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The Missing Third Piece Of The Work-Life Balance Equation

Personal Improvement

Work-life balance is a good thing, right? Something worth talking about and fighting for? If so, then why does the mention of it make the skeptical hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention? There’s something wrong here.

Oh, work-life balance. I love you for you idealistic nature, I hate you for your unobtainable reality. You’re the instagram of career buzzwords.

I picture them on a see-saw. Work is on one side, life is on the other, and if you get it right, they both float in mid-air. Except they aren’t playful buddies. Together, they’re mean children who left the third child alone at recess after kicking him a bunch of times. (I might also be working through some childhood trauma these days, but my point remains valid.)

Let’s start with some definitions.

Work is, of course, your work. And life is like your family and friends and hobbies and activities. I’ve always thought of it as the same “life” as in the phrase “get a life” or “you have no life” -- the mean things girls would have said to young-me in young-me’s imagination if I had ever said hello to girls instead of what they would have actually said back, which would have be something more like, “Hello.”


If we introduce a little math here, we can say that in true work-life balance:

work units = life units.

Hope I didn’t lose you there with that complicated equation.

Over the past few years I’ve been trying to find this mythical work-life balance. But every time I try to get close to it, I become overwhelmed. It’s too much for me to have as many life units as work units. My type of work is generally, rather unfortunately, dolled out in 40-hour chunks. You might get that down to 30 or even 20 if you find the right situation and don’t need the money. But let’s say 40 hours is the standard for many of us like it or not.

That means you need to balance it with 40 hours of life. 40 hours of being with friends, or with family, or doing activities that make you “whole” or “happy” or whatever. I’m assuming it doesn’t include chores like dusting or doing laundry. No one sees someone else sorting their colors from their whites thinking, “this guy knows how to live!”

Yet 40 hours is a lot of active time. Yes, I’m being rather pedantic saying that work units and life units should match up exactly, but I’m trying to keep it relatively simple as a concept. And time spent “living” isn’t exactly tangible and is full of grey areas. For example, learning a new recipe on YouTube is totally “living” if you’re into cooking, but watching Super Mario Bros 3 speed runs while eating cheetos is essentially the same thing and yet that might be considered “living” less than doing the laundry.

Still, anywhere near 40 hours of brain-engaged “living” is too much for me. The balance just doesn’t add up. Maybe it does for those people who like to say they work hard and play hard, but whatever life quality spectrum ends with “xtreme” on one end, well, I’m on the other.

Ignoring Life Completely

For a while, not too long ago, work was everything to me. Starting a company takes all of your time and focus and you lose the ability to talk to other humans about anything else. Or at least, I did. It took more than 40 hours of my time per week, I took very few days off each year and yet I was pretty content. What I wasn’t trying to do was have any sort of balance.

What I was doing, however, was having a lot of down time. I knew I had no time for a life, I accepted that, and so it was only work and down time for me. Down time was simply sitting, recovering, doing whatever mindless thing needed to be done to get ready for the next work battle. It wasn’t just life maintenance time, like doing laundry. It was recharge time.

As I wrote 17 days ago, I’m only recently accepting and respecting my introversion. I need time alone to be creative. To process. And starting a company requires a ton of that.

Running The Numbers

Say I was doing about 60 hours per week before, then filling the rest of my life with downtime. If my work times goes from 60 hours to 40 hours, and I try to balance that with 40 hours of life, then suddenly I’m at 80 hours! That’s too much. That 20 extra hours I was trying to spend living a quality life completely killed my downtime. And suddenly it all seemed like too much. While anything less than 40 hours felt like I wasn’t achieving true balance.

“Have more fun or you’re a failure!” my mind said.

But we can fix this for someone like me if we rewrite the work-life balance equation like this:

Work units = life units + self units

Or can we? If work is 40, and life is 20 and me is 20, that works great. But what if you’re more introverted and need more me time?

Perhaps a more fitting equation if you’re trying to find balance is roughly this:

Work units = life units = self units

Whatever the exact equation is, my conclusion is this: if you’re someone who needs a lot of self time, you really need to put that into the equation. And it should go in there first. Then you have to decide how much life you’re willing to give up for work. Maybe you only have 40 hours left for both each week, so you can’t work a full time job and have a life.

You have to figure that out for yourself.

Or, feel free to ignore all the bullshit about balance even being necessary. Some of my happiest stretches of time were when I had great work, but no life at all. And vice-versa. If you can do one of those and enjoy life, then you win.

For me, it's gonna take a ton of work and experimentation to figure out what works. Because, while I know I can be happy throwing myself into my work and nothing else, I've done that plenty. And I'm aiming for something new.