Work Life Imbalance

I’m old enough to remember when laptops entered the workforce. It was an amazing thing. At first only the select few could be seen walking around with their giant black IBMs and silver Dells. It took a few years, but eventually every new job came with the question we all loved to hear: “desktop or laptop?”

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I was so happy when I got my first laptop at work. “Man,” I thought, “now I can work anywhere, any time!” It was fun for a while, until I realized that now I could work anywhere, any time. Slowly our office started to reflect this newfound freedom. Work looked less and less like work, and more and more like home. Home offices became a big thing, and it’s now almost impossible to distinguish between home offices of famous designers and the workspaces (I don’t think we even call them “offices” any more) of most startups.

Work and life: does it blend?#section1

There is a blending of work and life that woos us with its promise of barbecues at work and daytime team celebrations at movie theaters, but we’re paying for it in another way: a complete eradication of the line between home life and work life. “Love what you do,” we say. “Get a job you don’t want to take a vacation from,” we say—and we sit back and watch the retweets stream in.

I don’t like it.

I don’t like it for two reasons.

It makes us worse at our jobs#section2

There’s plenty of research that shows when employers place strict limits on messaging, employees are happier and enjoy their work more. And productivity isn’t affected negatively at all. Clive Thompson’s article about this for Mother Jones is a great overview of what we know about the handful of experiments that have been done to research the effects of messaging limits.

But that’s not even the whole story. It’s not just that constantly thinking about work makes us more stressed, it’s also that our fear of doing nothing—of not being productive every second of the day—is hurting us as well (we’ll talk about side projects another time). There’s plenty of research about this as well, but let’s stick with Jessica Stillman’s Bored at Work? Good. It’s a good overview of what scientists have found on the topic of giving your mind time to rest. In short, being idle tells your brain that it’s in need of something different, which stimulates creative thinking. So it’s something to be sought out and cherished—not something to be shunned.

Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness. And that’s why we text and drive. People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.

Louis C. K.

It teaches that boundaries are bad#section3

The second problem I have with our constant pursuit of the productivity train is that it teaches us that setting boundaries to spend time with our friends and family = laziness. I got some raised eyebrows at work recently when I declined an invitation to watch a World Cup game in a conference room. But here’s the thing. If I watch the World Cup game with a bunch of people at work today, guess what I have to do tonight? I have to work to catch up, instead of spending time with my family. And that is not ok with me.

I have a weird rule about this. Work has me—completely—between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. It has 100 percent of my attention. But outside of those hours I consider it part of being a sane and good human to give my kids a bath, chat to my wife, read, and reflect on the day that’s past and the one that’s coming—without the pressure of having to be online all the time. I swear it makes me a better (and more productive) employee, but I can’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t be writing this down because you’re just going to think I’m lazy.

But hey, I’m going to face my fear and just come right out and say it: I try not to work nights. There. That felt good.

It doesn’t always work out, and of course there are times when a need is pressing and I take care of it at night. I don’t have a problem with that. But I don’t sit and do email for hours every night. See, the time I spend with people is what gives my work meaning. I do what I do for them—for the people in my life, the people I know, and the people I don’t. If we never spend time away from our work, how can we understand the world and the people we make things for?

Of course, the remaking of the contemporary tech office into a mixed work-cum-leisure space is not actually meant to promote leisure. Instead, the work/leisure mixing that takes place in the office mirrors what happens across digital, social and professional spaces. Work has seeped into our leisure hours, making the two tough to distinguish.

Kate Losse, Tech aesthetics

Permission to veg out#section4

So I guess this column is my attempt to give you permission to do nothing every once in a while. Not to be lazy, or not do your job. But to take the time you need to get better at what you do, and enjoy it a lot more.

As this column evolves, I think this is what I’ll be talking about a lot. How to make the hours we have at work count more. How to think of what we do not as the tech business but the people business. How to give ourselves permission to experience the world around us and get inspiration for our work from that. How to be flâneur: wandering around with eyes wide open to inspiration.

21 Reader Comments

  1. Amen! There are many employers that claim to value “work-life balance”. There are far fewer that actually *mean* it, and they view you askance whenever you try to set up boundaries.

