I was talking recently with a group of friends about the struggles of maintaining a work/life balance. These are all hard-working married guys in their 30s and 40s who, like me, have kids and struggle to spend time with them while also spending enough time at work to finance the needs of their families.
Our search for a solution reminded me of a popular thought exercise to help people prioritize their time. “When you get to the end of your life are you going to wish you had spent more time at the office or more time with your family?” The decision making at first seems black and white. What person wouldn’t answer that of course they will wish they had spent more time with their families?
But this exercise assumes a critical assumption that is flawed. It is that “the time spent at the office which for most of us if the largest block of waking hours in our day, isn’t all that meaningful.”
I’ve come to think differently about this. If you really think you will get to the end of your life and believe that your time spent at work wasn’t meaningful and that you wished you had done less of it, then change your career! Now!
Because once we understand that when we find the right career, we can connect our talents with needs in the community to play our very fulfilling role in building society. This is what entrepreneurs do every day. They identify needs in the community and figure out how to arrange resources to meet those needs at lower costs than customers could have done on their own. And for those not interested in being entrepreneurs, working for people who understand how their business plays a pivotal role in building society can be equally meaningful. Once we understand that our work is good, there is no end to the very good work we can do!
And this creates a different type of work/life balance struggle. But through this lens the time prioritization exercise takes a different form. We should no longer use an end-of-life perspective to convince people that they should spend more time with family and not at work. Instead we should introduce a better perspective of our work, its relation to those closest to us, and its positive impact on our communities. We’ll always try to maximize impact, but we must realize that we aren’t going to solve all the problems in the world. We should solve the problems we are called to solve and realize that pushing too hard on results could damage obligations in other spheres of our life in which we are also called. And from a practical perspective, if we push too hard, we’ll often become fatigued and less effective anyway.
The exercise is one of balancing good work with good family time and realizing the limits of each and the need of financial remuneration of our work to support our families. It will always be a challenge. But at least if we get ourselves into the right type of work, we’ll be balancing two very good uses of our time and the exercise is more likely to yield the right balance.