Considerations for work and for life

I am not the first to address the tension between work and life; many intelligent, experienced people have. For example, Andreas Jones and Stewart Friedman separately argue that we should conceptualize harmony over balance. Deborah Lee provides strategies for workaholics. And Chris Bourn says the answer is six (hours a day).

What I offer here are frameworks to consider as you create your own harmony and balance between work and life*. The journey is yours, so approach this article as a buffet. Take what you like and leave what you do not.

What purpose(s) does work fulfill for you?

Before deciding how much time you devote to your job, define what functions work provides. For almost of all us, work provides compensation to enable other things. Nothing controversial there. For some, work provides intellectual stimulation; it’s where they learn and expand their horizons. Others value that less or seek it elsewhere (e.g., book clubs). For some, work provides an identity and a persona that they want others to hold. Picture the person who introduces herself as a lawyer versus a triathlete or a caretaker. Other dimensions include socializing and actualization. When work provides only one function, it makes sense that more time should be allocated outside of work to meet other functions. Therefore, being intentional about what functions work should cover in your life is a prerequisite to and should drive how much you invest in your job.

Time-on-task ≠ output ≠ value add.

Time-on-task, output, and added value to the organization do not have linear relationships, yet too often we assume that more time at work translates to more output, which then translates to more organizational value. I deeply disagree with this. Here are a few examples. Parkinson’s Law is the concept that the time you dedicate to a project is the time it will take. Whether you give yourself 30 minutes or an hour to write a project plan, that is how long you will spend. Will the hour version be 100% better than the 30 minute version? I argue not necessarily. Related is the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. Applying the rule to your work means that 80% of the value is going to come from 20% of the time you spend. Often, employees will spend significant time to turn a project that is sufficient and viable into a project that is perfect (and still sufficient and viable). Last, consider the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns. As you work, your productivity, at some point, will increase at a decreasing rate, and eventually, it will decrease at an increasing rate.

I first learned this lesson in 2013. I had just started at a six-person startup; everyone was wearing multiple hats and I was trying to prove myself to my colleagues. As a result, I was working long hours. Despite the work demands, my wife and I decided to get a nine-week-old puppy. Without sending this article into puppy developmental stages, philosophies of potty training, and the futility of pee pads, I will share my daily dilemma: stay past five to finish that mission-critical deliverable or leave the office and prevent my dog from peeing all over the house. I chose the latter, yet I feared that I would fall short of my responsibilities and ultimately lose my job. As it turns out, it was a false choice. Getting home to my dog pushed me to timebox my work and to prioritize where I previously would not have done so. Rather than blindly saying yes to demands, I thought more deeply about the relationships among my time, deliverables on my plate, and value for the company. To my surprise, I found the quality of my work increased while the time it took to produce decreased. (Also, my dog peed on the floor less).

All work is not experienced similarly.

Related to the principles above, there are states of mind that enable us to produce at varying velocities and experience work differently. When I hear someone expressing concern about how much they are working, I often reframe the issue. “How long are you working from panic or fear? How long are you working from joy? How long are you somewhere in between?” In my career, the number of hours worked did not correlate with my work / life harmony as much as the hours I was working from panic. I hypothesize that the amount of panic-inducing work is more predictive of employee attrition than the total hours one works. In my own experience, the total hours became less important to me when I had more joyful hours. For example, I loved creating our company’s first user conference, and the hours were long. Yet unexpectedly, I found myself more energized and present at home with my family than when I was not building the conference. Considerable research on flow corroborates. As you reflect on your own work, what are your ratios of panic to joyful work?

Environmental and temporal conditions are also worth examining. What are the conditions that enable those joyful work experiences? Following my dog pee dilemma, I realized that I am significantly more productive in the mornings that in the afternoon. So instead of leaving immediately at 5pm, I started coming in at 5am and leaving at 3pm. (Admittedly, I had the luxury of working at a company that enabled such flexibility). Consider conditional variables you can control. Do you work well with headphones in the ambience of a coffee shop? Do you find more mental clarity on Sunday morning versus Tuesday afternoon? In another example, research suggests that 90-minute cyclesmay be best, but I recommend trying it out and see what works for you.

The refrain remains. Reflect, experiment, and consult with others not about the time you spend working but more about why you produced the work you did.

Be open with your people, and be open to change.

The tides of your work and the tides of your life will inevitably change. Your six-person startup may turn into a post-Series-B machine. You might have kids or an aging parent that increases your demands at home. You may take a new job that fulfills more functions in your life. First, be reflective — both seasonally and after major events — on how you are evolving. Second, be honest with your people. Share with your family, your friends, your boss, your colleagues, and your direct reports. Of course, each company is different, so your mileage may vary. I encourage you to start from the perspective of, “What benefits could be had by sharing my perspective on work / life harmony?”

Last, if you have less than three years of work experience, I have good news; your ability to navigate work and life will get better. People with less experience and who care deeply about their work may feel the intensity of every setback and treat all to-dos as DEFCON 1. It is exhausting. With experience, you will naturally calibrate the demands and tumult of work. Be patient with yourself, and get a puppy.

Alright, the buffet is over. Now, get back to work. Or life.

*I recognize that the ability to shape your work-life balance is a privileged one to have. There are socioeconomic, gendered, and other forces that can prevent that luxury.