How can I strike a better work/life harmony?

Digging into how we spend our time so we all can live happier and healthier lives

I’m trying a new structure today after some reader feedback. Let me know what you think. And, of course, if you have any feedback yourself, please drop me a line!

On to today’s grid:


8-min read

Feedback was to put the grid at the top of the email… what do you think?

Share


As we enter yet another week of quarantine, I’ve been reading about an interesting new phenomenon: despite not being at the office, people are actually working more! Wild. Time typically spent commuting and eating meals hasn’t translated into more free time at home. It actually transformed into more time working from home. This excerpt from this Bloomberg article explains it best:

Huda Idrees, the chief executive officer of Dot Health, a Toronto-based technology startup, confirms her 15 employees are working, on average, 12-hour days, up from 9 hours pre-pandemic. “We’re at our computers very early because there’s no commute time,” she said. “And because no one is going out in the evenings, we’re also always there.”

Personally, I’m a firm believer that to do our best work—and when I say work, I mean your job, a project you’re working on, commuting—you need to carve out the necessary amount of “life,” too. We don’t stay awake 24 hours a day… we give our bodies and minds a chance to recover with sleep. That’s an obvious statement, but for some reason the same concept gets lost when we apply it to how we work.

Mike Gamson (former SVP, Global Solutions at LinkedIn and current CEO at Relativity) thinks about work/life balance in an interesting way. He actually doesn’t consider it a balance at all, but a harmony. Here’s what he had to say about it in a Business Insider article (bold added for emphasis):

“I used to think about trying to achieve balance in my life, between work and personal,” Gamson said. “I no longer think that is a goal. Instead I aspire toward achieving harmony. ‘Balance’ connoted equality, and for me my personal life is so much more important to me, ultimately, than my professional life. Trying to balance the two is a fool’s errand. But harmony is a melodious integration of disparate parts. How do I take two things that are separate and bring them together in a way that is pleasing to both?”

Reframing how much time we spend working or living life as a harmony rather than a balance is, I believe, a better way to think about time management, burnout, productivity and mental well-being. This perception shift goes a long way in trying to shape a healthier division of your time.

So, as we formally jump into today’s grid, my goal is that this analysis should help you better assess how you can find stronger harmony between work and your life. So, with that large preamble complete, let’s dig into this very question:

How can I strike a better work/life harmony?

Logically, you can probably guess today’s two axes.

On the x-axis we have time spent living life. This category includes activities such exercising, reading, personal writing or journaling, going to restaurants, traveling, hanging out with friends, family, or pets, etc. Basically, it’s anything you’re doing that isn’t work.

On the y-axis we have time spent working. Simply put, this means time spent at your job or side hustle, e-learning, commuting, or even thinking about work (that includes time spent writing emails for work on your phone when you’re technically supposed to not be working).

You may have expected the axes to have been switched: putting time spent working on the x-axis and time spent “living life” on the y-axis. The reason I didn’t was to not set up this logical rationalization: “I worked this many hours so this is how many hours of free time I’ve earned.” Harmony is about finding the right proportions of work and life. You don’t earn life. As with nearly every grid I post, the axes could be swapped, but, in this case, I wanted to provide the extra layer of thinking as to why I did it this way.

Understanding the Grid

If you’ve been reading this newsletter from the beginning (thank you), you’ll notice this grid looks a bit different. A diagonal line cuts the top right quadrant in half, creating two new zones. I wanted to specifically call out spending equal amounts of time on work and life, hence the dashed “Line of Equal Focus” partition. This feels like a parity worth calling out.

As an example, below is an estimated breakdown of a typical week when I was working at LinkedIn in terms of the three building blocks of your week: work, life, sleep.

Working: 30% (around 10 hours per weekday)

Sleeping: 33% (7.5-8 hours per day)

Living Life: 37% (8.5-9 hours per day)

Working at LinkedIn was a wonderful experience. There was a strong culture of getting your work done in the confines of a standard 40 to 45-hour work week. When I add up time spent commuting, thinking about work and responding to emails at home, I come up with close to 50 hours a week working. I usually sleep between 7.5 and 8 hours every night. So, when I subtract time spent working and sleeping from a given week, that leaves 37% of my time left for living life.

As you will see momentarily, this breakdown (30% of my time spent working and 37% of my time spent living life) puts me in the “At Ease” zone. This makes sense given I was actively working, being productive, hanging with friends and family, and exercising regularly. At times, I felt like I could have added a project outside of work without having felt short of time and stressed.

Understanding these proportions makes having a bottom left quadrant on this grid confusing. If you have low time spent working and living life, by default you’d have to be sleeping most of the day (meaning you could unfortunately be very sick or depressed). Given we are talking about work/life harmony, I removed that quadrant from the analysis.

