Freewheeling about work-life balance

Work-life balance. What a strange phrase. As if “work” is something that is distinct and separate from “life”, that the two are mutually exclusive, that there is a need to allocate critical resources (like time) between “work” and “life”, and that some sort of trade-off between the two must take place. One day someone will explain to me how and why the phrase originated.

But in the meantime.

One thing is clear:

If you treat work and life as mutually exclusive things, then you should not be surprised to have a work-life balance problem

Me, I like to think I’m on holiday all the time. And, as a result:

  • While I’m on holiday, there are a number of things I have to get done. And it is important that I get them done as efficiently as I can, so that I can enjoy “the rest of my holiday”.
  • While I’m on holiday, there are a number of things that happen, things that I have to respond to. And it is important that I respond to them effectively, knowing how to prioritise them when they compete for attention, how to manage conflict between them. As long as I have a clear view of my priorities, I can enjoy “the rest of my holiday”.
  • While I’m on holiday, there are a number of things I think about, things that I discuss with the people I’m on holiday with. It is important that I have these discussions, because something very important depends on the outcome of the discussions. How to stay on holiday. As long as I have an answer to that question, I can enjoy “the rest of my holiday”.

Being on holiday is not a physical thing. It’s about where your head is at.

You can be doing your best to imitate a rotisserie chicken while on the beach somewhere, but if your head is in the office then that’s where you really are. if you’re on the slopes and all you can think about is how to solve the noises that emanate from your home heating system, then that’s where you really are.

You can be doing your best to imitate a “suit” while in the office somewhere, but if your head is in bed then that’s where you really are.

Being on holiday is a state of mind.

And the opposite of “being on holiday” is “not being on holiday”. Which is not to be confused with “being at work” and “being at home”.

if the only time you’re away from stress is when you’re on holiday, then maybe you should act as if you’re on holiday all the time. You will make better decisions that way. And if the only time you’re able to function properly is when you’re at work, then maybe you should act as if you’re at work all the time. Horses for courses.

Here’s one way to look at things: I have my personal life, and I have my professional life. They are not mutually exclusive, they overlap all over the place. People you know professionally can and do become your friends. People you know personally can and do become your colleagues. This is not wrong. It’s normal.

If I am at work, and I get a call from my daughter saying she’s at Waterloo Station, all shaken up, the victim of a mugging, then I drop everything and go to her. Because that takes priority over whatever else I am doing at the time.

In the same way, if I am at home, and I get a call from a colleague saying there’s been a major problem with a project and it’s all hands to the pump for the weekend, I drop everything and go in. Because that takes priority over whatever else I am doing at the time.

It’s a question of priorities.

Sometimes it’s not that simple. If my daughter calls me from Waterloo and I am in San Francisco at the time, then I can only “drop thing” virtually and vicariously. I have to respond to the stimulus according to the known constraints. I’m not going to get on the first plane back willy-nilly, I’m going to ensure that someone I can trust goes and meets my daughter, and remains responsible for her until she’s safely at home.

And if I’m in Jamaica with the family when the project call comes in, I’m not going to get on the first plane willy-nilly either. I’m going to find something that works within the known constraints.

So it’s a question of priorities, but clearly in the context of known constraints, both temporary as well as permanent. There is no point getting hassled about things you have zero ability to influence. It’s like getting upset because it’s raining. Or not raining.

I think “life balance” (as opposed to work-life balance) comes down to three things:

1. Be the same person at home and at work.

2. Have a clear view of your priorities: one list of priorities, including items from all parts of your life, principally made up of your family and work commitments, but explicitly including your values and beliefs, your community, your own dreams and aspirations.

3. Be consistent and transparent to others about how you prioritise in the event of contention or conflict.

That’s what I try. I don’t always succeed, but that doesn’t mean I stop trying.

14 thoughts on “Freewheeling about work-life balance”

  1. Nicely said.

    I’ve always felt guilty about the willy-nilly balance in my life–sometimes it is problematic, but usually it’s just unorthodox. The guilt, I think, stems from our (American) culture’s expectation to value oneself based on how much we work… how busy we are.

