Abandon the Idea of Ever Striking a Work/Life Balance

Don Tennant
Slide Show

If the Job Fits

Five questions you should ask before accepting your next IT job.

If there's one thing that just about every IT professional on the planet can identify with, it's the difficulty in striking a work/life balance. The nature of the job is such that not only is there no such thing as a 40-hour work week, there's no such thing as a week in which you really know how many hours you'll be working. So how on earth do you create a balance under those extraordinary circumstances?


According to workplace consultant and author Jon Gordon, you don't. In fact, he says, you need to throw the idea of striking a work/life balance out the window, because it's unattainable, and striving for it will lead to nothing but frustration and disappointment. Instead, Gordon advises that you think of it as establishing a natural work/life rhythm, much like the rhythm of the seasons.


Gordon, whose most recent book is "The Seed: Finding Purpose and Happiness in Life and Work," has come up with a list of seven tips on how to attain that elusive goal:


  • Let go of the work/life balance notion. Instead, think "purpose and passion." It's true that work/life balance is a topic that seems to be on many minds. But in many ways, a perfectly balanced life is a perfectly tepid life. How much balance do you think Bono has when U2 is on tour? What about an Olympic athlete preparing for a competition? Or the leadership team at Facebook? Probably not much, but their passion and purpose fuel them to work harder and longer with more joy and satisfaction in both work and life. When your goal is to achieve work/life balance, you'll be constantly disappointed and so will your loved ones. But when you approach every day with passion and purpose, whether you're working long hours to prepare an important presentation or staying up late with your daughter to work on her science project, you can find joy and happiness in whatever it is you're pursuing at that moment.
  • Look at your work/life blend over the past year. Consider it as a whole. Rather than thinking of your work and life day to day, think of it as a whole. How many times did you get away with your family last year? Were there particular weeks/months when you worked really, really long hours? Were there times you were less busy? You might find that, when viewed that way, you did have a balanced life. Or you might realize you need to make a change in the way you do things during the upcoming year. It is going to be virtually impossible to achieve complete balance every day of your life. There will simply be days and weeks when your work requires more time from you. There will also be days when your family requires more of your time. Instead of driving yourself crazy trying to achieve a work/life balance every day, look at your life on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. Schedule times to work hard, recharge, renew, play, and engage with your family and friends.
  • Identify the "seasons" in your company's workflow. In nature there's a season for everything. Spring (planting season) and fall (harvest) are times of extreme work. But there's a slowdown in the summer when plants are growing, and, of course, winter is when farmers do other things (repair work on house and equipment, etc.). Most industries/companies work this way, too. They have busy seasons (when they're getting ready for major industry events or peak sales times, for instance) and not-so-busy seasons. It might be easy for you to plan your work/home life flow around these times -- not just in terms of when you plan vacations, but also in terms of daily work hours. During the slow time, it's okay to leave a little earlier each day if you know you're going to be working long hours once busy season arrives. For me, there is a time to be on the road and a time to be at home with my family. My wife and I look at our year as a whole. We plan our schedule according to the seasons of our life, knowing that I'll be slammed in August, September, and October and slower in December and July. We plan for when I'll be working and when I'll be more engaged with the family. You can do the same. Everyone's rhythm is a little different, but when you find the right one for you and your life, you'll be able to achieve a lot more at work and at home.
  • Keep in mind your family's "seasons" too. Of course, you can't base everything on work schedules. There are times your family needs you more than others: birth of a new baby, when a child starts school, or when an older parent is having a crisis and needs you to care for him/her. At times like these, you will want to put in the family time and make it up when you can at work. Just as with your work, you can plan for some of these seasons, but other busy seasons might pop up unexpectedly-such as a sick parent. You have to be ready to adjust to the season. You have to go where you are needed. If you are worried about work at those times, you can take comfort in knowing that there will be a period when you can apply more of yourself to the job.
  • Build up a "hard work" bank account with your company. When the company needs you to really push, push hard. (And do it cheerfully.) This way, when you need to slow down the pace or take time off, they'll be willing to work with you. Think of it as making deposits into a bank account. By willingly and happily accepting the challenge of a difficult project or client or by working long hours to meet an important deadline, you make deposits in the company's "hard work" bank account. When you need to make a withdrawal, whether it's for a family emergency or just a much-needed break, you'll have plenty of goodwill with the higher-ups in your account and they won't begrudge you for taking the time off.
  • When you're at work, really engage. Fully commit to whatever you're doing at work. Don't complain-positivity goes a long way. And don't feel guilty that you are not at home. Feeling guilty is a recipe for misery and poor performance on the job and unhappiness at home. Commit fully to your season of hard work while planning for your season of rest and recharging. When you commit to your season of work, you won't be tempted to watch the clock, dreading each hour that will pass before you finally get to leave work for the day. You'll be more successful at work and feel more fulfilled.
  • When you're at home, really BE at home. Throw yourself into those precious family relationships. Don't spend family time thinking about work or zoning out in front of the TV or computer. It's not about the amount of time we spend with our families. It's about how engaged we are during the time we do have with them. When you focus on planning your life around the rhythms of work and home, you have to be fully committed to the demands of the specific season. So when you're in a family season, don't constantly check your BlackBerry. Don't take work calls during dinner. Devote as much of yourself as possible to your family. Use the time that you wouldn't get to spend with them if you were in a work season to do something special. Read to your child each night. Take your family on a surprise weekend trip. When you live your non-work season to the fullest, you'll be all the more motivated to give 110 percent when you're at work.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Sep 14, 2011 5:58 PM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says:

