The Truth About Work-Life Balance

Alistair-Clark's picture
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Anyone here have a good work-life balance?

If so, congrats. You've found the holy grail. But you can close this post now, because it's not written for you.

This post is for everyone still drowning in work. For everyone struggling to build a life outside of the office. For everyone that hasn't had a day off in months and can count the number of hours they slept last night on one hand.

In this post I'm going to tell you my method of improving work-life balance, regardless of how many hours I work.

What Happens When You Work Too Much

I worked for 4 years as a management consultant, and had a pretty poor work-life balance. The hours weren't always bad, but I spent half of each year living in a hotel and I'd get hit with 80 to 100+ hour weeks every month or so.

I'm sure a lot of people on reading this have worked much more than me, but hopefully you can relate to how I felt. Each day was the same -- work, eat, and sleep. Anytime I wasn't at the office, I was never really "free" from work. The 'always-on expectations' follow you home and work lingers in the back of your mind 24/7. I used to feel tense all the time and could never really relax, like some twitchy special forces soldier in enemy territory, phone constantly on hand ready to fire off a burst of emails if anyone made a sudden movement.

As the years wore on I lost my drive to get ahead at work, and started to think more about life outside of the office. I looked at my friends in "regular jobs" and imagined what it would be like to get home at 5:00 when the sun was still up. What if I had time to go to the gym after work? Or the time to go for drinks with friends? Or the time to cook a real dinner once in awhile?

One day I decided I was going to quit my job. It was about 6 months until I actually did it, but once I decided it was inevitable. In my mind the logic was simple:

1. I am stressed and unhappy because I have terrible work-life balance.
2. I have terrible work-life balance because of my job, but if I just had more free time then I would be happy.
3. Therefore, I should quit my job, have amazing work-life balance, and live happily ever after!

And so in 2014, I quit. I had no job prospects. I had no plan. I just had my mind fixated on working less and improving my work-life balance.

What Happens When You Work Too Little

It's been 18 months since I quit my job, and if I had to summarize what I've learned it's this: the grass is not always greener.

The first few weeks felt like a long vacation, but pretty soon after the 'honeymoon period' was over and I came back to reality. Despite having entire months on my calendar with complete freedom and the money to do what I wanted, I wasn't happy. By conventional definitions, I should have been living the work-life balance dream!

Ironically, the one thing I wanted to do was work.

I actively sought out projects -- mostly unpaid -- so that I could replicate the hard work I'd done during my career. I even spent a month researching and writing a 2,500+ word essay on why you shouldn't ice injuries and then sent it to my parents 20 person running group just for fun.

I was lost without work. Maybe that says something about my lack of imagination, but I think it actually reveals that how we think about work-life balance is all wrong.

So, what is work-life balance?

I've spent the past year trying to get to the bottom of the work-life balance riddle -- why do some people love their life despite working long hours, while others get burned out working relatively few hours? I've read research studies, talked to dozens of people in finance, and experimented on myself to come up with ways to improve work-life balance.

One thing has become abundantly clear: everyone blames poor work-life balance on one thing: the hours.

I used the long-hours as an excuse to quit my job. In the WSO forums, every thread about work-life balance leads to a pissing contest of how many hours you work. Banks even think this way, and have targeted their work-life balance policies at reducing hours for analysts.

But in my experience from living life with too much work and too little work, something has become abundantly clear: work-life balance is not about how many hours you work.

You might be thinking, "Alistair, what are you talking about... how is work-live balance not all about the hours?!"

Let me explain further.

I have two reasons for my crusade against the link between 'hours' and 'work-life balance':

1. Reducing your hours is not a realistic solution for most people. If you work in a challenging career and you're ambitious, then you're going to be working long hours. It's inevitable. Maybe you can take an afternoon off here and there or sneak in a week of vacation, but working less is not a realistic long-term solution.

Unless you want to quit your job or wait for a systemic industry shift, you are stuck with the hours you work. If working less hours is the only solution for improving work-life balance, then it seems you are shit out of luck.

2. Reducing your hours (alone) won't improve your work-life balance. I tried to fix my life by working less, and it didn't work. The first 2-weeks after quitting were amazing, but not working is not the formula for a fulfilling life. I've experienced the extremes, and some of the happiest and most fulfilling moments in my life happened while drowning in work.