    Generally I work for myself and I use that as an opportunity to be flexible in both work and fun time… working at odd hours and playing in the middle of the day.

    I’ve found it hard to explain to folks that, most of the time, that makes for a fluid balance. Thinking about it as you write here, as the “mindset” is liberating: on holiday all the time with priorities from work and play intermixed but transparently communicated and adhered to.

    I particularly like how it fits things like VRM into my life. That’s sorta work, sorta play, and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what I call it, as long as life continues to feel like a vacation and I address my priorities.

    Good stuff.


  2. It is fundamentally insane, really, to regard work as being somehow outside of life- obviously one has to be alive in order to work!

    Also, there are different kinds of work, not all of them directly renumerative. It bugs me that the feminist argument about recognising parenting and home-management as work seems to have been lost. The hardest work I ever did by a long way was parenting very young children full time.

    “Work life balance” is surely a relatively unevolved idea, but an improvement on being a slave to work. If the climate is changing so that more people can be real at work instead of feeling obligated to pretend that work is all they care about, that’s a very good thing, of course.

  3. Joe, Alice, thanks for the comments. Agree with them.

    Maybe, just maybe, with one exception. Alice, you claim that one has to be alive in order to work. Makes sense. But not always true, not based on what I’ve seen over the last three decades. :-)

  4. Excellent post; and I agree 100%. Having a split view only leads to unhappiness and frustration – emotional arbitrage.

    I wonder if there is a cultural slant to this? Do certain demographics have different ways of dealing with this?

  5. I share this perspective on life too. But we (most readers of this blog) must bear in mind how incredibly lucky we are to do jobs that we enjoy so much that we’re happy for them to overlap with our lives outside work. That we’d probably do plenty of anyway, even if we weren’t being paid to do so.

    I can understand why people refer to poor work life balance when the work they’re being paid to do, and which they may not even enjoy, prevents them from doing the things they really want.

  6. Ah, that sounds ideal. I think it depends upon what calls others make on your time – and how they value you.

    I’ve worked on projects where people want my attention and involvement 14 hours a day, 6 days a week…

    I don’t really think that I’m giving of my best after an 84 hour week – nor do I think that my reward package was comensurate with that degree of time involvement…

    If you don’t set clear expectations – or aren’t at a pay grade where you’re allowed to set those expectations life can be made uncomfortable for you. In parts of most businesses there are people whose lifes would be made troublesome if they had to leave for a domestic emergency. “Isn’t there someone else who can go?”

    The time I spend with our firm overlaps work/home, because I’m *encouraged* to be a homeworker. I have no commute – and I’m encouraged to learn and blog. Not all my colleagues are so fortunate.

    As Phil says, he understands the issue for some, ” when the work they’re being paid to do, and which they may not even enjoy, prevents them from doing the things they really want.”

    To which I’d add sometimes their management prevents them doing what they want in terms of flexibility…

    Me, I’m on holiday in Boston, but have just done a couple of “work” email replies. Why? So I can enjoy my stay here with no stress about what’s happenng in the “office”.

  7. Of the three things for Life Balance , the third point was the best thought. The first two being generic.

    I felt one should be consistent and transparent in prioritising things not only in the events of contention or conflict but at every possible time.

    Steve Ellewood’s phrase of “setting clear expectations”, i think , concurs with that.

    By keeping the Priorities transparent or Known to a certain extent, we do set expectations with clarity.

  8. JP – thanks for a very insightful post. We love the concept of being where your head is, not necessarily where you’re physically placed on the planet.

    Our belief is that every day should FEEL like Saturday. Very similar to your “maybe you should always be on holiday” thought. If every day feels like Saturday, you are in control of your time and how you spend it. And things still get done.

    Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson

  9. At last some clarity in my own mind. My hobbies, work and personal interests have huge overlaps. Which not only means I usually enjoy my work, but it also results in fluffy line between “work” and “life”. I have wondered to a long time now whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I guess it does not really matter provided one does not start control the other.

    Now all I need to do is get my wife to understand.

  10. Great comments, thanks to all of youfor spending the time. That’s how I learn, from the comments you make and the references I get to follow.

    Interesting blog you have there, Cali/Jody. Food for thought and probably the subject of another post.

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