The Work Benefits of Work-Life Balance
Much has been written about the benefits of work-life balance-- more energy, more time spent with family, ability to focus on one thing at a time. And while I completely agree, most of these benefits tend to accrue to the "life" half of the balance. Meanwhile, the "work" half of the benefits tend be squishy, intangible things like "more energy" or "not feeling burnt out." While I agree strongly that these elements are crucial, they are also shockingly hard to quantify and therefore easy to dismiss.
What I write about today (mildly ironically while taking some time off at the end of the year), are clear benefits to a work environment that stresses balance: insight, planning, and revealing weaknesses.
Insight, forever associated with a Greek in a bathtub, is a beautiful feature of our minds which allows up, seemingly in a moment of rest, to connect all of the threads of the problems before us. Like Archimedes, I find insight happens best in the shower, but regardless of your preferred environment, it takes time, space and rest in order to have flashes of insight. And these moments of insight so often have changed the course of my work. Effortless and completely, an idea rushes into mind which solves the seemingly unsolvable problems of the day before. One such idea allowed me to convince others restructure the way tens of thousands of patients will receive their care.
Whenever I think about setting up conditions ripe for insight, I recall a tale from one of the many Tony Robbins series I have listened to in life. No idea if this is original Tony. He tells the story of attaching a trailer to a car and testing the lights. First, the brake lights are tested. Driver in front, passenger standing behind the trailer. Driver steps on the brakes, the lights go on, and the passenger yells out "It's working!" Next it is time for the blinkers. The driver turns on the turn signal and the passenger yells out, "It's working! It's not. It's working! It's not."
Like the blinker, not working is necessary for our mind to do its work-- to put all of the pieces together to form the as of yet unattainable whole. Only through true rest, relaxation, disconnection (not just a laundry/groceries/run your children to events day), can we understand the problems we face.
Ah the art of planning. Deciding what you are going to do ahead of time, reducing options, creating certainty where it ought not exist. Every tech-enabled, agile, millennial bone in my body rails against planning. Except for the fact that if you want to move lots of a people to the same way, you need to plan. In the absence of plans, we abuse the illusion of 24/7 availability (I have to sleep, don't know about you), and we throw endless effort at problems instead of trying a little planning.
Think about your own work environment-- does everyone wants to keep everyone on call just in case something bad happens? Are you constantly attached to your e-mail just in case something comes up? How often does something truly novel happen, and how often did someone just fail to anticipate the obvious? I can tell you the times when I am disappointed in the inability to anticipate the future far outweigh the times when I was genuinely shocked by an outcome.
Of course, not everything can be planned, and over-planning may be construed as a high form of procrastination, and of course the words of the great sage, Mike Tyson, ring in my ears: "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
That said, something magical happens every time I go away. I actually have to anticipate what might happen in the next 1-3 weeks! I have to communicate with people around me, prioritize what will happen in my absence, develop contingency plans, delegate responsibility and work, and develop cross-coverage plans for things that cannot be deferred. Here is the amazing thing (at least to me as a young manager)-- the things I delegate, never come back! People who may not have been "ready" for responsibility, suddenly perform their work with ease. And it turns out, the longer I am away, the more on edge everyone gets in advance, the better the planning and the more complete the delegation. At this point, there is probably nothing better for my teams than when I go away!
Every organization has weaknesses. Tons of em. One of the most common weaknesses is the single point of failure. The one person who absolutely, necessarily, must do what they do in order to keep the proverbial trains moving. This lone hero, unable to take time away (either due to perceived self-importance or actual importance), represents one of the greatest threats to any organization. Not because they aren't great, they are, but because the organization has built its routines around continued greatness from an lowly, fallible, sleep-requiring, virus-contracting human being.
You know these people in your organization. Maybe you are one. You always defer time off because things will break if you do. My advice? Take time off NOW. Break things NOW. Because at least there is time to plan. One day you will get sick, have a child, win a vacation, lose a loved one, or as my coach likes to say, get abducted by aliens. And where will everyone be then?Taking time off exposes under-staffing, opportunities for hiring, cross-training, and promotions that regular operations never do, and crises punish too severely.
On deeper reflection, it turns out that all three of these benefits are basically the same thing-- solutions for the the problems that plague you today, that cannot be solved by any more effort. They can only be solved by rest. Without some forcing function that causes you to look around at your surroundings, your problems will continue until one day, due to crisis, they can continue no longer. Hopefully each of you can take some time from your work for yourselves and your family. Your work depends on it! I'll leave you with this if you still are not convinced.