Have you ever worked a 12-hour day and felt invigorated at the end, proud of what you accomplished? Have you ever had a Saturday with nothing on the schedule, only to sleep in, watch TV, and altogether waste the day and go to bed feeling like a waste of space? If so, then you know what I mean.

To say it another way, if you focus on hours as the only cause of poor work-life balance, then reducing hours becomes the only solution. Not only is this unhelpful for most of you because you don't control your hours, but it also ignores a huge collection of other solutions that have nothing to do with working less.

This isn't to say that hours are unimportant, I just don't think working less hours is the best answer for most people. It's more complicated than that.

How to improve your work-life balance

The simplest way I've found to improve my work-life balance is to make sure I'm doing things, every day, that will lead to the life I want.

My negative work-life balance feelings came from the idea that if I wasn't working then I'd have the time for X, Y, or Z. But I've realized that long hours don't actually stop me from living the life I want. In fact, working long hours and becoming successful is the life I want. Cutting work hours in the name of "work-life balance" would actually be self-sabotage.

So instead of hours, I focus on small day-to-day decisions that I can control regardless of how many hours I work.

For example, instead of watching Netflix when I get home, I'll read a book. Or instead of checking my email before bed, I'll call my parents to catch-up. Or instead of Chinese food for lunch, I'll get a salad. None of these things require extra time to do, yet all of them improve my perceived work-life balance because I'm progressing towards the life I want to live.

You don't need to quit your job or find more time on your schedule to make better choices.

By compounding these small actions day-after-day and week-after-week, I've found that I don't care if I work 12+ hours a day because my life feels balanced. I'm taking control of my life and making progress in all the areas important to me, and that matters much more than how much time I'm spending at work.

But how do you make the right decisions through the ups and downs of day-to-day life? How do you stay consistent when work blows up and you fall off the wagon?

My solution is a simple checklist.

I use a simple checklist. It fits on one page, and covers an entire month.

There is a column for each day of the month, and a row for each habit I'm working on right now. Each day I do my best to complete each habit, and at the end of the day I take 1-minute to record whether or not I've completed the habit.

The habits don't have to be big. Just little things that will help your life feel more in control -- eat healthy lunch, stretch for 5-minutes, phone a friend, read 5-pages of a novel, etc.

If it sounds too simple, that's a good thing. Simple is better. Simple means you don't have to think. Simple means you don't have an excuse not to do it.

My checklist acts as a daily reminder to keep me motivated and accountable when my willpower is low. The end result is that everyday, I'm working towards my long-term goals and my life feels balanced.

I wrote about the system I use in more detail on an earlier WSO post titled How I Limit Anxiety, Stress, and Regret. You can also click here to download the template I use.

The Truth About Work-Life Balance

The truth about work-life balance seems to be this: it's not defined by how many hours you work.

I tried to fix my work-life balance by working less, and it didn't work. I've worked 100+ hour weeks as a management consultant, and I've had weeks with 100+ hours of nothing to do. Some of the best weeks of my life were when I was crazy busy, and some of the worst when I had no work at all.

Work-life balance means different things to different people. For some that means spending 20 hours a day at work building a career they're proud of, and for others that means freelancing to pay the bills and travelling the world.

For me, working hard, long hours can suck sometimes. But I've realized that life has little purpose or meaning if I'm not working hard and pursuing excellence at something.

What does work-life balance mean to you? Leave a comment and let us know.

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Alistair Clark is a former management consultant that runs worklifefitness.co.
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Comments (40)

Best Response
Dec 1, 2015

So why shouldn't you ice injuries?

    • 16
Dec 2, 2015

+SB, great write up. I like the list idea

Dec 2, 2015

I agree with the hours are not the problem, although I think someone doesn't necessarily want to be THAT successful only at what he/she does at work. I love MTB and play music and when I work week ends and nights, gym and netflix are not the solution...time is.

Dec 2, 2015

Thanks for writing this.

My hours are no where near as bad as most people on here. All-in with commute during the week it's roughly 11.5 hours so 57-60 hours a week and never work on weekends.

