Right, so at this point, you might be asking yourself why I’m all of a sudden rambling about stress and work-life balance, and why I’m doing it here on flowXRG.
To me, this site is about thinking through ways in which the world can be changed for the better, and thinking through how we go about making that happen. All of the idealism and brilliant ideas won’t help us make an impact unless we are also really good at making things happen, at affecting real change. So if we’re running around in circles, ineffectively driving ourselves to the point of frustration, exhaustion, and burnout, we’re sidelining ourselves in the pursuit of impactful change in the world.
These posts have been a long time coming, and they’ve grown out of the following personal contexts:
The rare freedom to explore different approaches to work-style that the company and boss I work for have allowed me (so, to clarify, the previous two posts were not a passive aggressive attempt at criticizing my organization). I have worked up to 80+ hours per week every week for about nine months straight, and I’ve worked as little as 30 hours per week for about nine months straight, and everything in between. My exploration of these extremes of work-life balance have a lot to do with the second context:
My name is Tyler and I’m a workaholic. I get off on all-nighters, taking on the work-load of two or three people, and the rush of delivering on an “impossible” schedule. I do find the energy and pace of high-pressure work to be rejuvenating, but I also struggle to comprehend and respect my own physical and psychological boundaries. I tend to do too much work and neglect all other aspects of my life such as friends, family, exercise, hobbies, sleep, and some of the finer points of good hygiene.
So, for the past two to three years, I have been intentionally seeking out ways to deliberately impose better balance and harmony in my life. I realized that for the most part, I wasn’t being very effective or impactful with the amount of work I was doing – I was just cranking. I was too stressed out and overloaded, too “nose to the grindstone” to be able to reflect on the Big Picture of what I was doing. I am taking a gamble that in order to be effective with my life, in order to do the big things I want to do and to actually enjoy my life, I have to impose some sort of balance in my life, and learn when to say “no” to a project and when to go outside into the sunshine and count butterflies in the grass.
So with that in mind, I want to wrap up my thoughts on work-life balance.
Numbers Are Meaningless
There is no chart that you can look at that will tell you if you are working too much or not. There is nothing magical about working 40 hours a week, or 60, or 20 (or 4 if you are Tim Ferriss).
Every single person is different, and even if they weren’t, every single person’s situation is different. Some people can handle only a little bit of stress before they start going off the rails. Some people thrive on stress, and they can just soak up intense situations with a smile and a cheerful attitude and keep going.
The type of work some people do is inherently stressful. Some people’s daily tasks are as stressful as a game of frisbee. Some people’s jobs are way less stressful than their home situation.
Some work you can do all day long in a state of flow, while some types of work you can only get a little bit in before your brain turns to mush. Neil Stephenson, one of my favorite authors, says that he writes for two hours a day. If he tries to write longer, his writing turns to crap, and the next day he’ll have to spend time going back and fixing it. So he just writes two hours a day and then goes and does other stuff.
And of course, just because working 16 hour days every day is typically unhealthy doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with doing it occasionally. Sometimes inspiration strikes. Sometimes deadlines are really important to hit and you just have to suck it up and make it happen. That is part of the fun of life, the dynamicism and the challenges and the horror stories we laugh about after the fact. That’s all okay.
The challenge is to figure out what works for you, what your authentic and genuine balance is. And I can’t overstate how hard it is to do that.
Silicon Valley Syndrome
I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, and most of us are insane here. The Silicon Valley status quo of overwork permeates just about every facet of culture here. People one-up each other humble bragging about how little they sleep, how many all-nighters they’ve pulled in the last month, how long it’s been since they took a vacation.
The most pernicious thing about the overwork culture here is that it isn’t managers figuring out devious ways to trick people into working longer. It’s the culture. People drive themselves to work more because it’s the norm. Social cues and expectations have somehow evolved into this dead-end trajectory of a suicidally brutal work ethic.
The most overworked people in our culture are people who aren’t told how much they have to work. They are people who work at “cool” companies with massage parlors and foosball tables, who are told that they can make their own hours and work from home a lot. The people with the most insane hours work at the startups and the tech companies, but that culture of insane work load has oozed into peripheral industries and most people now follow suit to some extent or another.
You Can’t Solve a Problem with the Same Sort of Thinking That Created It
If you are reading this, you are probably concerned with making the world better in some way. I’m going to hazard a guess that you agree that our world is full of destructive, ugly, dead things and forces, and I think that you have a desire to fight that ugliness and death by making something beautiful.
Do you think that you will be able to make something beautiful and living, if you are using a process that is itself dead and destructive? Do you think you will be able to make the world a functional, delightful, easeful place, if your internal world is dysfunctional, painful, and hectic?
Our industrial, consumer, virulently capitalist world is a slough of ugliness, greed, and death, and it was created with a certain kind of thinking, a certain kind of perspective on the world. You can’t solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that caused it, and we will not be able to build a world that is beautiful, egalatarian, and living, with the same kind of thinking and perspectives that built this dead one.
If we don’t make time for beauty, love, health, creativity, wonder, and unconstrained curiosity in our own lives, I don’t think we’ll able to build a world full of the same.