Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Why I Gave Up Trying to Balance Work and Life and Decided to Stay Sane Instead

Much has been made about Gen Y's insistence on a balance between their work and their life. The understanding of that balance, however, is different than previous generations, mainly because technology can be invasive, blurring the lines between when one is at work and when one is 'at' life.

Boomers didn't need to worry about this as much, since cell phones and Blackberries weren't ubiquitous. As such, doing work away from work was unheard of, mainly because it was difficult.

The lines began to blur with Gen X, who soon didn't want any of it, mainly because it was yet another thing that the big institutions couldn't be trusted with.

But Gen Y can handle it. They’re happy to fire off emails from the beach, or work from the comfort of their couch. Yesterday, one of my interns left the office (which is spacious, cool and comfy) to go work at Starbucks, where she could enjoy the unseasonably warm February weather while sipping a latte outside. She was still working since she was on deadline – she could just be portable with it.

But what about when the analog version of feature creep happens? How is a work/life balance maintained for the entrepreneur who's thinking about business all the time, even if he's not 'doing' it? What about the ambitious ladder climber who wants to get ahead and stand out? And what about the social media strategist who works for the startup who puts in long hours in hopes that the new company will make it big and she'll be set one day? Where does work end and life begin?

There should be a distinction, but not to maintain some straw-man of an argument. It should exist because it might just be the very thing that keeps you sane. Or alive.

If you're a "Lost" fan, you now know that if you want to make it on the island, you need a constant, that very thing that keeps you connected while your 'when' changes (but not your 'where'). It's the same in life. And with work. You need that thing that relieves stress, or can always take your mind off of work or helps you to remember that it's about more than the paycheck, the ladder or the resume.

The happened for Holly Hoffman. A recent health scare made her realize that life away from work is important. As such, she's learned to focus on that area of her being, to much praise and benefit.

Or take Rebecca Thorman, who recently wrote about her long hours and need to do it all, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend. I agree with her that work/life is a myth for most people, but not because it doesn't exist. Rather, I think it's an incorrect distinction.

I recently listened to a Harvard Business Review podcast during a long run. While the subject of the podcast was about the current recession, the guest noted that research suggest that the size of one's house has little to no bearing on personal happiness. In fact, the length of one's commute is a much higher factor. The lesson? Buy a smaller house closer to your job and you'll be much happier.

And here's why I agree with Rebecca that work/life balance is a mythical creation of earlier generations: we get the life part wrong.

We complain because we don't have time to watch all our TV shows. In reality, watching all those shows don't make us happier or have a better life. Or, we complain that we don't have time to play golf, go to the movies or go shopping. I really wonder if those things add up to a better life for anyone.

For me, knowing that I was rapidly running ragged while putting in long hours with CoolPeopleCare, I needed a new routine – one that allowed me maximum work hours while still allowing for those parts of my non-work life that I love. Here's how I did it:

Step One: Make it about life.
For me, I first had to find those parts of my life that I really enjoyed – those parts that I couldn't do without. As I examined how I spent my time, I realized that it was important to do things that relived my stress, instead of added to it. And for me, these were things I could do that kept my mind from wandering back to the company all the time. My list:
  • Cooking for and eating dinner with my wife
  • Meeting my family for Sunday brunch
  • Running
  • Reading
What's not on the list? Catching up on CSI. Buying a new shirt. Making sure my car is clean. I'd suggest that everyone find four things they love about life and commit to them each day or week. Find two to do alone and two that involve other people. Schedule them, and don't cancel. You'll be happier if these are a part of your routine.

Step Two: Figure out the work piece.
The life of an entrepreneur is unpredictable at best and a freakin' perfect storm at worst. But, in all of that, I had to find a routine in order to make sure I did the things that needed doing each week while allowing enough time to work on new projects and dream new dreams. So, I scheduled as best I could. I don't always stick to the schedule, but having it as a framework for each day and week helps me get more things done.
  • The hours between 5:30 and 7:30 AM are for emailing, reading feeds and writing blog posts. As are the hours between 4:00 and 6:00 PM.
  • Organizing your email GTD-style works, if you commit to it.
  • Mondays are for writing all the content for the next week.
  • Wednesdays are for meetings that generate new business.
  • Fridays are for meetings that generate new ideas or contacts.
  • Everything else stays flexible.
So yes, you can balance work and life. But chances are, if you're an entrepreneur or a Gen Y-er, you blurred those lines so long ago that they're nearly impossible to separate – like Kool-Aid. So, instead of trying to figure out how to juggle priorities, just make sure you stay sane.