The IT industry convinced Congress around 20 years ago to classify all IT workers as management, and exempt from overtime.  This is why I'm a consultant and do corp-to-corp only.  I don't earn time and a half, but I bill for every hour I work.  I take care of my own insurance, which I'm happy to do.

The best way to achieve a work-life balance is to abolish this silly overtime exemption law and for there to be shared pain.  A worker's pain is the unusual hours they must devote to work and be away from their family, but the company should feel financial pain.  If there is no shared pain, there can not be a balance.  Employers should feel financial pain when they work their employees over 40 hours a week.

We are labor for hire and renting our time and experience, and there are some companies who have no problem pushing their salaried employees 60-70 hours a week with no additional compensation.  This is fundamentally wrong.

I have a passion for what I do, but I also have a passion for my family and watching my kids grow up.  I find myself working 60-70 hours a week only when absolutely necessary, and usually it is because we did something wrong in terms of project management.  It's the exception and not the rule.  Fortunately I always get paid for this additional time.  I'm rarely pushed to work that many hours because there is a price to be paid.

If we want to create more IT jobs, simply abolish the law classifying all IT workers as exempt from overtime.  People will get their lives back, and more people will need to be hired to do labor that they were getting for free - no I mean labor that they were legally STEALING.  Consulting firms are especially shameful here.  They will bill their clients regular rates, while paying their consultants nothing. 

I agree with many of the points you cited Don, but I don't think companies have a great enough incentive to provide a work-life balance to begin with.  Force them to pay for all hours worked, and then there is an added incentive.

Sep 15, 2011 2:42 PM Dolores Dolores  says: in response to R. Lawson

I'm not sure what you mean. I work for a private company now, and have to fill out a time sheet that accounts for overtime. When I worked in the government, most IT workers were of a rank that was eligible for overtime. About half the IT ranks in the classified employment system of my state are overtime-eligible even now.

Sep 15, 2011 4:27 PM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says: in response to Dolores

I think California may have a state law protecting OT for IT workers.  Every state I've worked in, we are not eligible. 

Government may be different.  I'm only speaking in regards to private industry.  It is very common to classify IT workers as exempt from OT and work them over 40 hours a week - essentially you have workers that don't manage people, but being treated as managers. 

Some companies will give you something extra for working over 40 (like a bonus) but it has never come out to be anything close to what the equivilant hourly rate would be.

