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Posted by on Aug 26, 2013 in Featured, Leadership | 26 comments

Work-Life Balance Versus Flow

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There’s something we here at Switch and Shift discuss frequently when we meet offline. It’s an insight I first learned from my co-founder, Shawn Murphy: one of many things he’s taught me in the past several years. The lesson may be simplistic, but there’s nothing simple-minded about it. It’s vitally important to anyone’s happiness, and too few of us understand it.

The lesson is this: When we discuss work-life balance, we are tacitly stating that work is not part of our “lives.” That work is a chore to be tolerated because we must do it, because we weren’t born rich and we haven’t won the lottery yet. That work is the price we pay to have a life on the weekends and vacation two or three weeks a year.

How does that sound to you? Does that sound like a trade-off you’re willing to make, or one you have to make because you have no alternative, because that’s just the way it is?

When we discuss work-life balance, we are tacitly stating that work is not part of our “lives.”

Leaders, is this the outlook you hope your team holds about your time together? “I’m putting my time in all week so I can live a little on the weekend?”

Maybe you think this is just the way it has to be. And maybe it is. But I’m not convinced.

The other night I was speaking with a new member at our biweekly Technology Entrepreneurs of Naples meeting. He told me he has a day job as a developer, but that, at home, he and some friends are developing a new app together. His eyes lit up as he was talking about it.

Another guy, an investor, asked him how he was going to monetize it.

“Oh, we don’t really care about that,” the first guy said. “There are so many apps out there that don’t make money. We’re just going to make it available for free – ”

“Oh, freemium!” the second man said. “That’s smart!”

“No,” the developer replied. “We haven’t really thought about making money from it. If it takes off, we’ll think about that. It’s just fun to make apps with your friends. And it’s good to keep your skills sharp too, I guess….”

I have no idea of the quality of the app developer’s work, and I also don’t have a business that needs a developer right now anyway. But I love this guy, and if I were hiring for his skill set, let me tell you, he’d make my short list for sure!

So back to the fallacy of work-life balance. Are you in a line of work that is so fascinating to you, so “fun,” that you choose to do it more when you get home? That’s called flow, that joy of work that inspires you to lose track of time, to keep going and going, getting energy from your work (or hobby) versus burning your energy up. Flow is where we all should be, and where some of us dwell when we work.

Are you in a line of work that is so fascinating to you, so “fun,” that you choose to do it more when you get home?

Flow trumps work-life balance every time, because you know what? Good luck finding that balance anyway! If you don’t take joy in the work that you do, it drains you of vitality. It also dominates your calendar, so all you have energy for each night is a few hours of mind-numbing TV before bed; a Saturday of recuperation; a whole week to detox before you can enjoy your vacation. I am speaking from years of experience. Is this your experience as well?

If you don’t take joy in the work that you do, it drains you of vitality.

And leaders, does the work your employees do excite them the way the developer’s work clearly does? If not, what changes do you have to make that will turn their work from soul-quashing drudgery into adventure?

Work-life balance is a crock. It’s unbalanced. What are you going to do about that?

Art courtesy of Jacek

 

Ted Coiné

Ted Coiné

Ted Coiné is co-founder/CEO of http://switchandshift.com, where he is host of Switch and Shift TV, weekly interviews with extraordinary thinkers focusing on the human side of business. One of the most influential business experts on the Web, Ted has been top-ranked by Forbes and Huffington Post for his leadership and social media influence. An inspirational speaker and author, his latest book, A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive will hit bookstores August, 2014. Ted consults with owners, CEOs and boards of directors on modern corporate strategy. He and his family live in Naples, Florida, where Ted is active in the local tech startup community.

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  • http://www.relationshipsmatternow.com Denise W. Barreto

    Love this perspective. Personally, I don’t even use the terminology – work/life balance. For me, it is similar to your thought of flow but I use the term integration. How do I integrate my life for the many roles I have – wife, mom, marketer, public servant, in that order. What can I do to move seamlessly btwn roles doing the least amount of damage? That is the question, I challenge myself with daily and challenge people who trust me to lead them. I don’t expect to be all those roles well at all times. I do, however, strive to give my best to each and focus to each when it is necessary. Thanks for the post.

    • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

      Denise, VERY well said – I especially like that order: looks like your priorities are straight. “Integration” is a great way of phrasing it, so the work in our lives and the family, the restful play and the challenging play all work together as one. Thanks for giving me a new arrow for my teaching-quiver.

