The ins and outs of work.

Work/Life balance is a flawed concept. You need to combine inputs and outputs, in order to be balanced.

There’s no shortage of conversation about work / life balance currently. With the rise of awareness of critical issues around Mental Wellbeing, combined with the number of people who are reassessing the role work plays in their life, and ultimately their happiness, people are right to be questioning the impact work has beyond the bank balance.

However — the notion of work/life balance is simply wrong.

It suggests that there are two things which need to sit on a see-saw, and level out between the two somehow.

Except work is not a separate thing from life. And life encompasses work.

It’s easy to ask — what do you do outside of work? But to ask what do you do outside of life seems non-sensical.

The reality is that work is a subset of life, and for many, an absolutely critical part of it, and there is absolutely a need for balance — with the average number of working hours increasing in the UK, a new normal needs to be established — one which both individuals and employers support and engage with at large, but also benefits work directly too.

Input vs Output

For the past few years / I’ve been trying to manage my own balance by not looking at work vs life, but rather input vs output.

Consider this — a morning of back to back meetings, where people are looking for your advice and recommendations, a lunchtime of responding to emails, and an afternoon of writing a presentation. These are all outputs. Not only are they things you are creating and giving, they draw energy from you.

Inputs are when you are not required to create or give, but rather you can take things in, new and fresh things. A walk. A lecture. A book. Lunch with new people. Doing a class. Having someone present to you without needing to comment. Spending time with your kids (this Is debatable but I err on the side of this fueling me rather than draining me).

These don’t have to be outside of work, or non-work related. Examples of some of my inputs include listening to podcasts, reading trends reports, looking for interesting new businesses, coffee and conversation with new people, going to conferences.

Interestingly inputs can create outputs.

For instance, I tend to spend time learning the basics of using new technologies and in the process, create something. An output, plus the benefit of the input. This weekend I taught myself how to set-up an SSL server so I could play around with Amazon’s ASK platform for voice applications. I learned a new skill, and the output was my server is now able to run secure content, and I built a little helper voice app which I already used twice to improve my mornings.

Inputs can be friends and family, can be going to the theatre or watching a movie, can be eating a new cuisine.

Inputs need to stimulate and feed you though. Sleep is not an input. Meditation is not an input. A cup of tea away from your desk is not an input. Lunch is not an input.

These are neutral states, designed to maintain the status quo. You need to sleep and eat. You need to give your mind rest and your body food. If you are not giving yourself time to maintain, if your work is not allowing you to have lunch and suitable sleep, then there are bigger problems than balance at stake.

But there are ways of turning these into inputs — have a cup of tea with someone else. Eat your lunch at a museum cafe, and go see an exhibition for the rest of your hour. Read and do anything from Laura’s excellent book. Sign up to OneDayCurious and spend 15 minutes exercising your mind.

The other magical thing about inputs and outputs is that they aren’t correlated in a linear way.

An hour of input balances out much more a day of output. In pure health terms alone, a 2016 Yale study showed that people who read books for as little as 30 minutes a day over several years were living on average two years longer. Studies from Sweden show that productivity increases when time spent at work decreases, and people take less time off leading to more effective outputs. Giving an hour to employees to focus on input activities over output work will pay back in spades.

And then there is a the less positive reason to commit to ensuring you are balancing inputs and outputs.

The machines.

If you don’t think you need regular new inputs in your role, if you think you don’t need to be constantly learning, taking new stimulus and ideas, and you can focus purely on doing a job, creating outputs, based upon what is already in your head — your job is at risk from automation and AI.

The roles of the future will rely upon people being able to synthesize new and interesting thoughts, based just as much upon instinct and emotion as experience and skill, and humans are still the best forms of curiosity seekers, who spot things, store them away for another time, and one day make connections in their own neural net to create new ideas or thoughts. Our outputs, our work, is the sum part of our life experiences, all of the inputs we’ve ever experienced, so cutting those inputs off the minute you hit the workplace is signing your own P45.

It isn’t hard to get just a little bit of input into your working life.

You don’t need to commit an entire year of input — as Stefan Sagmeister does every seven.

Even just 15 minutes a day can help, or start with picking one day a week to do something: Cancel a meeting. Take your lunchbreak. Block out time in your diary for input.

If your manager asks what you’re doing — tell them simply, you’re investing in doing better work, and if they don’t support that simple idea — maybe ask them to show you the door.