A constant storyline in your life and within our society is figuring out how to reconcile work and life. How can we be successful and live a good life? If getting crazy rich isn’t an option, how do we have a good work/life balance? Although there are many answers, I am convinced that most of what we’ve been told is insufficient. Even worse, it undermines our ability to enjoy life.
1. Beware of Storytellers
Here are some real life people who are selling ideas, fantasies of work, and success. Each of these 4 characters will be happy to tell you about how they’ve achieved greatness with life and work. These are the tropes of labor force, and they never let facts get in the way of a good story.
Trope A: Tim Ferriss – On his website, he claimed to work only 4 hours a week, and then wrote the book to show people how to be like him. He got rich from his book sales and has admitted that maybe he worked more than 4 hours per week or something. (In the years since, he has crafted more compelling ideas, but we can’t forget that this 4-hour work week thing really did happen.)
Trope B: Balanced Work/Lifer – These are aspiring influencers on social media. They like to sell the idea that a work-life balance can be achieved. They build a following because people don’t have that balance, but they want it.
If you haven’t encountered these characters online, know that there is similar characters in your own life. They are the co-workers who decided to give your more work so that they can go home early. They are off living a life of balance you are stuck solving the problems they left behind.
Trope C: LinkedIn Warrior – You know the guy. All of his stories go like this: “I double your effort and I get double the results. The lazy people work 40 hours a day. I put in 80 hours a week! I am really busy, but I like to stop and tell people how busy I am.” You’ll find these same guys on Instagram, but with nicer cars and watches.
Trope D: Elon Musk – Some people aren’t content being 2x or 3x more productive than the masses. Last year at this time, Elon Musk over at Tesla claims he worked 150 hour work weeks. If you do the math, Mr. Musk was *apparently* working 21 hours a day, seven days a week.
Lesson: It’s only when you dismiss these tropes that you will have a chance to figure it out.
2. Work Hard. Work Smart. Then Everything Works.
Here’s a true story. When I was in college, a guy in my dorm spent about 8 hours a day in the study lounge on the bottom floor of our building. To me, he was like a Marine. He had strength and discipline that I would never have. On any given day, I would peek in the window of the study lounge see him there–alone–buried in his books. He only left to go to class, eat, and sleep.
What would my life look like if I was had his dedication?
One evening I set up camp next to him, maybe to soak up some of that strength. Two hours later, I was done with my homework. And I left the room without shame. Why? It’s because I saw up close that Mr. Marine was in fact distracted the whole time he hovered over his books and notes. He wasn’t an efficient studier at all. He was just burning time.
Sometimes people work long hours because they haven’t figured out efficiency. Sometimes people work late into the night because they don’t want to go home. But never assume that the Office MVP is always the first-one-in and last-one-out.
Lesson: When you work hard and you work smart, great things happen. Then you can clock out and be with the people you love. This is how it’s supposed to work.
3. Get Real and Be Happy
Here at Smith House, we work from 8AM – 5PM. If we work any less, we can’t finish projects and clients get upset. If we work any more than that, we get exhausted and our judgment is blurred. Then we make mistakes and clients get upset.
- We work 8 hours a day.
- We don’t work nights
- We don’t work weekends.
- We don’t work on National Holidays.
Again—we take time off because we are human, and we recognize that too much work makes you ineffective at your job. There is a reason why air-traffic controllers and pilots are not allowed to put in excessive hours. People’s lives are at stake!
So let’s get back to Elon Musk over at Tesla. There is no way his judgment is sound if he sleeps only 3 hours a night. I wouldn’t trust that guy to make me a grilled-cheese sandwich, much less make mission-critical decisions on the production line of high-tech cars.
Lesson: We all have limits. Either you set your limits, or you keep going until your failures prove to everyone your limits.
4. “Balance” Only Lasts for a Few Weeks
Balance can happen, but it won’t last long. Let me give an example. The graph below is a real-life story of a client that we have on a retainer. Our service agreement specifies that we spend 20 hours a month taking care of their design and marketing projects.
Some months are hard but doable 😉 at 30 hours. Other months are terrifying 😨 when we put in over 80 hours. But the year’s end with less than 20 hours a month, and we feel pretty good. 😎
In the “good times”, some people can be genuinely happy that they have achieved work/life balance, and they will want to tell you about it. You should meet them with kindness and support. Congrats! 🎉 Don’t shame them or warn them about doom around the corner. But you can quietly know that by this time next week, their life will fall out of balance.
Lesson: Balance is not achievable. It’s the goal, but it is rarely achieved. It’s only when you set “balance” as a goal do you have any chance at getting close.
5. Jump into the Pool
Most of the time, you arrive in discussions of work-life balance because you need more life, not more work. Am I right? Nobody ever claims that they have too much free time and they should balance things out with more hours at the office.
It’s not always a possibility to work fewer hours. Every story is different, but work is a demanding part of each of our lives. You can’t skip it. But what you CAN do is make sure that the time you spend at home with your loved ones–make that time count.
Think of work as a diving board. At 5PM, you step to the edge of the diving board and do a big cannonball into the pool. Whether you are ready or not, just jump.
No phone. No email. No work thoughts. Just love your family and soak up every minute with them. ◼️
BONUS: If you feel overworked month-after-month, your company might be missing the basics. I wrote a blog for organizational leaders, but anyone can read these concepts and apply them to their daily work to make things work more efficiently. Particularly, look at the “Project Management Triangle” in this blog: 4 Concepts Every Project Management Should Know
FUNNY: In the photos of our work/life storytellers, I found 2 images of our most famous examples: Tim Ferriss and Elon Musk. Apparently, thought leaders and cool CEOs are most credible while on stage, seated in a low chair, wearing a V-neck tee. Tim Ferriss is also wearing a blazer so that he doesn’t look too lazy (4 hours of work a week), and Elon Musk rocked only the T-shirt to prove that he is still relatable (even as he works 150 hours a week.) 😂