Startups
June 23, 2022

What Really Is Work-Life Balance?

“Work-life balance” has become a popular and debated concept in recent times, especially since COVID changed how the world worked. It is hotly debated because it marks a cultural shift that is an affront to hustle culture. Yet it is, as I’d argue, most thoroughly in line with what the human soul and our biology itself needs.

The Work-Life Balance Continuum

To start, let’s aim to understand the potential life “options” on a continuum:

We have how you work on one side and how you spend your time not working on the other. These two variables, in an ideal world, balance for optimal health and contentment in the life of both the individual and the culture.

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One of the greatest weaknesses of the present conversation around this is that it is entirely focused on the top half of the continuum! Debates over whether you should work 4, 40, or 80-hour weeks, for example. And while this is vitally important, on average Western society has made huge advances so that we do not need to work 80-hour weeks anymore. We have automated processes, machines, and technology that multiply our efforts. And really, the only time humans typically worked such hours in the past were during harvest season. Most non-Western societies do not need to work such extensive hours to survive except during hard times.

While there are good reasons to work extended hours, such as when there are staffing shortages in emergency sectors or when you are first starting a business, it is incredibly unhealthy to do so for extended periods of time. On the inverse, not working enough leads to feelings our purposelessness, depression, and in the case of many retirees, an unfortunately early death. Work in and of itself is good and needed for our mental and physical health. But in the right doses. If you are not actively working a “job” per se, finding anything meaningful to fill up at least part-time will significantly alive any symptoms of under-working. So while the “4-hour work week” may sound great to some, it should only be sought for the financial freedom to work on what you most love or find meaningful, not to cease working at all.

One study, in particular, highlighted that the difference between those who worked 80-hour weeks and 50-hour weeks, in terms of what they accomplished in the time, amounted to 0. Those extra 30 hours were meaningless. Now, in rare occasions they might be helpful. But for those who do this regularly, it significantly lowers your effectiveness overall due to stress, fatigue, and for many, burnout. And that’s just where it starts. You can hear about our founder's personal story of struggle with that here, in a tale of two startups.

On the work-side of the continuum, 50 hours is the recommended max. Based on Jewish-sabbath keeping practices, 5 days of work in your job and 1 day of work at your home is roughly equal to these 50 hours. Considering they are the most financially successful ethnicity in the world (at a 100x higher likelihood of being billionaires), that is something worth paying attention to. The Jewish people have great wisdom in life and work.

The Rest-side of the Continuum

But as was mentioned- that is only half of the equation, and the half that far too many people talk about while ignoring the other half. The continuum of non-work is the line between “mindless indulgence” and “party hard.”

Party hard is a popular choice, especially for younger people, in their free time. If not in actual practice, at least in advocated clichés like “work hard, play hard”. What this is actually advocating is “always use up all of your energy”. To an even worse extent, much of the “play hard” can involve physically unhealthy activities on top of using up energy reserves. This can accelerate burnout because the individual who works incredibly hard does not take time to actually be refreshed outside of work.

On the other side, we have mindless indulgence. At it’s simplest form, this is TV, binging Netflix, and the infinite scroll of social media and YouTube rabbit-holes. These have the appearance of “rest” because they require very little energy to engage in. But just like how sitting all day can actually tire you out and is bad for your health, so is this mindless form of entertainment. Numerous studies link excessive digital intake, especially social media, to increased depression and anxiety. And if you were to actually pay attention to how these fill up your energy tank- you’ll notice that past a small dose or the occasional movie, they are actually detrimental.

This is not to say that you should never enjoy a party or cancel your streaming subscriptions and delete all your social media accounts (though it wouldn’t be a bad idea). Instead, it’s about moderation. Some parties can be a great way to connect and fill up your relational energy tank. Watching an episode of your newest favorite show at night can be part of a healthy routine to unwind. But it’s about healthy limits.

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Boundaries for Optimal Health & Efficiency

Ultimately what we need when looking at our work and non-work life is to create healthy boundaries to protect what we value most. To protect what truly replenishes our energy. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll find that we typically do our worst work, respond poorest in relationships, and feel the most depressed when we are fatigued. So how can we protect our energy levels?

  • 1- Devote Appropriate Attention to Each Core Area of Your Life

Our life is not just working and not-working. It is relationships, solitude, meaningful work, serving others, taking care of our bodies, learning, engaging our minds, enjoying nature, and more. It is important to remember to care for each part of your life and to not neglect the rest. It can be helpful to set goals or practices for each area of your life like work, relationships, physical health, spiritual life, and mental life.

  • 2- Give it Your All at Work, Then Unplug

When we do not fully disengage from work it can have this lingering effect that continues to drain us, much like leaving your computer on sleep mode even though you’re now using your TV- it still saps energy. Setting boundaries with bosses and staff to have a clear “off” time is key. Going so far as to just leave your phone or internet off at these times. If you work hard during the day and know you gave your best, then you can confidently unplug at the end of the day. The world will not end because you did not respond to an evening email. We have a few app suggestions, including a custom business phone app, to help create this space here.

  • 3- Set Digital Boundaries

Digital boundaries during your work day and non-work day can help improve focus and efficiency as well as overall joy in life. Think of which types of digital media sap most of your time or cause the most distraction- are they actually worth that much of your time? Using apps and extensions like StayFocusd (chrome extension), Stay Focused (phone app), Forest, News Feed Eradicator, and more you can block or limit the amount of time you spend in certain areas. Even just going so far as to delete social apps from your phone to force you to intentionally engage from a desktop will remove the habitual responses from absorbing your life.

  • 4- Create a Rule of Life

Once you’ve blocked out other things- you now get to replace that time with new things. What activities ACTUALLY give you life and energy? What if you just did nothing for a few hours or a day a week? The wise teacher Dallas Willard once said, while also quoting the famous Mathematician and Philosopher Blaise Pascal,

One of the greatest of spiritual attainments is the capacity to do nothing. Thus the Christian philosopher Pascal insightfully remarks, “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of man arises from one single fact, that they are unable to stay quietly in their own room.”

Practices of solitude, silence, reading, enjoying nature, eating meals with friends, going for walks, these are the low-energy and high-return activities that restore us. Can you imagine how much better you’d feel if you intentionally did at least 1 restful activity each night?

A rule of life is the intentional defining of practices and boundaries to help you best enjoy your life. Think of it as living by design rather than by default. Books like The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, A Rule of Life: for Redemptive Entrepreneurs, Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, the Biblical book of Proverbs, and The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday,  are great places to start.

Truly attaining work-life balance means putting in the effort to define and shift towards the daily life that is the most filled with energy and joy. With connection and accomplishment. But this will not happen just by working more or less- it is how we work and how we rest that matters most.

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