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Work-Life Balance

Two anvils representing work-life balance

Looks familiar

A few years ago, when I was in Japan on my honeymoon, I went out for some drinks on a Friday night with my wife and some of her old office work colleagues (she is Japanese and used to work for MUJI in Tokyo – a great brand, by the way). After a few hours of drinking and snacking in a pork themed izakaya, we all headed outside ready to move onto our next drinking establishment. Or so I thought.

“What’s next?”, I grinned eagerly like a bemused Western giant.
“Sorry,” they responded in earnest, “we have to go back to the office now”.

So at 9pm on a Friday, after having already worked a solid nine hour day, this handful of friendly salarymen piled into a cab and sped back to their office to do what I can only presume is close some urgent mega-deal and make their company another billion Yen. Or just write half-drunk emails, vomit in the office urinals and fall asleep on top of their keyboards. Either way, I admired their commitment.

Of course, the working practices of the Japanese are legendary (or infamous, depending on your point of view) and I know and appreciate their firm sense of duty more than some. Indeed, I absolutely believe that if you embrace your work, if immerse yourself in your work, if you strive to do it as perfectly and deftly as possible, then you’ll gain a huge amount of satisfaction and pleasure out of it. Just look at Jiro.

In the West though, we like to throw around the phrase ‘strong work ethic’ a lot, usually to describe the ability to suffer long working hours and a hideous, pressurised atmosphere. ‘We like to work hard and play hard’, the job ad will say and that should be the warning sign that tells you stay to far, far away. Having too great a workload to realistically deal with is not efficient, nor smart, nor even productive and a world away, I think, from dedicating yourself to perfection. The latter requires time to think, time to absorb, time to learn and time to love. I doubt even the great sushi masters of Japan would’ve benefited from someone shouting down the phone at them or smothering them with nervous pressure.

“If all you do is work, you’re unlikely to have sound judgements. Your values and decision making wind up skewed. You stop being able to decide what’s worth extra effort and what’s not.

- Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework

Curiously though, we seem to equate ‘working hard’ and the concept of balance in our lives with the number of hours we perform at the office each day. 40 hours a week seems around the norm and any more, or any less, is deemed either too little or too great. Maybe there’s some proven psychological or physical explanation for it, a golden ratio of eight hours work, eight hours rest and eight hours play. Or maybe it’s just completely arbitrary, a throwback to the Industrial Revolution when capitalism run amok and the rich and wealthy ruled over the poor and deprived. Not that that ever happens today.

All in all, I’d say I work about 45-50 hours a week right now, excluding all the time I sit in my bath tub thinking about clients or lying awake at night pondering projects. Pretty reasonable for someone who runs a business although I daresay that if you added in all the time I spent thinking about work outside of work, the figure would be a lot higher. Likewise, I’m never shy of things to do and could easily add another 10 hours or so to my working week and it’s perhaps only through the restraint of some semblance of sanity that I don’t. Truth is, we started down that path when we first started Primate and it just wasn’t either sensible or sustainable as a business in the long run.

As much as I’d say I’m driven by work, I’ve come to appreciate that there is sometimes little correlation between the amount of hours you work and the results that you produce. Working longer doesn’t necessarily mean working harder or actually generating a tangible result for the business. I’ve also come to realise that the concept of work-life balance is completely relative and that, for instance, writing content for web sites on the weekend because you enjoy it is a whole different ball game to being forced to do laborious data entry late into the night. There’s a difference between working because you want to and working because you’re forced to (or because you’re addicted to it, even).

Likewise, the concept of balance in life just boils down to what other aspects you’re prepared to trade up. Focus on work too much and you neglect your friends and family; focus on your family and you’ll sacrifice your personal development; sit around on the couch watching day time TV all day and you’ll might be relaxed and content but you’ll have very little to show for it. Ultimately, there’s no such thing as the perfect balance – only what we’re prepared to sacrifice.

Yep, that was deep.

But forgetting all the philosophy of life balance and measurements of productivity versus time, perhaps the biggest lesson I’m only starting to learn is that in order to become better at my work, I need some time away from work. I need time to think, time to plan, time to digest, time to reflect and the space to do it, away from all other work related distractions. As Espen keeps harping on about, letting ideas simmer and mature naturally in your subconscious is a key part of creativity and perhaps all you need is a couple of hours in the cinema watching Iron Man 3 to be struck by an awesome revelation (guess what I did on the weekend?). But then great psychologists and thinkers like Guy Claxton and Edward De Bono have been saying this for a while.

So it’s with some irony, I suppose, that I find myself trying to work less in order to work better. Plus taking the time to appreciate everything outside of work makes you realise why you’re doing it all in the first place.

And therefore I probably shouldn’t admit that I wrote this article at 11pm on a Sunday night.

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Author: Gordon McLachlan

Gordon is uncomfortably good looking.

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  1. Spiros Martzoukos April 29, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    This mentality of stepping back in order to become more engaged is something that, despite the insane deadlines and the 80hour workweeks in the difficult times we live, I’m happily witnessing more and more lately.
    As a person of Japanese heritage too, many times I need to remind myself that working devotedly and, in a twisted and romantic sense of self-sacrifice, above my physical limits is mostly hurting than benefitting both me and my company.

    I’m very happy that this article popped in my twitter feed tonight and I hope you find the needed balance to hone your craft, not work.

    • Gordon May 6, 2013 at 2:35 pm

      Glad you enjoyed the article, Spiros! It’s taken me a while to realise that working solidly without time to think is counterproductive – sometimes the best thoughts and ideas come from letting them simmer in your brain as you take your mind off things and do something completely unrelated!

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