Comments (7)

Sam, these are great suggestions. I am still struggling with finding balance in my life and I like the idea of scheduling 4 things to do every week that I really love. I may also try scheduling my week for better productivity as you suggested. This is always hard to do, but worth it I think. Ohh and by the way, you get up really early :)

Sam -

I think there is a lot of good stuff here, a lot to take in and reflect on. And I think, for someone like me who recently graduated college and is just sort of 'getting his feet wet’ in the real world – being able to separate work and personal life can be especially difficult. But, as you said, it is necessary to stay sane, especially while you are young and ‘paying your dues’ so to speak – not really pursuing your ideal career path or your passion in life, but getting your foot in the door, gaining professional and life experience, and honing in on what you do (and maybe more importantly what you do not) want to pursue in life.

I consider myself to be in the embryonic development of an entrepreneur. A lot of brainstorming ideas, a lot of visualizing without really being able to act on it, and contradicting thoughts of ‘just go for it’ and ‘be smart’ – I think a lot of people in my generation, in our generation, have the same mindset – there is an overall general consensus from folks my age that ‘Corporate America’ is evil, and that they don’t want work to be just ‘work’. I can relate to this, as I feel that you spend an exuberant amount of time in the workplace, so loving what you do is MUCH more important than making a lot of money, a lesson can be learned from your point: 'Buy a smaller house closer to your job and you’ll be much happier'.

I plan to take heed in your advice of finding four things to commit to daily – both alone and with others, I think having an outlet to relieve stress and ‘get away’ from it all is absolutely crucial in a person’s overall well-being. Well written and well thought out Sam. Great way to kick off a Tuesday morning.

Good post. I also liked your suggestion to pick four things to make time for. I'm going to be thinking about that!

And I wanted to wholeheartedly concur with the small house close to work theory. I used to live in a nice spacious apartment in the suburbs with straight walls and shiny countertops and amenities. It took me 25 minutes to commute. Now I live in a little 1920s house with tiny rooms and old fixtures, but my commute is 10 minutes. I am much, much happier than I was in the 'burbs. (Of course, there is more character where I live than the suburbs as well, which is a nice bonus.)

Wonderful - thank you, Sam!
We don't really have a "work life" and a "real life." We have one life. Balance is about conflicting spheres; integrating is about wholeness. Thanks for reminding me of that today!

Thanks everyone for the insight and comments! It seems like the "4 Things" idea is catching on and worth exploring a bit more.

@Matthew - thanks for the perspective from a recent grad and entrepreneurial embryo. Keep dreaming! And, the quicker you find your balance - er, sanity - the better!

@Jess(ica) - good to hear that the commute vs. house size debate is correct. That's why we moved, too. My wife and I were thinking last night, that even though our house isn't huge by any strecth (2 bedrooms), we still only really 'use' 4 rooms of it.

@Hildy - well said about only having one life. Agreed. I've started following you on Twitter as well. Looking forward to what you have to say!

Great post Sam! There are some really concrete suggestions in here that I can use.

I think we spend so much time pursuing work/life balance as an end in itself, when the whole point is that we're enjoying that "life" time, whether it's pursuing an after-hours job or writing a blog.

What I realized recently is that my life happens while I'm at work too. Those hours aren't just void - they are part of your life.

Also, I've realized that how I approach my work affects my life. If I stress at work, then I'm stressed in my life.

I'm not sure if any of that made sense!

Great! I love it! I'm not even sure how I landed on this post tonight, but I'm definately going to look at not only the four things, but also making each day about something different. It will be hard with my "day-job" since I'm not the boss and meetings are scheduled by everyone *but* me, so I have to work around other people, but I'm excited to spend some time and possibly dive into these ideas.

I'll follow you on Twitter too! I'm @focusyourlife and I'd love to chat at some point.

Best wishes - Ricahrd