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Forget Work-Life Balance. The Question is Rest Versus Effort.

Work penetrates every aspect of our life, so how do you strike a work-life balance?  Personally, I’m terrible at it.  I have absolutely no balance.  My life and my work life are one in the same.  I think about experiments every time I meet people.  I do experiments all the time.  So I’m not an expert on it and I think I also probably have gone a little bit too far in this extremeness.  

I also think we don’t know a lot about it.  We don’t know exactly what is the right work-life balance.  Work-life balance means that these are two separate aspects of ourselves, but what if they are not?  What if, like me, everything I do in life is part of research? Even when I play with my kids, I think about research.  And even when I talk to my wife about where to go on vacation, we think about what are the things that we know from behavioral economics which will inform what vacations we should be going to and not going to.  

So, I think the question maybe is not so much work-life balance, but the question is rest versus effort.  And I think maybe that’s a better way to think about it.  So, I think we have a tendency to fill our calendar with meetings after meetings and tasks after tasks and what we don’t have is we don’t have time to actually reflect and think and contemplate.  Maybe do other things and think in the back of our minds.  And maybe we don’t have time to exercise; maybe we don’t have time to expand our horizon, to try different things.  So maybe a way to think about it is not work-life balance, but to think about how much time do we get to execute things versus how much time do we get to think about things that might turn out to be useful in the long run and are kind of investment in our own development.  Investment in our broader sense of what we can do and investment in our hobbies and in other things that contribute to us being more interesting and thoughtful people in the long run, but not have a payoff right now.  

And that I think is a very interesting and very tricky question because we have what we call a present bias focus.  It’s very easy to focus on what’s in front of us today, I can see the hundreds of emails that are waiting for me, I can see the papers that are waiting for me to review, I see the things I need to grade for my students.  Those things are very easy to see and very easy to get sucked into and only do them and the fact that I really wanted to take some painting lessons in the future and I think it will be interesting are kind of pushed over into the future.  And the fact that I want to try a new dish or a new restaurant or try something else; these are pushed to the future.  And the question is, how do we blend those things that include family life, but also include personal growth?  How do we space them more into our lives?    I think that’s a very big challenge.  

And I suspect that one answer to this is the calendar.  The calendar is my most hated application.  And the reason I hate this application is that because the way it’s created is that blank spaces are spaces where we have nothing to do.  You open your calendar and you see a blank space and that seems like it’s the wrong thing to do, so you quickly fill it up with an appointment.  The reality is that blank spaces are really spaces where you’re supposed to do the most meaningful work you have.  It’s the other things that are filled that are the distractions.  

But the calendar application doesn’t represent this tradeoff.  It doesn’t show us that if I have another meeting, what am I giving up?  Of course, it doesn’t do it in the short term; it doesn’t do it in the long term.  So open my calendar for tomorrow and I have two empty hours, somebody wants to meet, I say, “Oh, that’s great.”  But I’m not really seeing what are the things that I’m giving up.  What are the things I’m not able to do?  The calendar don’t represent the alternative usage for time.  And because of that, I think the calendar is actually making us increase this natural tendency we have to focus on now and forego other thing.  And maybe what we need to do is we need to create a kind of calendar application that help us think about longer term goals and help us understand what are we giving up when we are taking an hour of free time and substituting it with a meeting.

 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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