The Variable in Work Life Balance

If you watch Lost and are current, you know that the “Variable” is extremely important.  As Daniel Faraday says, “we spend way too much time trying to figure out the constants – we need to pay more attention to the variables.”

On Saturday I was at the Nantucket Conference (the 10th one.)  I did not have a great time getting there (note to self – you get seasick even on the high speed boat thing) but I had a great time hanging out, participating (I was on the VC panel), seeing a bunch of people I hadn’t seen for a while, and meeting some new ones.

At the lobster dinner, Josh Kopelman (who was on the VC panel with me) grabbed a few minutes to go sit in a corner and catch up on Gnip – one of the companies we are both investors in.  A crowd developed and our conversation eventually turned to Work Life Balance. Josh made a comment and provided me with an insight I’d never considered before.  Josh lives in Philly but spends a bunch of time in the bay area and other places.  He was describing his typical “red eye” flight pattern – early Monday morning flight to the bay area, work like a dog, redeye home on Thursday night – chill with the family on Friday through Sunday.  Repeat.  His defined his unit of “work life balance periodicity” as “a week”.  Basically – four days of incredibly intense work followed by three days dominated by time with his family (although plenty of email during these three days.)

I described my tempo (which I’ve blogged about before in The Rhythms of My Life. I have daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually, and decadal periodicities, although the quarterly one dominates.  Anyone that knows me knows that I work intensely for long stretches – usually measured in weeks or months – and then crash.  I use my quarterly vacation as my main recovery period (totally disconnected from the world for a week – no phone, no email – just me and Amy somewhere on the planet together.)  I’ve gotten better about not overrunning my limits and “breaking”, although I’ve had two nasty colds this winter that are a signal to me that I’m overdoing it on the quarterly cycle (e.g. I need more rest on a shorter periodicity.)

As part of this discussion, Josh and I realized the huge generational shift that’s going on.  The natural “work cycle” used to be a steady one until you retired.  Once you retired, you ended up having the “play / relax” part of life until you died.  So work cycle begins around 22 (earlier for some ) and continued until somewhere between 55 and 65.  You then retire.  The assumption was that your retirement time will balance our your work time.  Unless you misjudged a critical variable – the date that you die.  If you die at 47, you never got the retirement part.  If you die at 102, you got a whole lot of ~work, which might be good, or might be ~good.

The variable matters a lot. Having the “retirement constant” causes your chance of having healthy work life balance to be low.  If you move the constant into something like weekly, monthly, or quarterly, you’ve got a lot better shot of maintaining the balance, and adjusting things if you get out of balance.

Don’t forget the variables.

  • Unless of course you are Sir Barnes Wallace ( , who, legend has it, predicted the date of his own death.

  • Hands-on dog ownership is an excellent way to introduce play constants. My dogs will generously allow me 1-3 days of intense work with short bursts of walking, playing, and affection, but if we don't go sheep herding, play ball off leash at a large park, or go on an outdoor adventure together to tire their minds and their bodies, they will pester me until we do or find ways to entertain themselves (i.e., wreak havoc). My dogs help me make sure that I don't neglect real play, in a generally loveable way.

  • Phil Weiser

    I am still trying to make sense of the Faraday message from Lost , but that's a puzzle–along with other work-life balance issues–that I'll look forward to discussing with you on June 10th, see

  • David Locke

    Retirement is now distributed between jobs. You even need work-life balance through those retirements.

    Look for a job only Monday through Friday. I used to look every day.

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  • DaveJ

    Your point about generational change misses something, which is that most people who had a regular-ol' career age 22-65 also have regular-ol' jobs where they only work 9-5, never on weekends, and get 3-6 weeks of vacation a year. So the work portion is not nearly as intense and their cycle is also daily/weekly, thus they are not really deferring play/gratification until retirement.

  • Always such an interesting topic. The characterization definitely reflects my reality, but as DaveJ points out, the masses, are still on 9-5 clock-punching tracks. In those situations, 3-6 weeks of disconnected vacation per year are indeed the norm, and often provide enough "balance" to provide those "breaks" during the year to catch your breath.

