Every time I read about or hear someone talk about work life balance, I get a scary mental image of myself standing in front of scales similar to the ones Lady Justice holds that require equal weights on either side for the scales to balance, waiting to be judged.  Is your life balanced?  Let me see . . . how many hours on each side?  Too many on the work side?  You fail the work life balance test!  You are therefore doomed to the purgatory of an imbalanced (therefore unhappy and unfulfilled) life.

In addition to the image being intimidating, research we’ve done at CCL about how many hours people are actually connected with work every day suggests that the “balance” metaphor isn’t a particularly constructive way to think about it.

Let’s do the math.  Assuming we sleep 7.5 hours a day (the approximate amount recommended by scientists to manage stress and health effectively), for the scales to be “balanced” we would need to split the remaining time: 8.25 hours for work and 8.25 hours for life every workday (it isn’t clear where commuting fits in).

But we have research that shows that executives, managers, and professionals (EMPs) routinely spend substantially more than 8.25 hours involved in work every workday (see white paper Always On, Never Done?  Don’t Blame the Smartphone). In a survey of 483 EMPs, we found that 60% of those who carry smart­phones for work are connected to work 13.5 or more hours a day five days a week, and spend about five hours on weekends scanning emails, for a total of about 72 hours a week connected to work.  If someone is connected to work 13.5 hours a day, and sleeps about 7.5 hours a night, that leaves 3 hours a day Monday-Friday for the awake “life” part of work life balance. That is 5.25 hours less per workday than would be needed for balance, for a total deficit of 26.25 hours every work week.

Some might point out that this doesn’t include weekends, which is true.  So, let’s do that calculation. If there are 168 hours in a week, and someone spends 52.5 hours sleeping, that leaves them 115.5 hours a week to do other things.  If they spend 72 of those hours connected with work they still only have 43.5 total hours per week to do with as they will.  Better, but still not balanced, if we think about balance as equal hours.

Thanks in part to the smartphone, the line between work and other aspects of life has all but eroded for many EMPs. They are almost always “reachable.”  So I think the phrase “work life balance” presents a false (and unhelpful) dichotomy.  I will always fail if I think of work life balance as balancing a scale with equal numbers of hours doing work and life.

So I’ve decided to think about work life balance differently.

Instead I think about whether I can do (most of) the things that are important to me, and thus have a happy life.  Being able to do the things I want to do isn’t just about hours; it is about whether I have the energy to do them.  I spend far more hours connected with work than I do not connected with work. However most of the time I have enough energy to do the things that are important to me, even if sunset makes it difficult to finish my gardening, or an early call eliminates my morning exercise.

In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant explains how people can maintain or increase energy.  In it he describes research which shows that people have more energy to give when they are doing things they think have a real impact on something that is important to them (whether volunteering, or work, or other activities). That’s true even when they are working long hours. It is certainly true in my case.  On days when I feel I am doing something that has a positive impact I am much more energized both at work and at home than I am on those days when I’m doing something that I feel has no impact at all – regardless of the actual number of hours I’ve spent doing it.

So, I’ve stopped thinking about work life balance as equalizing the number of hours I spend doing my job and/or away from my job. Instead, I’m thinking about it in terms of feeling energized by what I’m doing in all parts of my life. This allows me to channel that energy into taking care of what is important to me – both at work and outside of work.

How do you think about work life balance?

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