It seems appropriate that my first article after my time off from writing should focus on the work/life balance. This topic has gained tremendous attention over the past few decades and is sold to the public as a crisis of work overwhelming personal life that is in need of urgent resolution, usually by buying a self-help book.
Leaving aside the fact that OECD data does not seem to support stories of employees being swamped by work to the detriment of their personal lives there is still something to be said about this subject.
The phrasing work/life balance implies that one should aim for, if not have a right to, a personal life that is equal to a work life. Two questions immediately come to mind and that is how is the balance measured and is it correct to assume that there should be equality.
I think that answering the first question will make it easier to answer the second. So how should we compare work life to our personal life? The most basic measure would be hours spent on each facet of our lives. If we consider eight hours a day asleep as a neutral time and assume a normal 9 to 5 work day five days a week then we end up with the puzzling equation of 40 hours a week working versus 72 hours a week personal time. This simple calculation shows us that we spend 80% more time on personal commitments than our work commitments.
Some might point out that quite often work is done outside of normal work hours but I would argue that the time we take from our work either explicitly by leaving the office or implicitly by surfing the net and gossiping on the phone evens things out.
My calculations above do not take into account all the vacation time both as per contract as well as national holidays. If you add those then it gets even more confusing as to why we always feel that we don’t have time for ourselves.
If quantity of personal time is not the issue then clearly it must be a question of quality. There is a big difference between four hours of personal time spent running errands and doing household chores versus just one hour spent leisurely with your spouse. The latter is far more rejuvenating and is of far greater quality personal time.
A related question is over how long a period of time does one measure of the balance? For example even if one has decided on a measure of balance do you ensure that each day is balanced? Or should you aim for a work/life balance measured over a week or even a month? The former seems too rigid whilst the latter allows the flexibility necessary to manage the many vagaries that life throws at us.
Finally, how much is our personal time a right given the many stakeholders in our personal lives: spouse, children, parents, friends and neighbours not to mention our work stakeholders who can affect our personal time: clients, vendors, partners, managers, colleagues and employees.
Bringing it all together, the current pundits advise you to manage your work/life balance by being brutal about work by learning to say “no,” avoiding time wasting meetings, delegating as much as possible. A more thoughtful look at the issue might come to the conclusion that since total personal time, including vacations, is about twice that of work time then might it not be more effective to look at our personal time first? Add to that the fact that we usually have far more influence over our personal lives, except for married men who will be told by their wives what is in their best interest, then the argument for tackling our personal lives first in the war for a work/life balance makes sense.
A work/life balance is an attainable goal and one that does not require you to be brutal about your work or your home. Each person is different so try different things. Maybe you need a little down time to meditate and re-center, or maybe you want to go for a walk with your spouse, or maybe you want to go to the gym. Negotiate with your stakeholders that little bit of time that you need to recharge. A total of one hour a day can be sufficient and then you can turn over the other seven hours, for work days, and 15 hours, for weekends, to give and connect with your family and friends.
Focussing on the quality of your personal life first can not only avoid having to cut down on your work time but can also greatly increase your energy and passion.
This article was originally published in The National.