You Are Not a Lightbulb

Balance is not about “on” and “off”

Achieving work-life balance is often thought of as finding balance between being on and being off. In this Lightbulb Model of Balance, imbalance comes from being on for too long: by working too hard, you burn out. Imbalance is corrected for by turning off: lounging around and not doing any work.

However, my view is that work-life balance is less about the frequency of hitting some magic off-switch and more about separating and balancing three modes of being: production (focused work), coordination (interaction with others about work), and leisure (not work). When you prevent the three modes from spilling over into each other — by preventing emails (coordination) from interrupting dinner with your loved ones (leisure) or preventing YouTube videos (leisure) from interrupting a work session (production) — all three modes can support work and life.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Deep work can feed “Life”

When you think about balance this way, you remember that production, given space to flourish uninhibited, can re-energize and affirm the “life” side of work-life balance. The psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi has shown that we often feel most alive when we are fully immersed in a focused task. It turns out that burning too bright is rarely the cause of burnout. Rather, burnout usually comes when we are “flickering” too much: when coordination — flurries of emails, conference calls and meetings — spills over into our production hours and we never feel the joy of deep work.

Deep leisure can feed “Work”

What’s even more remarkable is that the inverse is also true: when you actively separate your life and strive for true balance, you find out that leisure, given space to breath uninhibited, can re-inspire and inform the “work” side of work-life balance. Newton discovered gravity when he sat “in contemplative mood” under a tree. James Watt kicked off the industrial revolution while taking a Sunday stroll, contemplating the loss of heat in steam engines. The psychologist Adam Phillips describes this as “productive” or “fertile” solitude: “the solitude in which what could never have been anticipated appears.” Taking it easy, it turns out, might be less like turning off a lightbulb and more like turning it on.

When “Off” is “On”: The Power of Reverie

The historian James Harvey Robinson said his “favorite kind of thinking” — the secret sauce to finding ourselves — is reverie, the whimsical process of allowing our ideas “to take their own course.” When we are “uninterrupted by some practical issue we are engaged in,” Robinson writes, “our hopes and fears, our spontaneous desires, their fulfillment or frustration…our likes and dislikes, our loves and hates” create a roller-coaster track that our ideas wildly ride through. These reveries reveal deep truths about ourselves, awaking forgotten experiences, reflecting our nature, and forming “the chief index to our fundamental character.”

James Harvey Robinson, in reverie

To Robinson, entering reverie was not some off-switch from other types of thinking, like decision-making, rationalizing or creativity. Rather, reverie, Robinson writes, “is at all times a potent and in many cases an omnipotent rival to every other kind of thinking.” Eighty years after he wrote his essay, psychologists are starting to agree. UC Santa Barbara researchers Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler have found a correlation between such daydreaming and creativity, explaining that: “if you’re trying to solve a complex problem, then you need to give yourself a real break, to let the mind incubate the problem all by itself.” Researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute have shown the same for daydreaming and working memory: those who let their mind wander during one task were better at a subsequent memory task than those who did not. Again, turning off might just turn us on.

Reverie, unbound: taking Leisure seriously

How can we turn this type of thought, reverie, into a whole state of being? The theologian Josef Pieper has some ideas. In his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Pieper outlined three steps to leisure:

  1. Stop Activity and Be Still: We must escape our inner frenzy so as to enter a receptive relationship to the world. This stillness, Piper explains, should be an not escape through hectic amusements, nor even an inner quiet, but rather the sort of stillness felt in a conversation with those you love.
  2. Stop Criticizing and Celebrate: We must cease effort and analysis, taking time to affirm the goodness of creation and experience. When we celebrate, Pieper reminds us, we feel less separate from our surrounding and work, noticing the ways we harmonize with “the world and its meaning.”
  3. Stop Producing and See The Whole: We must look beyond being productive and become oriented toward the whole of existence. We should see ourselves not as escaping work, but rather as being invited to live out in our work in a new way, discovering “the divine dimensions” of life that get hidden in the day-to-day bustle.
Josef Pieper’s leisure opus

For Pieper, leisure is not simply spare time, a weekend, a holiday, or any other type of “non-activity.” Rather, it is an “attitude of the mind and a condition of the soul.” Leisure is also not merely a break from work, designed to re-energize us to go back to work. It may have implications on work, Pieper explains, but it exists for its own purposes.

He too reminds us why we must ditch the Lightbulb Model. First, “being off” is not to be defined as the absence of “being on.” Second, the fertile leisure that we mistakenly conceive of as “being off” does not exist to solely help us “be on” at some future point.

Rather, all three modes of life and work — production, coordination, and leisure — are all significant parts of our existence, and should be preserved and balanced for their own sake and for the sake of our general liveliness.