I think we would create hundreds of thousands of jobs almost over night if we stopped classifying IT workers as exempt from overtime.  The work load in IT hasn't really changed - so all the people that weren't let go during the recession are essentially carrying the weight of all the people who were - and many are working over 40 hours a week (with no compensation) to achieve that.

I see it as legalized theft.  Labor rights in this country has been placed on the back burner for a very long time and I am surprised there are so little complaints about the overtime issue.  That time we spend working for free could be spent training and learning new skills, with our kids, or doing something entrepreneurial.

I don't get it how people think that the CEO earning hundreds of millions - good capitalism.  The worker wanting a bigger slice - just greedy.  Of course, people also place high value on a green piece of paper backed solely by a promise from a government that routinely breaks promises - so anything is possible.

Sep 15, 2011 4:40 PM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says: in response to Dolores

Actually, I just did some further research.  It appears that many companies are misclassifying employees and the DOL believes they are entitled.

This is very common in IT.  Don - can you put up a survey on this website?  I have a few simple questions:

1) Are you an IT worker in a non-managerial role? 

2) Are you paid for hours worked over 40 hours a week at a rate equal to or greater than your hourly pay or equivalent hourly pay if on a salary?

3) What state do you work in?

3) What is your job title?

Sep 15, 2011 4:49 PM Wakjob Wakjob  says:


This is why Silicon Valley was built by and used to be run by nerds and freaks - we had no life and thus had time to spend 70 hours a week on this stuff.

That's also why:

Pretty people

Married people

Familiy-oriented people (Chinese and Indians come to mind)

don't make good IT workers - they can't put the time in - they have too many other distractions.

Yet today Silicon Valley seems to be all about how hip you are and what you look like, not what you can produce.

Here's to the misfits

The crazy ones

Sep 16, 2011 6:16 PM Chris Clement Chris Clement  says: in response to R. Lawson

Most of my IT career was "exempt from overtime". They actually made us proud of it rather than being part of the (lowly) "bargaining unit" (linesmen, etc.). I feel so used now. What a rip! Management!? Ha! Like we really had any say in anything, even technical decision making. They will get what they pay for now. Backdoor code planted by terrorist associates. I loved the work when I started but they (mgmt) turned it into a hellhole.  

Sep 17, 2011 5:18 PM Roy Lawson Roy Lawson  says: in response to Chris Clement

"They actually made us proud of it rather than being part of the (lowly) "bargaining unit" (linesmen, etc.)."

I'm not a religious person myself, but I do find it interesting how a predominantly Christian society allows themselves to so frequently become victim of one of the 7 deadliest sins.  I would not be prideful of being the sucker in any business relationship.

In any event, if we want to create millions of jobs overnight we can do that by simply requiring any employee who is not a principal (investor or significant ownership position in a company) to be paid for every hour worked.

There are many ways for this government to create jobs in this country - simply by requiring fundamental fairness.  For a "capitalist" nation, requiring people to work without pay doesn't seem very capitalistic to me.  Seem more like slavery.

Sep 19, 2011 7:50 PM Sara Sara  says:

Life balance expert, Renee Trudeau, defines balance as "having enough time, energy and resources for those things in life that are most important to you." Here's a recent post of hers along these lines: http://mothersguide.blogspot.com/2011/09/practice.html

Sep 20, 2011 12:02 PM Elizabeth Elizabeth  says:

I like this article and it makes sense to not set yourself up for unrealistic expectations based on the type of work that you've committed yourself to but with that said, at least one point here does not work in real life. The pointer of banking hours for working late - two things on this - this does not always work here. In most cases, we will have team members work consistently late several weeks in a row or through the weekends and they are compensated with a free day or two off. In most cases, these team members already have vacation time accrued and don't need the free time off. On top of that, these team members are salary based. Most have accrued vacation because they can't take the time off due to the current projects at hand, so the compensated time off is of no benefit. In project down time, when these employees want to take an extended vacation, such as two to three weeks, it is frowned upon. Basically, the banking of time doesn't work, at least not in this company.


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