I've been doing a fair bit of thinking about the idea of a "work/life balance", and it's a topic that I encounter more often on this board than just about anywhere else, so I thought it an appropriate forum for discussion.
When I was in college interviewing for the typical set of sought-after entry-level positions, it was often striking to me that the aspect that distinguished those who preferred consulting to IB purportedly wanted a better "work/life balance". Frequently, there was no more important distinction than that.
When I asked friends who went into consulting why they chose consulting, they often responded by saying, "I just don't think I could deal with working that many hours" (as if their career decision were a presupposed dichotomy between banking and consulting? - but that's another discussion). And that led me to believe that I most certainly would be dissatisfied with my "work/life balance" once I started full-time in IB.
And, sure enough, hours started pouring from the faucet of my office into the sink of my week just as promised. I had gone into the job with the preexisting belief that my work/life balanced sucked, and I should be upset/sad/angry about it. I chatted with my coworkers about it and occasionally mentioned it to my friends. I was the picture of a perfect post-undergrad IB analyst: disgruntled and passionately pursuing greener pastures.
Until, one week, I started to realize that I was neither dissatisfied about my work nor my life (whether that means I have a "work/life balance", I have no idea)...
And it wasn't long before I started to realize that my friends in more "traditional" jobs complained just as often about working too much as my friends in IB. I decided to stop contributing to discussions about being dissatisfied with how many hours I was putting in and instead just listened to what others had to say. I spent hours listening to my friend ranting about how unfair it was that he was being paid for 35 hours per week (40 hrs. minus 5 hrs for lunch breaks), despite the fact that he wasn't able to take a full hour off for lunch and was occasionally asked to stay until 6:00 PM. Meanwhile, other friends of mine working 80+ hours were thrilled with what they were doing (AND they were somehow managing to find the time to hang out with me). All said, I noticed very little correlation between the quantity of work and the amount of complaints about work. Everyone was looking for a better "work/life balance" in their next job, but when I asked, no one could put a finger on exactly what that entailed.
While I suspect that when most people long for "work/life balance", what they truly need is "work/life satisfaction", I understood that in everyday conversation, my friends were using "work/life balance" as a euphemism for "I would be happier, if only I worked fewer hours per week."
I think that this belief originates from a profoundly powerful, yet remarkable subtle metaphor that we employ in everyday language: time is money. It's one of the most frequent ways we communicate about time ("I spent an hour with her", or "Could you lend me a few minutes of your time?", or "I devoted my time to this cause", or "That awful movie cost me 2 hours of my life!"). But beneath the surface, it also implies two characteristics about our time: 1) our time is valuable and scarce, and 2) when we "spend" our time on something, we expect to receive value commensurate with the amount of time spent.
Troublingly, I think this leads an erroneous conclusion: if I spend more time doing something, I will enjoy it more. This is the premise that causes us to believe that obtaining more "free time" would make us happier.
After some thought, I have come to doubt the truth of this proposition, and I offer three examples of why I believe it to be untrue:
- I find that I enjoy personal and intimate relationships more when we spend less time together. This is the age-old problem with young love. Remember when your mother always told you that the reason you got in fights with your friends is because you were spending too much time with them? Though you probably doubted it at the time, I think we grow into the realization that time apart is a valuable piece of a relationship. More important than that, I think, is the scarcity of the time you spend together. When I spend a week boxed up in the office without being able to go out with friends, I often find that conversation is the most vibrant when we are reunited. We have a better time, there's more to catch up on, and a new face is a refreshing respite from our daily lives. On the contrary, on the few occasions in college when I found myself going out every night with similar groups of friends, I quickly tired of going out and received less enjoyment from interacting with these friends.
- Unemployed (even those with great personal wealth) people are among the least happy people I know. I once knew a guy that was in a serious relationship with a very successful significant other. He was in-between jobs when their relationship started, and when he realized that he could live more extravagantly than he had ever imagined without working a single hour, he decided to put more time between those jobs. What I witnessed was a powerful descent into stagnant unhappiness. He could, within reason, do whatever he wanted, yet he couldn't find anything that he wanted to do. Simply having all the free time in the world doesn't translate into happiness. It should come as no surprise, then, that wealthy entrepreneurs found charitable organizations or invest in new businesses to occupy their time. For most people, an occupation is a means to earn money, but even in the absence of that, it seems an occupation is also a shrewd motivator and a convenient way to put your time to good use.
- The more abundant a resource, the less wisely we spend it, and (especially in the 21st century) that has effects. I remember in middle school, whenever I got a video game, I would immediately use the internet to look up cheat codes to unlock every aspect of the game. It didn't take me long to realize that after I used the cheat code, the game almost instantaneously lost its fulfillment value. Similarly, when I think about weekends on which I had no work, I don't end up doing all that much more than on weekends where I spend half my time in the office. I'm more careless about how I allocate my time! I sleep in a bit later, I watch a bit more TV, read a few more books, spend a few more minutes on Facebook, and go out an hour or two later. Invariably, the more time I have on my hands, the more pointless endeavors I undertake. And the problem is, everything in the 21st century is specifically designed to be addictive. Whether it's cigarettes, television, soda, World of Warcraft, or Tumblr, businesses have become ever more successful in consuming ever increasing amounts of your time. And the one weekend where you find yourself bored enough to create a Tumblr account (no offense to those who Tumbl), the more time in subsequent weekends you will spend on Tumblr. Your unproductiveness snowballs, and that kills your motivation.
This realization has forced me to focus on three core parts of my life, things that I believe are worth putting out there on the off chance that you find them useful. It's the best and only advice I can give from this:
- Find two things that you honestly consider to be productive uses of your time and force yourself to spend time on them every weekend. I think that you'll find that, ironically, by reducing your "free time", you actually finish the weekend feeling better about what you've accomplished.
- Realize that there are very few things in life that you really don't have the time to do. When was the last time you told your coworkers you couldn't go out for a drink because you had a prior commitment or had to wake up early, only to head straight home because you were too lazy to go out? I'm not saying that's a bad choice! I'm just pointing out that even if you work 80 hours a week, you still have a great deal of time on your hands. It's all about priorities.
- If you're counting the number of hours you work in a week, chances are you're just distracting yourself from the real issues you have with your job. Stop thinking about "work/life balance". Having more "free time" won't make you happy. Having a job to which you want to contribute and a life that you're enjoying every minute of will.
I'll leave you with a quote that I love from Gary Vaynerchuk.
Speaking to a group to hopeful tech entrepreneurs, Vaynerchuk was asked, "How you get money to do what you love?" He answered:
"You don't. If you want to work on something you love, you know what you have to do? Honestly? You have to work after hours. If you work 9-6, get home, kiss the dog, and go to town. STOP WATCHING F*****G LOST!"
I think we would all benefit from killing less of our free time.
I'd love to hear anyone else's take on this.
Mod Note (Andy): #TBT Throwback Thursday - this was originally posted on 1/02/14. To see all of our top content from the past, click here.