  2. As a part-time worker from home, I appreciate the sentiments and “ammunition” in the constant fight to push back on waged work. Really glad that this is going to be a regular column! I would add that if you can manage to work part time, or at least less than 40 hours, go for it. Your body and mind will thank you. If enlightened employers are really concerned about their employees’ well-being and creativity and agility, they should be finding ways we can work less hours. We all have to work too much, and at a certain point it loses most of its value — to them, and definitely to us.

    Also, I don’t agree that we should give 100% of our attention over to waged work, ever. If you help care for children or elders for instance, or do other work in the community, being cut off from 8:30am to 6pm is very unrealistic. Also 8:30am to 6pm every day means you have little energy for anything besides recovery for the next day. (And if you have a partner, that recovery work often falls on them.) That’s one good thing about “blurring the boundaries”, you often do have the ability to juggle your schedule when things come up. I would not be able to help care for my mother-in-law any other way.

  3. Absolutely brilliant. A very important thing that needs to be said. I’m lucky enough to be working for a guy who really values a healthy work/life balance after he himself became disenchanted with careerism. We work eight-hour days (I’ve worked two hours of overtime in the past two years, and that was only because of an emergency). Work belongs at work — especially if you love your job, because then it can really devour the rest of your life and leave your loved ones wondering where you went.

  4. I’m not sure how I feel about having allocated times for work and leisure. On one hand I agree that once you have finished work you don’t want to have to deal with work related issues, however, I do appreciate the flexibility to be able to do certain non-related work things during working hours. I think that if you have an understanding with your boss and they are happy to be flexible when you need some time during the day, it is reasonable for them to ask you to complete a pressing task outside of working hours. I think that being forced to comply with needlessly rigid rules can be stressful and a little flexibility can allow you to concern yourself with more important things.

    When it comes to productivity I don’t think it is as easy as enforcing rules such as “no Facebook” or “no Twitter” during working hours. Avoiding such distractions doesn’t guarantee you will get more done. In fact, sometimes when you are knee deep in a problem it helps to distance yourself from it for a moment and look at it with a fresh perspective. This doesn’t have to be a distraction on your PC though, it could also be a brief stroll outside and some fresh air.

    Thanks for writing the article, I look forward to reading more posts in this column.

    Paolo

  5. Eric, Paolo,

    You make some really important points. The ability to go pick up kids during work, or go to a doctor appointment, is really important. And yes, in those instances I appreciate the ability to go do that, and catch up on work later.

    I also agree with the “taking a walk” comment – taking some time to distance yourself from a problem to help you solve it. I still see that as part of being productive, though, so I think the point still stands…

    Thanks for the comments!

  6. Great column, Rian, I look forward to read more of this in the coming months!

    For me, finding the balance was a tough path to walk after opening my own company; taking some time here and there turned out to be a much saner approach to prevent burn-out, instead of doing damage control (that usually involved going for weeks to the least technologically accessible place in Mexico).

    I think it has a lot to do with being alone, you mention your family, but for those of us that don’t have one of our own, I think our work becomes our baby. As such, the boundaries become way too blurry for the inexperienced enthusiast, like me. Eventually, though, you either run for the exit or meditate on the fact that you are not necessarily what you do.

  7. Rian, this is really well put. I’m coming back to the US work culture after having spent most of my adult life in Germany, where most people and even bosses still have a strong sense that it’s best for your work performance and home life if you have a clear moment at the end of each day when you hang up your hat and go home. There is even a German word for it, one of the best in the entire language: Feierabend, celebrating the evening. And you can’t accuse Germans of being lazy, with their economy, exports, and engineering smarts being as strong as they are.

    I am really grateful for having learned that way of valuing my time and that of the people in my life, and hope it will continue to inform how I work even as I have to address the expectations of clients and colleagues here in the US. Certainly modern life, email, multitasking, smartphones are chipping away at that there as insistently as here, but people in Germany are actively discussing and debating the change in public forums and amongst themselves. Thank you for also keeping us thinking about that here in the US!

  8. Rian, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this so openly!

    Myself, I have spent a lot of time figuring this out… Still haven’t found the perfect balance yet, but working on it.

    Having worked for Dutch, American, Spanish and German corporations in both Spain and The Netherlands, now an independent business owner, I have had different feelings towards balancing home life and work life.

    I must admit I don’t find it easy to take a firm stance on this topic.

