Thoughts on Work-Life Balance

“What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” – Bob Dylan

Scales of Justice - Frankfurt Version

Work-life balance is all the rage as a topic of discussion these days. What is it? How do you achieve it? Why is it so important?

It’s not.

I’ll wait for the frothing at the mouth folks to leave.

Okay, good.

Work-life balance isn’t important for one simple reason: chances are, either your work or your life could stand for some improvement first. Work-life imbalance typically happens because one of those two buckets is significantly out of balance. If you hate your job and hate your work all the time (not just temporarily), then work-life balance takes on greater importance because you spend a lot of your time at work wishing you weren’t at work, and resenting even a minute more on the job. The solution isn’t demanding work-life balance. It’s quitting your job and finding a better one, or finding another path in life.

Sometimes, the other unhealthy extreme occurs, where you’re not happy with your life outside of work, and work is your escape from the rest of your life. While your shareholders and investors thank you, chances are your health and well-being do not. Fix it. To use the over-used quote, there’s an app for nearly anything wrong with your life (short of actual medical conditions such as depression, for which you should see a doctor).

Either way, what’s really problematic is that one of those two meta-areas is out of balance. If you get them in balance, if you get the quality of life at work and outside of work to improve, then you don’t mind when either of the areas occasionally requires more focus.

What if you like your work and you like your life? What if the above doesn’t feel like it applies to you, but something still feels off? The other thing that can help with work-life balance: centered awareness. When you’re at work, be at work. Be present, be in the moment. As best as circumstances permit, focus on work while at work. Do the best job you can. When you’re in your life outside of work, be there. Turn off your email. Put down your work-related devices. Enjoy the time that you’re not work to the fullest. When you lack that centeredness, when you don’t enforce those boundaries carefully, then work and life intermingle and distract you from what you’re supposed to be doing at that moment. That sense of distraction, of never fully committing to anything in the moment, can diminish your appreciation of the moment.

Fundamentally, concern about work-life balance is a symptom, not a root cause. Fix the areas in your work and life that are most broken, then see how the balance feels afterwards. Ideally, constant and never-ending improvement in both work and life, from new jobs to personal growth, will help you find balance without having to seek it specifically.

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The struggle

Yesterday, in one of our team meetings at SHIFT, one staff member asked a question – and I’m paraphrasing – about what will help set someone up to be successful in their career. I wanted to share part of an answer that I gave, because I think it’s almost universally applicable.

The sign that you’re successful or on the path to being successful is to be in a constant state of challenge, a constant state of struggle. You’re constantly stepping outside of your comfort zone, challenged by new material you’re learning or ways to refine and improve what you already know.


When you feel comfortable, when you feel like you’ve got it down and you’re content to stay there, that’s when you’ve set yourself up for failure, because that’s a clear sign you’re no longer growing. In the fast-paced, ever-changing world we live it, the moment you stand still, the world races past you. The moment you’ve decided you don’t need to learn any more, don’t need to grow any more, your career is over.

I still struggle. I still struggle every day, and I do so joyfully. I struggled the other night writing a new piece of code, trying to understand how a particular API worked. I struggled yesterday trying to become minimally competent in a new piece of software. I struggle every time I get on stage to speak, to be a better speaker than I was the last time. The days I worry are the rare days when I don’t struggle, when I don’t feel worn out at the end of the day.

Now, you might say, “well, that doesn’t sound like a particularly happy life”. That’s a matter of perspective. People who love fitness are happy when they struggle at the gym or to set a new personal record in a marathon. People who love to write struggle with every blank page. If you’re struggling constantly with something you don’t like and don’t want to do, that’s a different story. Figure out what you love first, then challenge yourself in that. That’s a struggle you’ll enjoy.

Be curious. Challenge yourself. Accept that struggle should be part of every day as a sign of your growth, and be concerned if you hit a period when you realize you’re not struggling any more.

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Creativity and rock candy

Did you ever, as a kid or a parent, do the science experiment where you dissolved a bunch of sugar in water and then tried to make rock candy?

Rock candy

I’ve done it both as a kid and as a parent, and it’s gratifying either way. But here’s what I noticed as a kid and had to explain as a parent: when you place the supersaturated sugar solution in a sunny window to slowly begin evaporating, putting it in a glass with nothing else makes crystallization take a really long time, on the order of days.

When you place the solution in the same window with a pencil across the top and a bit of string in the water, crystallization happens much sooner, within hours.

When you place the solution in the same window, with the pencil and string, but you moisten the string and roll it in sugar before you dip it in the solution, crystallization happens within minutes.

The reason why is simple science: crystals grow best when they have a point to start from. The stronger that starting point, the faster they grow.

This simple truth applies to more than just kids’ science projects. Creativity works the same way. Ever stare at a blank page for minutes, not even knowing where to start? That’s the equivalent of a sugar solution with no string at all. Your ideas will crystallize much more slowly. Why wait? Put something, anything on that page or that blog post to start. Copy and paste something random out of Wikipedia. Copy and paste some tweets. But get something – anything – to be that little bit of string that your ideas can grow off of.

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