  • http://www.worklifenation.com JudyMartin

    Ted,
    Flow to me is the best way to navigate what i call the work-life merge. It never made sense to me to separate work and life. We are inherently human beings with a depth that goes beyond the simplicity of defining our lives as either – or. Our joy, our pain our purpose, our perspective in every facet of our lives whether at work or play must be integrated to bring our full beauty to the table on any project, in any meeting in any moment. Full integration is the undercurrent of the flow I believe from which all creativity arises. Thanks for sharing your perspective. Enjoying this blog more and more. @judymartin8

    • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

      Judy, that’s a great point – one big benefit of good integration and flow is to strengthen our higher-order thinking, our creativity, throughout the many roles we play each day.

      Really glad you’re finding your home among us, Judy! I know from your own writing, you belong here ;)

  • Achim Nowak

    Work-Life-Balance is a misnomer, isn’t it? Work IS life. Life IS life. And life is sometimes a whole lot of work. And who decides what balance should look and feel like, anyway? I am with you, mate. I vote for flow. AWESOME post!!!

    • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

      Thanks Achim. “Life is sometimes a whole lot of work” – so true! Like when your kids are fighting or you’re stuck in traffic on the way to the beach. At times like that, send me back to the office, PLEASE!

  • ayeletb

    So agree with this thinking. Work-life balance is a myth. Old world organizations would like to see people working and available when they need them. There is so much fear in the workplace that people continue to seek a balance that does not exist. At the end of the day it is about the choices we make and the hardest question we need to ask ourselves is “who am I?” Some of us are choosing to divorce ourselves from our jobs and not always define ourselves by what we do. Why do we talk so much about whole foods and yet we come up with “work-life balance” instead of talking about whole people?

    • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

      Ayelet, what a GREAT insight: you’re absolutely right! “Whole people.” I’ll tell you, as someone who has spent more time with workaholics than anyone should (and who has worked a bit more himself than anyone should, at some times in my career), I’ll take a whole person over a one-track one every single time! The funny thing is, “old world organizations” that seek to monopolize their employees’ time end up with one-dimensional employees who have no non-work experiences to draw upon when creativity is required. Karma.

  • John Bennett

    Agree with the thought to a point!!! Cannot allow “flow” away from work impact joy of family and friends – and the responsibilities they deserve from you.

    • http://www.switchandshift.com/ Shawn Murphy

      John, the one thing I’d add is that flow is about peak performance. And we are most certainly not at peak performance when our family and friends are adversely impacted by amount of time we spend at work.

      • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

        I agree with you both, for sure. I’ve gotten lost in my work, only to stick my head up and realize I haven’t eaten in way too long, haven’t slept and now it’s near dawn, haven’t paid any attention to my bride and now she’s miserable… no matter the topic, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, even flow. Sacrificing all in pursuit of a single object is unsustainable.

        • Greg Marcus

          “sacrificing all in pursuit of a single object” – This is a modern form of idolatry. When the single object is “what’s best for the company” I call it corporate idolatry.

  • http://www.douglaserice.com/ Douglas E Rice

    I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly. Work-life balance is an invention of the industrial revolution. That revolution has ended for most of us. Scientific management is so last business paradigm. The great enterprises are now realizing that they need to tap into their workers’ creativity if they want to get results.

    Curiously enough, I’m actually reading Csikszentmihalyi’s book right now. Brilliant stuff. And that’s a great way to determine whether or not you’re in the right line of work. If you want to do more of it when you get home, you’re in the right line of work. We need to focus less on work-life balance and more on work-life integration.

    • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

      Douglas, regarding your choice of reading matter: experience has taught me there are fewer coincidences in life than I used to think…. It’s almost uncanny sometimes.

      Switch and Shift is the home of “Business after the industrial revolution.” Mark Babbitt and I are writing a book on what that looks like at this very moment, as a matter of fact. So welcome home!

      • http://www.douglaserice.com/ Douglas E Rice

        Ooh, Ted Coine and Mark Babbitt? Looks like I’ll have another one to add to my list :-D

  • http://www.frymonkeys.com Alan Kay

    Agree. The need is not balance, but having a purpose and clear outcome from what you are doing. It’s near impossible to make work and life operate reasonably well, never mind perfectly. Instead, know where you are going, be ambitious, contribute, etc., and work with what’s in front of you, unpleasant surprises included.

    • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

      Well said, Alan! I especially like the point you made about having a clear purpose. How many of us don’t? Or how many of us tag our purpose onto something beyond our control, such as the favor of our boss? If you know what you’re setting out to do and you stick with it, keeping it in your sights and measuring all your activities with the question, “Does this help me realize my purpose, or is it a distraction?” then you can achieve great things in this short life.

  • Greg Marcus

    Ted – I agree, work life balance is a crock. However, my reasoning is very different. As you point out, work is a part of life. Work life balance suggests a false equivalency between the two, and it puts work first. The appropriate phrase is life balance.