    The Dutch culture dictates a very strict ‘calendar oriented’ way of managing work life and social life. It means that a whole working day gets filled up with meetings and todos easily, and as soon as you get home, the personal calendar kicks in. This leaves little room to social spontaneity. At work, the Dutch usually take lunch breaks lasting about 20 minutes, probably sitting at their desks. Diner is at 6pm, and after diner, many attend to their domestic chores, administrative tasks, sports activities, watch some TV, and go to bed around 10.30pm. Next day you get up early for quick breakfast and the morning commute. So whenever a startup throws in a foosball table and gaming console, many don’t know what’s hitting them.

    In Spain, of course, ‘the sun is always shining’. Depending on time of the year, people start working at 8am (summer knows a horario intensivo sometimes from 7am until 2pm). Lunch breaks last up to 1,5 hours and might even include a beer (or two). This also accounts for non-Spanish companies and workers. Those long lunches are normally taken with colleagues or business relations. The regular working days last until 7/8pm. And after, people go running or shopping (incl. groceries), play footy with colleagues, etc. Diner is around 9/10pm, going to bed around 11.30pm.

    So culture impacts the balance. Not even mentioning the impact of having kids of your own (and the inevitable expectations of local community).

    I don’t feel that as many people really take a moment to reflect on how they define work life and home life.

    As a business owner, my business hours are not a given fact. There’s no employer to throw a constant stream of work on my desk. Therefore, I’d have to create my own workload. Business hours are a result of available work and the rhythm of my clients’ communications. Mixing work life and home life is the only way to go in order to avoid working 24/7.

    Maybe we should just try to set strict boundaries on a day to day basis. Bringing it down to one’s own judgement within the current context. Of course, it would be great if we could ‘outsource’ the responsibility of balancing work life and home life by setting rules like “full work dedication from 8.30 am to 6pm”. It just doesn’t seem flexible enough to be realistic.

    Leaves me some questions:

    How should business owners or freelancers deal with this? To what extend should one allow cultural influence to have impact on work-life balance?

    Once again, thank you very much for your article. I even printed it 🙂

    Roel

    p.s. speaking of ‘influence’… how about that guy who likes his work a tad bit too much (and the status and wealth he derives from it)? He also couldn’t care too much about home life, so it’s unbalanced by choice, ‘raising’ the expectations for everyone on the work life side. What would you do?

  9. Thanks for the article! It’s a great reminder to look at where we get our meaning. The tyranny of the urgent can really wipe out the important (e.g. giving your kid a bath, reading them a book, or sitting and doing nothing.)

    You may have seen this: People would rather electrocute themselves than spend 15 minutes alone with their thoughts. It is hard to be still, in particular if it forces you to look at what you are avoiding! Distraction is far easier than really addressing things.

    I look forward to future articles!

  10. I agree with a lot of what is said here. In my book, the fight should be for structure. Whether it’s coworkers nudging you to sit and watch soccer or employers deciding to throw after-work happy hours (when you’d rather go home)…structure needs to be there. The structure that says you put in your 8-9 hours, 5 days a week, but you walk away from your job when it’s not work time.

    I love the idea of remote working, mainly to walk away from the open plan office when it’s a day of doing the actual work that doesn’t require you to be in constant collaboration with others. I’m also a fan of “paying up” if I happen to spend the day in low motivation, thus I’ll stay later to catch up on work I didn’t do.

    What I don’t like (and more wish to see change) are when managers badly schedule work timelines and deadlines so you’re stuck working long hours every day and into the weekend. Granted an occasional emergency that requires more hours happens, but when it’s constant…it’s time to look for better management.

    I also don’t like when a workplace pushes a “be here all the time” culture. I’m not speaking of 9-5, but more when you’re given flack for leaving at 5 and having a personal life. The “how dare you not stay for after-work beers and hang out with the people you spent all day with” attitude.

    I’m always blown away when I read articles about younger workers who gleefully talk about how they’re at work all the time and love it…meaning they do nothing but work-stuff. I can only imagine what happens when they hit 35 or 40 and wonder why they’re alone with nothing to show for themselves but a job. There’s more to life than this.

  11. One area I see this being an issue is putting together a portfolio when your past work is under NDA. The portfolio is the holy grail of furthering a design career, but if you have nothing to show despite your years of experience, you’re spending nights & weekends coming up with projects (side projects or client work) to fill in the gaps. This has burnout written all over it.

