When it comes to time, people toss around many phrases without thinking about them. One of the most common? “You spend the majority of your waking hours at work.” For most people, this is not true. There are 168 hours in a week. If you sleep 56 (8 hours per day), that leaves 112 waking hours. You would have to work more than 56 hours per week in order to spend the majority of your waking hours at work. Most people (even most full time workers) clock fewer hours than that.
This brings us to the concept of “balance.” I am not a huge fan of the phrase work/life balance, in part because it is so nebulous. For many people, the perfect balance means working part-time, but if you work 30 hours a week, and sleep 8 hours/day, this leaves 82 waking, non-working hours. I am not sure why 30-82 seems balanced (or for that matter, 25-87, or 20-92!).
If that is one’s concept of balance, then yes, intense jobs will seem unbalanced. But I think it is possible to look at this a different way.
I discussed this at a speech I did this spring at a professional services firm known for long hours. A few people kept track of their time for me so I could see what life looked like. One of the logged weeks was quite intense (65 hours of work), and the person tracking it flagged it as such. But others were between 50-60 hours. Some discussions revealed that this range was pretty typical.
People wanted strategies for a better balance, and I am always happy to share tips and tricks, but I found people responded best to this idea: what if you tell yourself you already have the opportunity for a balanced life, given the requirements of your job? How would that change things?
For many people in that audience, working 56 hours per week was a reasonable, sustainable target. Some weeks would be over, but others would be under. With that as the target, they could think of their lives in 3 56-hour blocks. They would sleep (and perhaps brush their teeth and shower) for a total of 56 hours. They would work for 56 hours. And they would have 56 hours per week for other things.
If you think about it, 56 hours for other things is not bad. You can do a lot in 56 hours. Sometimes a good balance just involves being mindful of what can happen during those 56 hours. It would be quite possible to exercise for 3 hours (45 minutes 4x/week) and to volunteer for 2 hours, particularly if that commitment happened during a time when work matters would not generally come up (e.g. leading a Sunday school class on Sunday mornings). People noted that this firm was reasonably good about letting people keep one commitment a week. You might need to work later other nights, but if you coached a basketball team at 7 p.m. on Thursday nights, you would be able to get to that.
A life that involves exercising, and volunteering, and spending time with family or friends doesn’t sound unbalanced. It will be easier to make time for those things working 20 hours a week, but especially if a job has some flexibility, even a more intense career will not preclude them. You can have work/life balance in a 56-56-56 world. But feeling that way requires changing the story about what balance really means.
In other news: Thank you to everyone who responded to my call for time makeover subjects! I am in the process of responding to all the notes (I will get to everyone!) We are going to have some great stories on this blog over the next month or two.