This question is controversial – hence worth talking about.
Let us start by dissecting it further. When we talk about balancing work and life, we assume that they are in conflict – that one of them comes at the cost of the other. And somehow, we need to find that elusive balance.
Is that true? Or is there some warm and fuzzy ‘win-win’ solution that will make work feel not like work and automatically sort out our life?
Bad news first: For most of us, that ‘win-win’ solution is not going to happen. Most jobs are hard, and they consume energy. But the good news is that while there may be no such thing as a perfect job, there are specific things we can do to make our jobs more meaningful.
If you allow me to be a little prescriptive, here is how we should approach the problem.
1. Have absolute boundaries
While I can’t tell you how many hours you should work, consider these data points.
People who work with extreme intensity (e.g., professional musicians doing their daily practice) are totally drained after 4-5 hrs of practice. Often, they need a break – some even need a nap to recharge.
So the human ability to work with intense focus is limited to 4-5 hrs per day. That’s it. Does it mean we can’t work more than 5 hrs? Not really.
Remember, I am talking about extreme, intense focus. In fact, probably 90% plus people may not even have the opportunity to do 1 hr of focused work a day.
Typically, a lot of our daily work requires much less focus – e.g., calls, emails, short discussions with colleagues, etc. Hence, 8 hrs is quite doable and one could go up to 10 hrs. But at 12 hrs or beyond, I believe it starts becoming counter-productive. At that point, daily fatigue will set in, sap creativity, and lower morale.
So I guess 8-10 hrs is the reasonable limit, and no more than 12 hrs a day.
2. Finding flow at work
Beyond just the number of hours, we need to think about finding joy at work. And that is possible by achieving ‘flow.’
Flow is a mental state, where you get so absorbed in your task that you lose track of everything else, including the passage of time. It is a meditative state, where the mind’s default mode network quietens, and all distractions vanish. You become one with your task (I know it sounds philosophical – but it actually does happen!)
If we can find even 1-2 hrs of flow every day, it will be absolutely amazing. It will give our life meaning and joy (as long as we don’t hate our work).
So go beyond just the number of hours and see how you can incorporate flow.
3. Living in the ‘here and now’
Sometimes, more than the work-life balance, what hurts us is the inability to mentally disconnect from work.
If we are mentally distracted or worrying about work during our non-work time, we can never find balance, no matter how much or how little we have to work.
Here are a few techniques that work:
– Brain dump: Put down the worries in your head on a piece of paper and tell yourself that you will attend to them later. If something is really bothering you, assign a date/time to work on it.
– Journaling: Unlike brain dump, you can be more descriptive here – do a stream of consciousness writing, allowing your thoughts to pour out.
– Do a short meditation – try mindfulness of breath (any other technique is fine as well).
4. Break and recharge
Every couple of months (certainly once a year), take a total break from work. No email, no calls, no work conversations. Let go completely and recharge. The break doesn’t have to be long – even 4-5 days are good enough.
Taking breaks is a critical part of finding balance.
5. Controversial advice – quit toxic jobs
While all jobs are hard, a toxic job is one that causes trauma, weakens your spirit, and lowers your morale. It could be that people at work are uncaring, selfish, or harmful. Or it could be that the job itself is unethical or meaningless.
If your job saps your emotional energy, there is no work-life balance possible. Find alternatives, and when ready, quit.
I am not going to give you advice on building hobbies, finding passion outside of work, etc., since those are all true and obvious.
In summary, like the Buddha said, choose the middle path. Don’t go to either extreme. And inculcate flow and mindful presence.
Even if you don’t love your job, you can make it much more meaningful.
Good luck with everything and thank you for taking the time to read.