Rethink Balance: The 56-56-56 Approach

IMG_0610When 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.

16 thoughts on “Rethink Balance: The 56-56-56 Approach

  1. That’s a great mindset shift. When I worked in an office job, I was gone from 7:30am to 6:30pm, which felt like most of my waking time, but actually tracks pretty well to your 56-56-56 split. I wish I had thought of it that way at the time!

    1. @Catherine – plenty of things can happen after 6:30 (or before 7:30) or on weekends. I think it often just feels like less time than it is because it can be hard to make mindful choices about family and leisure time.

  2. Laura,
    I think this a brilliant way of presenting the work – life balance situation i.e. with the numbers. When you lay it out like that it looks fairly balanced. You may need to include commute time somewhere which people have to think of as their time and do multitasking (read books, listen to podcasts, do the online shopping etc).
    The problem with the 56 hours of me time is that so many people waste huge chunks of it in front of the television. Then they wonder why all the seem to do is work and sleep. People have a choice and many are not making good ones.

    Thanks for the article. I am going to highlight it in my weekly newsletter as a must read this week.

  3. I think the issue for me is I don’t define balance as “equal amounts of time spent.” It’s more of equal amounts of effort or energy spent, and equal amounts of effort or energy recouped. So 56-56-56 isn’t actually particularly balanced, since a good portion of the 56 “leisure” or home time is spent on children and activities and upkeep. And 56 hours of work (or even 40, since I work from home and tally only pure work hours, not time in my office) is much denser or heavier than 56 hours of non-work waking time. Does that make sense? The mass of the activities — their mental/physical effort density, I guess — is more important than the base number of hours spent, and that’s where an “equal number of hours” discussion of balance can be unsatisfactory. All that said, I have no idea what a good number would be, except maybe 30-35 hours of work (uninterrupted for at least 3 hours at a time!) and 9 hours of sleep a night.

    1. PS I am finishing month 2 of solo parenting, school has only started for my 1st grader, not my 3yo, and I am currently in the middle of managing a particularly frustrating project with an ever-looming deadline, so. Take my comments on balance with that in mind! Perhaps balanced this week would be more like 80 hours of sleep, 40 hours completely alone by myself no one around, and 23 hours at home with my kids, and 25 hours of work where I didn’t have to depend on anyone else getting their stuff done.

    2. @Meghan – if it’s the case that “balance” is about energy spent, or how draining things feel, then I think the question is what can one do to change that equation and manage energy. Given the existence of The Toddler, non-work time is often much more draining for me than work time. I can see that if I were solo parenting, it would be even more so! When I’m working on a project I’m really into (like writing a book) I find it quite energizing.

      1. Yes, energy management is for sure the key! Right now, I’m coming to terms with that meaning getting more-than-average amounts of sleep (9-9.5 hrs a night) and figuring out where I can say no, but it’s a challenge to get it right for my current right now. I should reread 168 Hours!

  4. As someone who considers the 25-87 option more attractive, I feel the clear equal division of the 168 hours in a week neglects that not all hours are created equal. I agree with Meghan’s comments about energy levels and the activities that must happen in the leisure time. I often think of a friend of mine who worked shifts in a lab, varying from regular daytime hours to fewer long days to overnights. Each week had the same number of work hours but the other things she did with her time depended heavily on the shift pattern she was working.

  5. I love how you articulated this! Sometimes people say things to me judgmentally such as “I don’t know how you do so much. Do you ever see your family? “ I just make the most each 56. ☺

  6. This sounds great in theory. And yet at least for me a tripartite system really wouldn’t work to achieve ‘balance’ (or whatever you want to call it!). Perhaps four (or even five): work (both paid and domestic), relationships/family, self-care/real leisure, sleep. I wouldn’t expect, or want, to spend equal amounts of time on them. There’s also a lot of life stuff, like taking care of a home, transporting children, etc, that needs to fit in there somewhere…

  7. Great article! I’ve recently been trying to balance (if you want to call it that) my activities across a month rather than a week. It’s a lot harder to say “I am going to blog twice this month” than it is to say I am going to do the same thing every Wednesday at 2:00; it seems to take a lot more planning. Just for this month, I made a calendar to see what was reasonable with existing commitments, and am seeing how I do with it. For me, with a 10 month old, like others have said – a lot of the ‘leisure’ 56 hours in a given week are something else not-leisure, even after outsourcing a good bit of the cleaning and having a participative husband and simplifying a lot. Still, I really love and appreciate the reminder that I have a lot of time to work with and it’s all about choices. I might have a cumulative 50-100 hours in a month right now for leisure (ooh- sounds like a time tracking project to see exactly how much) and that is a good bit!!

    1. @By – exactly. Even if it’s “just” 50 hours a month, it’s a reasonable chunk if used well and for pleasurable activities. So many people claim to have zero leisure time, which is generally not going to be true. It’s often that available leisure time is not actually used on things that are fun and restorative, but that’s not the same as completely lacking time.
      And I wouldn’t classify the other 56 as “leisure” — more just that it’s available for other things. Down time, yes, but also family time and anything else you need to get to.

  8. I think your accounting is far too unrealistic. In what world does a working professional with a family just “stop work”, both physically and emotionally, and is off starting another activity with other physical and emotional circumstances? Seems far too simple and, in my mind, contributes to unrealistic “productivity” expectations that are, in large majority, the problem.

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