    I’m dealing with this right now; my previous & current employers prevent me from showcasing my work I’ve done there, which is substantial. After an 8 or 9 hour day in the office, I fire up my machine and start doing some more of my own stuff (I did a client project last year that absolutely drained me and I nearly quit the industry altogether). I do this until about when I go to sleep. Then wake up and repeat. On weekends when it’s a gorgeous sunny day out my window I’m sitting in front my computer doing more. Even with all this it just feels like I’m not gaining any ground, the blitz seems to be counterintuitive. I still put my foot down at the office about being done at X time when I keep getting piled on work, because that is directly encroaching on work that I can showcase, but still, it’s exhausting.

    I would rather spend my non-office time reading. Writing stories. Socializing. Traveling. Hiking. Learning a language (Russian, rather than Ruby). Playing guitar. Volunteering for a cause. Starting a family. That last paragraph Alex posted is becoming a reality.

    All in all, great article and this NEEDS to be discussed more in our industry. I was nodding in agreement the whole read through. Looking forward to more of your columns!

    ASIDE: The profile editor needs some work. I can’t change my name, so I’m “Scott 1” for the foreseeable future.

  12. It’s interesting that in the US (this may also be true in other cultures, but I can’t speak to that) work is intimately connected with personal identity. One of the first questions you are likely to get from an American when you first meet them is “what do you do?” Given this, it becomes almost subversive to want something beyond or besides your work. How can you not want to do your work at all times of day? What does it say about you that you don’t? This is wrong, and it is sad. There is so much more to life than work. You may derive happiness, fulfillment, or financial stability from it, but it isn’t you, and you are not beholden as a person to it. Thanks for writing about this, and for writing so well. Can’t wait to read more of your column.

  13. Balance is needed in everything in nature; Order/Chaos or Life or Home/Work/Play, what have you. Sometime the balance board may swing multiple directions like a Pogo Ball from the Americana 80’s. No matter how you look at it. If you spend all your time working, looking toward retiring early, your balance will be out of sway and if it is out of sway for too long, getting back the other side could become more and more difficult.

    Great post.
    =-)

  14. 100% agree, especially after spending 2014 going out on my own. I’ve burnt out once already this year and I can feel myself beginning to get frustrated again. It’s so important to have boundaries and to keep the office in the office as much as possible, otherwise it’s just work-work-work.

  15. Dear Rian,

    Thank you for writing this article. It might not be the first time ever, but as a community all of us need to be reminded time and again that there is “work” and then there is “life”. Your article brings that point home again.

    As far as my thoughts are concerned I have stopped leaning on the “balance” word too much. I am now starting to believe there is no balance that we need to strive for.

    What we need to do probably is to start looking for our purpose in life. Questions on our existence, if not phenomenal and profound answers usually lead most of us to “Being a good dad, son, brother” etc. Most people I have spoken to, in their most honest moments have never told me they want to be a “CEO” or a business tycoon.

    Kind of boils down that “work” is indeed a means to an end. The “end” itself is very personal and if we can we should always tilt ourselves towards that purpose.

    Regards,
    Ratheesh

  16. Hi Rian. Thanks for the great post.

    I think we have, over time, subconsciously come to believe that time on the job = more success. There are tons of research that shows that this is very far from the truth.

    Sadly, we still believe it and we see it all around us.

    More sadly is the effect that it has on us. It first of all ads an immense amount of pressure on us to perform more. More time = More success.

    And secondly, if we don’t, guilt & comparison starts to haunt us.

    Just like technology is refined over time by discarding older believes, our lives needs to be refined by discarding older, wrong believes as well.

  17. I find the whole notion of ‘work/life balance’ needs rethinking, or at least rewording. I mean, if you consider that work takes up a significant portion of most peoples lives… is that not ‘life’?

    I also struggle with the idea that your just meant to be head down working 9-5 apart from meal breaks. A commenter has already made a point that to take a break and get some fresh air or perhaps talk to a colleague about what they are up to can end up with higher productivity. It all points to some assumptions about what is ‘work’ and what is ‘life’ that need challenging.

    As for NDAs. I just had that issue myself. When your work is something that you show and you aren’t able to show said work, what are you meant to do? I think NDAs need work to allow for closed ie. non-internet presenting of work to non-competitors during interviews.

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