Life-Work Balance: Myth or Misconception?

Not long ago, the German carmaker Daimler gave its employees a gift– less workplace email. When a Daimler employee goes on vacation now, anyone who emails him gets an autoresponder referring the writer to another employee who’s currently on call, and then—get this—the email disappears.

Poof. Like Mission Impossible. Just evaporates.

Then, when the employee comes back from vacation, he’s not looking at seven hundred unanswered emails. “The idea behind it is to give people a break and let them rest,” said a Daimler spokesperson in an interview with Time magazine.

What Daimler’s doing might sound to you like a ridiculous idea or it might sound like your idea of workplace heaven. That’s almost beside the point. What is the point is that Daimler—and other companies—are beginning to recognize that the lines between “work” and “life” have gotten increasingly blurred, and that it’s in everyone’s interest that we try to find some balance.

So let’s talk about that for a minute.

We’re only talking about the concept of “work-life” balance because there’s an increasingly disturbing feeling out there in the community ether that our “work” life has become way too intrusive on our “real” lives. There’s an undercurrent of sadness and resignation—you can feel it when you talk to people about these things—that we no longer make any time for ourselves, and that the time we do try to make for ourselves is contaminated by constant interruptions from work-related emails and texts.

Hence the question: How do you find work-life balance?

The real issue here is not a set of firm, fast rules for how much “time” to spend on each. It’s also not to figure out exactly when you should disconnect the work phones.

The real issue is something psychologists call “agency”.

Let me explain.

“Agency” is the sense that you are in control, that you are steering the ship, that you are the “agent” responsible for what is happening in your life. People who have no sense of agency frequently feel powerless, are constantly stressed, and often wind up depressed. No wonder. A lack of agency equals powerlessness, and no one feels particularly good about that one.

I believe the overriding theme in “work-life” balance is not so much time management, but Think about it for a minute. You’re out to dinner with someone you’re trying to get to know—or do a deal with—or go to bed with—or deepen your friendship with—or any of a dozen other things—and you put your phone on the table.

It rings. It dings. It texts. “Excuse me, just have to take this for a minute”, you say. Then—“OK what were you saying again? Your mom has leukemia? Oh, I’m so sorry. Wait, excuse me, just have to take this, it’s work..”

Look, I may be exaggerating, but not by much. That phone on the table is a subtle reminder that you are NOT in charge here. You are in reactive mode, not authorship mode. You are reacting to random stimuli (an e mail–a text–something urgent at work–a new facebook posting of kittens dancing) and suddenly whatever interaction you were engaged in immediately gets bumped to second place while you deal with the latest intrusion into your personal space.

This is not what being in charge of your own life looks like. It’s what’s being a puppet looks like, even if the strings are invisible and of your own creation.

So the real issue here is not so much how you divide your time between work and play, but how you live your life—as cause or as effect.

Once you take a stand that you will be cause in the matter—whatever the matter is—things begin to shift for you. Whether you are “cause” in the matter of attending to a work emergency (and being fully present for that emergency and engaged with it), or whether you are “cause” of the matter of an intimate and quiet and uninterrupted dinner (and being fully present for that dinner and engaged with your dinner companion), it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are not at the effect of random circumstances, but that you are the author of your own experience.

Begin owning your own experience, initiating your own interactions, and choosing what—and when—to engage with. And when you do engage, engage fully. Be present. Be mindful. Be aware.

Be conscious.

If you start with that premise—that it’s all about mindful engagement with whatever you choose to be engaged with—much of the “problem” of work-life balance begins to fade away.

And a sense of personal power—of personal integrity, wholeness, and engagement—starts to emerge.

A good first start—leave your phone in your pocket when you’re having dinner.

And turn the ringer off.