my work life ends and my non-work life begins.”

The point is not that one view is better than the other, but that we must all learn to recognise and respect others work-life preferences. I often see “intergrators” asking “segementors” to bring their “whole self” to work in way that does not fit their personal boundaries and can feel inappropriate or distracting.

As you might guess, I very much fit into the integrator camp… Not only am I guilty of the above, but Google research also has some bad news for me:

“Those who rigidly separate their personal and work lives are significantly happier about their well-being than those who tend to blur the lines between the two.”

Oh well, life goes on!

Inputs vs Outputs

Another way to think about the question of work-life balance is in terms of “inputs” and “outputs”, where work-life balance is a clear “output” and not an “input” into our life.

  • Inputs: What gives you energy?
  • Outputs: What demands energy from you?

The Pilcrow talks about our two key inputs 1) rest and 2) inspiration. Typically our work is thought as an “output”, but when our work is intermingled with inspiration, it can also give us a huge amount of energy.

Perhaps, if we change the way we “do” work, the output could be a happier and more balanced life?

The Four Burners Theory

Finally, James Clear talks about another way to think about work-life balance: “The Four Burners Theory”, with each burner representing one major quadrant of your life:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Health
  • Work

The Four Burners Theory is one of trade-offs. It says that “in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”

“The Four Burners Theory reveals a truth everyone must deal with: nobody likes being told they can’t have it all, but everyone has constraints on their time and energy. Every choice has a cost.” James Clear

Of course, we are free to divide our time equally among all four burners, but “you have to accept that you will never reach your full potential in any given area.”

For me, this feels like a tough pill to swallow! But it raises an important question: At this given time, what are you optimising for? And how intentional are you about how you spend your time?

To Close

At this time, I am optimising for maximum learning and growth. This is integrated across both my “work” and “life”. I also know that this can only come with a deep “sense of unbalance that must take place in order to push a person into a new and larger circumstance”.

You might be thinking that’s this all just sounds like an idealist’s play on words and a load of imaginary constructs? But at some level that is all what life is (BOOM!).

Lesson #5: Exploring what words and imaginary constructs work for you is key to unlocking your potential.

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