The myth of work-life balance

Illustration of a scale with a ball labeled “Work” on one side; another ball labeled “Life”on the other

The balancing act

The tradition way of thinking about work-life balance means channeling your set amount of time and energy either to work or to your personal life. Devoting time in one area detracts from the other. It’s an inverse relationship within a closed system of limited resources.

If you step back and think about it, that’s pretty pessimistic and mechanic. It means spending another hour at work to go the extra mile this week only negatively impacts the time I get with my loved ones. And the hour I take midday to exercise detracts from my presence at work.

The glaring problem with this mindset is that we are not machines. Our output and energy are so far from predictable most days. Many things outside of our control result in good days and bad days. Days that feel stagnate and days where everything clicks and progress is made on all fronts. It isn’t a matter of picking the bucket to invest in, it’s a matter of figuring out how to build a foundation of energy and momentum across the board.

Illustration of overlapping blobs, without labels

The more accurate work-life squishy amoeba

Choosing to invest and improve one aspect of life sometimes has a bigger positive impact on the other aspect. If I dive in to quality time playing with my kids, I walk away energized and refreshed creatively. If I learn a new skill or contribute in a new way at work, I get a sense of fulfillment that helps me be a more positive presence in my home. During that lunchtime run, solutions to work problems might pop in to my head.

Joanna Peña-Bickley (Amazon) and Judy Wert (Wert & Company) both talk about the concept of blending as opposed to balancing when thinking about work and life. From a tech perspective, a large group of us have been literally blending our work and life spaces as we’ve moved in to home offices “temporarily” for the last 2 years. The tech we use and how things are becoming more and more connected means our lives are blending together in massive ways. We need easier ways to communicate with each other and power life. Ways that can keep up with our brains as we switch between tasks and contexts.

A better analogy

Instead of looking at physical things, let’s take a look at music. You are not a single note, but a chord. Your home life is one note, your work is another, maybe you have a family and that becomes a third. All of it joins and builds together to form a complex and beautiful sound. The whole becomes more beautiful than the individual notes. A chord is never 100% full; there is always beauty and always a possibility to shift things and fine tune all aspects.

Or maybe instead of a solid, we are a gas. A solid piece of ice can be broken in to many pieces, but all the pieces added together still take up the same amount of space and have the same combined weight. But a gas can fill any sized container it’s placed in. Two gases can fill the same space, and the line between them quickly dissolves. Our brains are very bad (or good) about staying on a single task without other thoughts peeking in.

As working from home has become a norm for many of us, work and home are quite literally the same space. It’s common and accepted to be on a call with kids/spouses/roommates/dogs/excavators sweeping through the background. What was once only a family space is now commonly used for the purpose of work. A kitchen counter becomes a desk. A bedroom becomes a boardroom. The two gases of work and life are blending and what has always been true is now more spatially apparent — you can’t divide yourself distinctly between work and life.

So how can this blending actually be a good thing? How can we move past the fear of crumbling boundaries and ensure both aspects of life are flourishing?

A few applications

Let’s unpack a few common aspects of work and life and how they cross boundaries left and right:

Learning

If I spend ten minutes a day reading about design or how to cultivate team culture, I’m almost guaranteed to put that book down or close that browser tab with a lesson that can equally be applied to my team or my family. Fostering a mindset of continual learning in general will open my mind to grow in all the ways.

Burnout

It’s important to also understand the dark side of this connection between work and life. If I’m struggling at work, or I’m dropping the ball as a husband or parent, it impacts my life as a whole. Energy drains and burnout tend to be hard to compartmentalize.

Trying to compartmentalize in the first place is the wrong approach from my perspective. I might be struggling at work, but looking forward to closing my computer at the end of the day and leaving that behind to unplug with my family. But that extended time during my work day drags out more energy than it should and leaves me with less to give when I do get to walk away. It is crucial to identify feelings of burnout and see the gravity they do have on life, no matter where those feelings are coming from.

Because the environment at work can have large impacts on our home life, it is even more important for managers to be the defenders of their team. We all need to be intentional with energy, time and focus, and we need leaders that identify problems and recognize their main role of creating a safe a positive space for their teams to operate in.

Goal setting

Creating goals can take many forms (usually acronyms). Making short term goals and continuing to measure can be a huge engine for progress. Promotions and raises are much easier to push for with the documentation of impact. In work, goals clearly align people with larger objectives in their companies, and they serve each person as a way to show off their contributions throughout the month, quarter or year.

Goals can also bring the same positive effect to personal lives. So often, I go through life being very intentional in work, and largely reactive otherwise. Things like paying off debt or home ownership become desires that tend to not be measured, broken in to smaller steps or given a timeline.

Prioritization

This is one of my favorite words. In the past, activities like a prioritization grid have enabled me to stay focused, and the team to pinpoint the right areas to impact the user’s life bigger and faster. This method helps teams stay focused and allows each team member to be more effective, fulfilled and able to step away from work at the end of the day with a sense of accomplishment. When we’re all dividing our time and minds across 15 tasks, we quickly become ineffective in 15 tasks. In the wise words of Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.” Prioritization keeps focus, makes progress and allows us to step away refreshed instead of burnt out.

Balancing (or blending) passion projects and the daily grind

Maybe this applies to you, maybe it doesn’t. In all the teams I’ve been a part of as a designer, the daily grind is extremely important and the primary focus of all team members. This includes standard sprint work, tasks that have been prioritized, sized and assigned with a clear deadline. Updates and enhancements are organized, addressed and shipped to make continuous improvements in the lives of customers.

But sprint work can easily devour all of a team’s collective time. I would argue that sprint work should be kept in check to make space for passion projects either at an individual level or as a collective. These might be team-identified problems, new asks to explore concepts from leadership, or something like a hackathon or research sprint to build empathy but not necessarily ship anything specific.

Google is probably one of the most storied examples of this, not surprisingly. They call it Genius Hour, and guide contributors to dedicate 20% of their time (a whole day each week) to innovate and hone skills.

This has nearly everything to do with work life balance. Our work time needs space for personal growth and ideation to keep people inspired and engaged. I believe if you’re more engaged and happy at work, it reflects in all aspects of life. And vice versa. Finding meaning in life outside of work can bring much more meaning to the work itself.

Thanks for reading!

We don’t live to work. We don’t even work to live. We live. And during that living we also work. While we work we think of family and everything outside of work. We build relationships that have little impact on work. And yet it’s all related. We blend all aspects of life together, and with this mindset we can grow and flourish in unexpected ways.

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I use empathy and good design to help people reach their goals.

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Beau Ulrey

Beau Ulrey

I use empathy and good design to help people reach their goals.

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