I am very grateful for the job I have.

What I am struggling with is finding the time to work out during the week. I have a wife and two kids and during the week get home around 6 and get to the gym by 7. It's either go to the gym and don't spend any time with family or spend a couple hours with kids before bed and not go to gym. Other thing is, if I work out at 7 I never get to bed until at least 11PM if I'm lucky because always wired after workouts.

Although my weekends are wide open which is great, balancing during the week is a struggle.

I wish I could work out during lunch time and I would stay later but nobody does that here, that would be ideal.

Need to be to train by 630AM and gym opens at 5AM so I could get up 2-3 times a week at like 430AM, I guess that's my best option. I wish companies made health more of a concern, everybody should be free to workout at lunch without having to worry about anything and it should be encouraged IMO it would make employees more productive after lunch.

There's no way I could work out at lunchtime here, too big of a floor and it would be frowned upon, not a huge deal, loving the job but definitely a concern because my health is important and I'm not going to be comfortable putting it on back burner. I guess I should be working out every Sat and Sun and quit being lazy on the weekends but even working 60 hours Mon-Fri makes the balance very difficult with a family.

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Dec 2, 2015

quick question: would a lunchtime workout be frowned upon because it's not a social norm? or, because there's actually important work to be done during that time?

I think if it's the former, run it by your boss, get his/her opinion, and if they're all about it or don't care one way or the other, do it. if you can tell it'd hurt your chances at getting promoted, maybe don't.

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Dec 2, 2015

I think it would be frowned upon and wouldn't look good because I've been here about only 3.5 months but also because nobody else does it and it's a big floor. Later down the road I may be able to try and pull it off but it still wouldn't feel right because we sit around other groups that are busier than us at times and they would notice. It's interesting dynamic for sure.

If I was more senior I would be less worried, but even my boss brought it up and said we have the flexibility to do it, but other groups would probably frown upon it.

Dec 2, 2015

Thanks for the comment. The challenge of finding time to workout is something a lot of people face. Two things I can suggest that might help you out:
1) Change your definition of "workouts". A good workout doesn't have to be the 2-hour marathon lift you used to do in college. Read this article on Exercise Minimalism: http://www.precisionnutrition.com/minimal-exercise 2) I wrote my thoughts on when the best time to workout is in a separate article here: http://worklifefitness.co/too-busy-to-workout/ (TL:DR = Weekends, Monday Mornings, Friday Nights)

Hope that helps. Good luck!

Dec 3, 2015

Those are interesting, thanks

Dec 14, 2015

Just wanted to say thanks for the precision nutrition fitness link, will start trying it tomorrow. Also your hangover vitamins post was so helpful for me - used to get grueling stomach pains from drinking which are now 95% gone, amazing

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Dec 2, 2015

As OP said, changing your definition is key by understanding that workouts dont have to be 2 hour marathons, the same way that one doesnt have to work on a project for a long time for it to be good.

NYT published a 7 min workout (and app) that I've found useful.

Dec 3, 2015

I never do 2 hour workout marathons. My workouts usually last 30-45 minutes which from what I have studied is best for the body. But still a 30 minute workout then showering getting dressed etc means I would be away from desk for minimum 50-60 minutes.

Dec 4, 2015

I'm in the same situation as you. I have a wife and kid, and with commute included I'm gone for work 11 hours a day.

You should really reconsider the lunch workouts if you can. I've worked at five different offices in my career, and I have done the lunch workouts while working at each one. At my last two offices, no one else in the building worked out during lunch but no one ever said anything to me about it. At the first 3 offices, I had a coworker at each location who noticed I was doing the workouts and decided to join me each day.

I couldn't stick to getting out of bed at 4 AM each day, and like you I hate the idea of giving up weeknights with my family. The lunch workouts are perfect - you've got more energy in the middle of the day to maximize the workout, and then you're rejuvenated and more productive in the afternoon.

