April 24, 2014

Work/Life Balance – The Balance Doesn’t Matter…It’s About Control

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Balance

Balance by TheBola on deviantart.com

Recently, during a semi-regular review of the TED Archives, I came across this great TED Talk (How to Make Work-Life Balance Work) from Nigel Marsh (Filmed at TEDxSydney in May 2010).  While perhaps not directly linked to Lean, Performance Management or Personal Finance, the topics I most often discuss in my posts, I found his Talk to be particularly impactful and felt compelled to draft a post on the subject.

If you’re not familiar with TED (Technology Entertainment Design), it’s a non-profit organization through which ‘the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers…are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less).’

More broadly, the mission of TED is ‘Spreading Ideas.’  TED ‘believe[s] passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So [they're] building…a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.’

TED Talks are outstanding; I could spend hours on end (and certainly have spent hours on end) working through the TED Archives.  While I naturally gravitate toward specific topics of personal interest (business, economics, sustainability, etc.), I often find the Talks on subjects that I don’t spend much time reading/thinking about to be some of the most interesting and thought-provoking.

If you’re not familiar with TED, I encourage you to visit their site to learn more…after you’ve finished this post, of course!

The topic of Nigel Marsh’s TED Talk, Work/Life Balance, is something I spend a fair amount of time thinking about, so finding this video prompted me to revisit and challenge my thoughts on the subject.  With that, I thought I’d take a few moments to share some of my observations.

From my perspective, while a focus on balance is important, to me, it’s the control over the balance (less than the balance – or lack thereof – itself) that matters more.  I’ll unpack this below, using some highlights from Nigel Marsh’s TED Talk to frame the discussion.

Work/Life Balance vs. Work/Life Control

‘Work/Life Balance – The Balance Doesn’t Matter.’  I imagine this sounds blasphemous to some…how can he discredit the importance of Work/Life Balance?!  After all, ‘all work and no play’…we know how that story ends.

I don’t mean to suggest that Work/Life Balance isn’t important, but I recently started thinking about it in some detail and came away with a somewhat different perspective than what I had thought before and what I traditionally read/hear on the subject.

What do I mean when I say Work/Life Control?

My perspective is that having control over your Work/Life Balance is far more critical to your happiness in life than the actual ‘balance’ which exists therein.  That is to say, even if your balance is ‘out-of-balance’ by most measures, as long as you’re in control of the situation…actively choosing the (im)balance, that is more important than how the Work/Life math works out in the end.

Say you’re working 70 hours a week (or more), but truly enjoy the work and have control of how/when it’s completed, I see no issue with that and see no reason why this would necessarily represent a negative situation.

For me, it’s when we lose the Work/Life Control that issues arise.

  • If you’re not actively engaged in planning/delivering the given work in a given week (i.e., it’s being pushed on you from management, etc.), you’re likely to feel the pain of Work/Life Imbalance.
  • If you can’t control when those 70+ hours are spent, you’re also likely to feel the pain of Work/Life Imbalance.  This is the key point for me.

A colleague of mine once shared an excellent story that illustrates the importance of when work is done.

She asked a Client to provide her with updates to a deliverable by the end of the following day.  When she stopped by his desk at 5pm the next day to check-in, she was quite upset to find that not only was it not done, but that he hadn’t even started!  To make matters worse, he was heading out for dinner with friends.  When she pressed him on why the updates weren’t ready, he smiled and said – there are 24 hours in a day!

Later that evening, around 11pm, he delivered the updated materials.  He did just as asked…he delivered by the end of the day…their views of the workday were just very different.

There are 24 Hours in a Day

40 hours a week, spent working 9-5 isn’t the answer for finding work/life balance.

It’s my view that, given control, a 50 hour week, spent working 7am-3pm then 9-11pm (or a few hours on the weekend)…whatever your terms are…could (and likely would) produce better work/life balance.

Maybe this schedule let’s you pick up your kids from school, make it in time for their soccer games or gives you the daylight you need to get in your daily 3 mile run outside.

When we try to force work and life to fit within certain confines, the result is nearly always less than ideal.

So often these time-bound confines are static.

So often we are told that the solutions for finding balance are boundaries.  We should check-in at 9am and leave work at the door when we punch-out at 5pm.  While this might have made sense on the shop floor or before email and blackberries, this isn’t realistic for most in a global/24×7 business environment.

A better answer is more nuanced.  Those boundaries, or confines, need to be dynamic…and they need not be single blocks of time.  Why not drop your work at 3pm and pick it up again at 9pm after you’ve finished eating dinner with your family, reading to your kids and tucking them in for the night?

When Looking for Balance, It’s All in the Timeframe

While there are 24 hours to use each day…8 hours of sleep, 8 hours at work and 8 hours of ‘life’ isn’t the perfect answer for a balanced life either.  If we set the expectation that such an ideal balance will exist every day, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.  We need to take a longer view…but not too long…

Nigel Marsh describes it this way beginning at 4:38.

‘We have to be careful with the timeframe we choose upon which to judge our balance.’

‘We need to elongate the time frame upon which we judge the balance in our life, but we need to elongate it without falling into the trap of the I’ll have a life when I retire, when my kids have left home, when my wife has divorced me, my health is failing, I’ve got no mates or interests left.  A day is too short, after I retire is too long.  There’s got to be a middle way.’

With this perspective, a ‘balanced’ week could include a day where you spent 12 hours at the office, so long as you’re able to breakeven elsewhere…leaving early, taking a day off, catching up with a friend after work, whatever the right balance might mean for you.

Action Item:  As in an earlier ‘Lean for Life’ post, where I talked about the importance of defining your personal definition of value, the similar approach applies here.  Start by defining your ideal, balanced day…then recognize you’ll never achieve it, so work to develop a more realistic timeline in which such balance is achievable (week/month/year).  You can have it all, you just can’t have it all at once.

Note:  Allow me to front-run some potential criticism.  Unfortunately, not everyone has the ability to achieve the Work/Life Control I’m writing about.  As an example, perhaps they have to report to set shifts at work.  Just because someone lacks this control over the ‘Work’ component of their Work/Life balance ‘equation’ doesn’t mean that they can’t benefit from more balanced thinking.

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