Get On With It

Writing and drawings about work, family and the stuff in-between

Why having an imbalanced work-life balance is actually a good thing

I haven’t been devoting as much time to my work this year. Sure, I’m doing the essentials of my job, and am doing those well enough, but I’m not really pushing myself quite like I was at the end of last year.

Personal stuff is requiring a lot of headspace and that’s what I’ve been focusing on.

See, I’m one of those people that if there is some big personal priority that I need to attend to, I won’t be able to work until I address it. I can’t get it out of my mind and will just end up stewing on it until I take care of it. The same is true if I have a work priority. Any personal stuff will have to wait.

In this way, I am often “imbalanced” between my work and life from month to month, but over time I tend to get the right mix of the two so that I end up being successful-ish in both. I think this act of “counterbalancing” is ok and dare I say, optimal.

This idea is discussed in The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, where they argue that “the balanced life is a lie” and that in trying to play the middle and “attend to all things, everything gets shortchanged”.

The argument goes that while an even balance can be necessary at times, the real magic in our lives happens at the extremes.

Extremes = the times where you are giving your most important thing all your attention.
Diagram showing a life for work and a line for life zig-zagging back-and-forth along a vertical arrow.
Diagram showing a life for work and a line for life zig-zagging back-and-forth along a vertical arrow and boxes on each side with the text "exciting stuff happens here".

So why don’t more of us follow this path of extremes if it is so great? Well, focusing on one thing to the extreme is hard, for two reasons:

  1. Focusing on one thing over another means there will always be other things left undone – being ok with how uncomfortable this feels is challenging!
  2. You will have to make smart decisions about how long to be imbalanced in any one area – this requires constant calibration and awareness…again, really challenging!
Diagram showing a life for work and a line for life zig-zagging back-and-forth along a vertical arrow with the work line going farther out to the sides.

There is one other thing that makes this hard: we have to know what our priorities are before we can focus on the most important things.

When you act on your priority, you’ll automatically go out of balance, giving more time to one thing over another. The challenge then doesn’t become one of not going out of balance, for in fact you must. The challenge becomes how long you stay on your priority. To be able to address your priorities outside of work, be clear about your most important work priority so you can get it done. Then go home and be clear about your priorities there so you can get back to work. When you’re supposed to be working, work, and when you’re supposed to be playing, play. It’s a weird tightrope you’re walking, but it’s only when you get your priorities mixed up that things fall apart.

Ultimately the recommendation in the book is that you strike a different counterbalance for your work and personal life:

Whether or not to go out of balance isn’t really the question. The question is: “Do you go short or long?” In your personal life, go short and avoid long periods where you’re out of balance. Going short lets you stay connected to all the things that matter most and move them along together. In your professional life, go long and make peace with the idea that the pursuit of extraordinary results may require you to be out of balance for long periods. Going long allows you to focus on what matters most, even at the expense of other, lesser priorities. In your personal life, nothing gets left behind. At work it’s required.

In his novel Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas, James Patterson artfully highlights where our priorities lie in our personal and professional balancing act: “Imagine life is a game in which you are juggling five balls. The balls are called work, family, health, friends, and integrity. And you’re keeping all of them in the air. But one day you finally come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls—family, health, friends, integrity—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.”

Another example of this same idea was outlined in the excellent post Against Work-Life Balance:

I’m all for “work-life balance” as a slogan for labor activists. But as a personal goal, I think it’s often a mistake. The happiest people I know all tend to have work-life imbalance—but, crucially, that imbalance can go in either direction. Some are deeply devoted to their work, often at the expense of other activities. Others are focused primarily on living a good life, with their work a distant second.

Which is not to say I’ll work like this forever. There’s a sense in which I do still want work-life balance—I just want it over the course of my entire life, not in any one specific period. In the long term, I expect to oscillate between periods of intense work and intense non-work,
depending on what phase of my life I’m in. It’s essentially a barbell strategy approach: recognizing that the best way to maximize the benefits of two opposing extremes is not to find some illusory “balance” between them, but instead to get some exposure to each of them.

It’s another one of those counterintuitive life truths: the right balance isn’t about giving yourself equally to many things, it’s about giving your absolute all to just a few.

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