Flow State

You spend slightly more time working than you do living life. For me, this is when I am in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, calls “flow.” When I’m in the Flow State zone, I’m usually working on meaty projects at work, yet still have enough time in the week to decompress from the residual stress, effort and intense focus these initiatives require. I feel highly productive and produce some of my best work in this zone. I also end up scheduling exciting things in life during this time. When I have free time (i.e. time spent not working or sleeping), I yearn to fill it productively: with people and things I love to see and do. Aside from feeling extra busy at work, I also feel in Flow State when I have a worthwhile side projects that start to monopolize my time outside of work. When I start these projects, it first feels like they belong in the living life bucket, but then a certain amount of rigor and seriousness ends up getting applied such that it turns into feeling more like work. Some examples: writing Gridology, training for the 2018 NYC Marathon, studying for the GMAT, applying to business school.

At Ease

You spend slightly less time working than you do living life. In this zone, work tends to be a bit slower, which affords you more time to read, exercise, listen to podcasts, hang out with friends, or work on interesting side projects. I started developing Gridology’s brand and vision towards the end of my time at LinkedIn when my projects started to wind down and I had some extra time at home. However, when I’m in the At Ease zone for too long—perhaps one to two months—I get a bit uneasy and begin to search for opportunities or experiences that can increase my workload. Generally, I feel happiest in life when I’m oscillating between the Flow State and At Ease zones. The Flow State makes me feel productive and valuable. The At Ease zone affords me the time and space to explore new opportunities that could be interesting to me.

Ripe for Burnout

You spend significantly more time working than you do living life. In this quadrant, you’ll find people you know who have jobs that force them into the office on the weekend, keep them at the office until after dinner and enable them to flaunt that they have two phones on them at all times. I’ve had friends who have been at jobs where they work more per week than they sleep—no joke. In this zone, you’ll also find students of all grade levels. Many students can feel intense stress as they spend nearly all of their free time in class, studying, or applying to colleges or jobs. Living life like this can accelerate your professional or academic growth. If you think about it, you’re effectively squeezing in two or three years of work (i.e. a normal 40-hour per week job) into just one standard 365-day year. The corollary is that it almost definitely comes at the cost of your physical and mental well-being. People in this zone believe must believe that this trade is worth it.

Relaxation & Recharge

You spend significantly more time living life than you do working. This zone is the opposite to the one above. You typically see people who are in the Ripe for Burnout zone flee directly to this zone after one to three years of working a demanding job. Often, being in this zone needs to feel earned, meaning that in order to permit yourself to take that vacation or make a career change it must be because you’ve “put your time in.” This feeling—seemingly needing to feel like you earn time to relax and recharge—is perhaps an American problem. From TIME magazine a few years ago:

For instance, in 2015, the French worked an average of 1,482 hours a year, while American workers worked about 1,790 hours, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Meanwhile, U.S. workers—who receive about 15 days off per year—also get less vacation time than their European counterparts, who get about 30, according to a 2015 survey from Expedia.com. What’s more, while American employees take about 73% of their allotted vacation time, German and French workers take nearly all of the vacation time they’re allowed.

As we are all stuck at home building new routines, now is our time to reset, refocus, and rejuvenate. Old rules of society are being abandoned, making space for a new template for how we all work and live. Discover and commit to your new work/life harmony—the one your gut is whispering for you to choose (more about trusting your gut in my post last week). Let’s all listen to Marc Benioff:

Grid Shortcomings

There is one major shortcoming associated with this grid:

This grid is inherently biased. Obviously. I don’t pretend to believe that I know how you should best allocate your time. That’s why the axes are labeled “high” and “low” and not cut off at a certain percent of time spent. Time spent on each facet of life needs to be dictated by the person living it: you! Perhaps working more and having less time for yourself is what makes you happy. Perhaps you have a job that pay the bills and only takes up 10-20% of your time. Perhaps you’ve found your life’s calling and each day at work doesn’t feel like a job, but a career.

Quick aside on the difference of a job and a career: I’m constantly reminded of this Chris Rock bit (4-minutes, absolutely hilarious, and a must-watch if you haven’t seen):

When work blends with life, it’s a really special thing. May we all hope to find ourselves no longer having to think through how to find work/life harmony because we’ve already found it.

Thank you for spending your Sunday morning with me. I hope today’s post has inspired you to be your own champion and spend your time in ways that best serve you.

I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line, and tell me how you find harmony between work and life. I’d love to share some examples at the top of the post next week.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross


If you enjoyed this issue of Gridology, please consider forwarding it to your friends, family or colleagues. If you have any feedback or have other topics you’d like me to tackle, just reply back to this note!