    There are three parts of life that need to be in balance – work, sleep, & everything else. It is wonderful to have a job that you love, but if work is the most important thing in your life, such that it dominates your time (not enough sleep, little time with the people you care about), than your life is out of balance.

    I recently wrote a post on life balance. If interested, you can find it here. http://idolbuster.com/archives/2919

    • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

      Greg, your post (thanks for the link!) is terrific. I L-O-V-E nothing better than a thoughtful rebuttal. I commented on your site. Thanks for steering me there!

      BTW That executive you quote? Very Industrial Age/20th-Century thinking. Yikes! I know that type still abounds but folks, if you work for a boss like this, my best advice is to run, don’t walk, to the nearest exits. Bad karma is bad for business, as his stock price will reflect if it doesn’t already.

  • Greg Marcus

    I think one of the reasons that balance is out of favor is that people think of balance as something static. We need to keep that teeter totter at just the right point, and then we can put our hands in the air and cheer.
    Balance isn’t static – it moves. I think of it as someone riding a unicycle balancing a stack of spinning plates on top of a stick. (I saw someone do this at the Moulon Rouge once.) Balance requires constant adjustment and is never the same.
    And we all are different. We all face the challenge of finding the right balance for us.

    • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

      Greg, after unplugging for three glorious days of fun and play with my wife and little girls, I’m not about to tell anyone they shouldn’t do things like that – and often! A life that does not give us all of what we need (meaningful, fulfilling work, a loving family, beautiful sunny days and the peace-of-mind to appreciate them – ALL of that!) is not a life one can sustain for long, or should.

      When I think of how I worked 90-100 hour weeks building my first business, I realize that I had a lot of life balance built right into it: my wife worked with me, I loved what I did and the people I did it with (employees) and for (our students and the ethical leaders who paid to teach them English or another language), I had a tremendous amount of support in terms of a full-time babysitter for our kids and someone to keep our house clean… and on top of it all, I was younger, so the lack of sleep or down time wasn’t as tough as it would be now that I’m in my 40′s.

      • Greg Marcus

        Sounds like a great vacation Ted. I was camping with my wife and girls in the big trees. Wonderful weekend.

        The strength of the phrase Life Balance is its flexibility. For you in your twenties, life balance meant 90-100 hour weeks. At a later time in life, Life Balance means something else.

  • Lisa Shelley

    Fabulous post Ted, and such a rich dialogue! I love the concept of life balance and life integration shared by Greg, Judy and Denise. I also love Greg’s point that we are talking about a dynamic balance… How many of us have struggled to find that perfect formula only to realize it was only perfect for a brief moment in time? However, I think a really important insight is related to Alan’s comment. In the end successfully integrating your life is dependent on taking the time to really know yourself, your values, and yes, your sense of purpose. Coupling this self knowledge with a practice of mindfulness as you engage in life, allows you to be aware when an important part of your life begins to feel disconnected or out of balance, and adjust course accordingly. It’s a dance: ideally moving from one state of flow to the next as you engage in the different aspects of your life… as well as the different seasons of your life.

    Another thing to consider in this whole discussion is whether our western society and business adequately value the richness in thinking and in perspective that come from living a multi-faceted life. The old saying that “all work and no play make Jack a very dull boy,” should really say “all work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy, and therefore unlikely to contribute significantly creative or innovative thought.” It is through exposure to different stimuli… people, situations, industries, perspectives, that we see connections and generate new thinking. This is very difficult to accomplish when you don’t leave the office.

    • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

      Lisa, What powerful insight! That all work/no play issue… I’m a passionate advocate of diversity of thought, as a talisman against groupthink, and also as an essential ingredient of innovation. Unlike the pat, generic token “diversity” companies strive for in order to check the box on a legal requirement (“African American? Check. Asian. Check. LGBT? Check”), diversity of thought includes hiring some English majors to round out your engineers, some Ph.D. Psychologists to round out your MBAs – and yes, a whole lot of people who have interests outside of work! The more rich and varied our play life is, the more value we can bring back into the workplace.

      I’ve been immersed in the world of company founders for much of my career. So many are high school or college dropouts, or straight-C students, who are also fascinating autodidacts: they seek out learning opportunities in the most nonconventional of places, and soak up that learning without rest – not because it’s required to pass a test, but because various subjects grab them by the shoulders, shake them, and won’t let go! THAT leads to the diversity of thought that too many Industrial Age corporations lack.

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  • Thomas Chadd Kerr

    Excellent reminder. Thank you. We spend a third of our lives working, not loving your profession = not loving your life.

  • Thomas Chadd Kerr

    Excellent reminder. Thank you. We spend a third of our lives working, not loving your profession = not loving your life.

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