  • Anonymous Monkey
  •  Dec 4, 2015

Have a wife and kid. Used to work 13/14 hour days on average with a 1.5 hr commute total. I'm the say way at night and don't want to miss any time with the family. Best and only bet was setting the alarm for 4:45am and getting a workout in before the train. Started about 3 years ago and it's not too bad once you get in the habit. Only times that I regret it are the nights when I end up working late and I get tired. Other than that, recommend the early morning workout

    • 1
Dec 14, 2015

Have you thought about storing some free weights and the like in your house? I started doing this in the Ibanking days and there is all kinds of great (+ free!) stuff out there - highly recommend fitnessblender, nike training club for weight training / HIIT / interval work, and whatever else you are into can probably be found on youtube ( I am a yoga / pilates fan as well and have found some pretty good stuff dedicated to that as well. Can shave a bunch of time off as you aren't driving to the gym etc - so I can get in a 45 min - 1 hr workout and it literally only takes me the workout time.

Also some of the HIIT stuff (especially the stuff where they pair 1-2 cardio moves with 1 strength move) can give you great results in 20 - 30 mins.

Apr 4, 2020

This.

Most of the senior people at my firm are fat middle aged men and it's patently obvious that fitness is not a priority for them. Like you, I'm wired after a gym session and that's when I do my best work, but these guys just don't get it. (Hell, I'll always do a workout before I sit any sort of exam or interview because I know it's important that my brain is fully 'awake').

Need to wait for the boomer generation to die out before we can prioritise our health properly. Tone from the top is too important in defining culture and you will never be able to change it from the bottom or middle of the food chain.

    • 1
Dec 2, 2015

I have periods of work my ass off for 6-12 months. Then burn out. Currently coming out of a burnt out phase.

Dec 3, 2015

Good points overall; however, consider that hours are very important if you have a significant other. A few hours with a husband or wife, even considering the fact that you might be tired, stressed, or thinking about your job, is far better than no time at all.

Regardless, as you mentioned, the hours are there anyways, so treat work more like an ultra-marathon for people that love ultra-marathons. I suggest reading "Born to Run" to get in the most appropriate mindset for the consulting/banking lifestyle. You should at least try to like what you spend your life doing.

Dec 3, 2015

Can anyone summarize this post?

    • 1
Dec 3, 2015
undefined:

Can anyone summarize this post?

You're fucking kidding, right?

    • 4
Apr 4, 2020

Lol.

The OP's last heading should have been entitled "TL;DR"

Dec 3, 2015

Great post. This is another interesting post on work life balance:
https://www.ted.com/talks/nigel_marsh_how_to_make_...

    • 1
Dec 4, 2015

Thanks, @the_ferry" I'll check it out.

Dec 5, 2015

Tnx. I'll check it out.

Dec 4, 2015

i think degrees matter. a lot. comparing no hours and 100+ hours is simply not a comparison to be made in my opinion. and the difference between 50 and 60 and 70 hours per week is pretty sensible and when the work is meaningful. it means that w/o weekend, starting at 7 with 1h lunch break and 30min commute:

50hrs : 7:00 -> 18:30 you can do gym, see kids, see wife, read something, cook something, watch something
60hrs: 7:00 -> 20:30 maybe gym at dawn, kids maybe if they are not too young, wife yes, no anything else
70hrs: 7:00 -> 22:30 no anything with life that is a tunnel of wake up / work / eat / sleep
70hrs + : I respectfully disagree with this choice.

my 2 cents

Dec 7, 2015

Great post as always Alistair. I find that working out is going to be heavily driven by the schedule that works for you. It is tough to build a plan that everyone, or even a majority of people will agree works for them.

Personally, I like to work out after normal office hours (so leave the office and head to the gym between 5:30-6:30). Since I get a bit of an early start, this usually allows for about 10 office hours during the day, break for a few hours of gym-time, dinner, and decompressing, then I can hop back on my computer at home and knock out a couple more things for 2 hours or so.

I find that I am more likely to work out with a 10 hour day in the office over a full vacation day/weekend. Different strokes for different folks.

My best advice is to experiment with different schedules for about a week straight, and find which one "clicks" for you. This is simply in regards to working out as work life/balance is much more complex than than, and it is wonderfully highlighted by Alistair's original post.

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Dec 8, 2015

Awesome, thanks for sharing!

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Dec 12, 2015

Being able to just dive into work and have time fly. Having that niche at work is a big help.

Dec 13, 2015
Comment
Dec 13, 2015