    If you're not 9-5'ing it, the balance is rough. Add in a spouse and children, and it gets that much harder. No silver bullets here… everyone's balance (or lack-thereof) is their own personal gig. That said, I think something more significant is causing a mass re-think on "retirement." Namely, the death of the pension.

    Whether or not pensions ever worked, given their powerful ability to bankrupt industries that relied on them, is a separate discussion. The more relevant one however is the shift from company committed retirement (pensions, retirement dates, etc), to employee controlled funds (401ks). Now that more employees are in control of their "retirement dollars" the dynamic has completely; some for the better, some for the worse. Sadly, human nature prevents most folks from contributing meaningful amounts to their 401k.

    Add in the death of social security funds, and the whole model's turned upside down.

    What I extracted from your post was "the individual is responsible for ensuring the balance." Reliance on outside forces (social security, pensions, the company vacation policy, etc) is a losing bet these days. It is indeed up to each individual to define balance, and ensure they establish it.

    • “The individual is responsible for ensuring the balance” is a great thing to take from this post (and others that I’ve done on work life balance).  Nicely done.

  • Jon Van V.

    I know plenty of people who say they won't retire despite having the funds to do so. Of course I also know people who can't retire because they never bothered to save for it.

    For me, my work/life balance is I work at work and live at home. The only work that is allowed to follow me home is school work, and I'm generally able to take care of most of that at work. I may put in 10 hour days on a regular basis, but my family knows that when I'm home I am all theirs. So, my work/life unit variable is a day, I don't want to look up one day and see my 3 year old is now 18 and I missed all of it.

    However, I don't feel I will ever retire, even if I am blessed with the means to retire, because my wife won't let me stay home all day if she is there. I work with engineers/entrepreneurs who could/should be retired but can't stop playing this game, even if some of it is part time. My father and his friends, all in professional self-employed fields, only seem to retire if they feel they are physically unable to continue.

    Anyway, my 2 cents.

    • Superb explanation.  I think a daily unit is a great one for many people, but often very hard to maintain.

  • Is this really a "huge generational shift"? Just look at the following list of billionaires who are still working:

    David Murdock 4/10/1923 86
    Sheldon Adelson 8/4/1933 75
    Warren Buffet 8/30/1930 78
    Charlie Munger 1/1/1924 85
    Rupert Murdoch 3/11/1931 78

    Most of them probably would never retire. I don't know how these people balance work and life, but I think they all enjoy what they do. My goal in life is to never retire, but continue to work on things I truly care about and continue to contribute to the society even when I'm really old. To do that, I'd need to find my own work/life balance and maintain very high fitness/energy level throughout my life.


    • I don’t think billionaire is the appropriate measurement set.  That said, I expect at least three of them (Buffet, Munger, Murdoch) love what they do and how they do it.  I don’t know about the other ones.  Your comment below is perfect – I hope to also work on things I truly care about and continue to contribute to society until they plant me in the ground.

  • Brad, always insightful. We actually had courses on work/life balance at Intel and, these days, I find the thought humorous as I keep coming back to the quote: "do something you love to do and you'll never work a day in your life…". I love being a VC and do not consider what I do as work. As for how I balance the 24 hours I get every day, it is a blend of family/friends/fund/other stuff/sleep that I try to mentally track on a daily basis (as hard as that sometimes is). I have found that I can "optimize" my schedule based on how I spend my time on "other stuff" (e.g., eating, reading, exercising, etc.). I try to incorporate family/friends/fund into as much "other stuff" as I can and never have a dull day. Anyway, good to see you in Boston.

  • during the week, i work intensely from 5am to 7pm, then crash, and then do it again every day until friday evening

    then i try to work less on the weekends, and sometimes succeed at that

    • Yup – you clearly have a daily rhythm and a weekly rhythm.  Now all you’ve got to find is that monthly rhythm.

  • Perry

    Time spent on weekends Twittering and Emailing are interesting "conflict fodder" in the balance equation in my experience. As my wife engages more on Facebook and Twitter, I find that the "work time" I spend doing this on weekends is more understood and accepted.

    Any suggestions on how to hook her on cap tables and IP agreements 😉

  • DaveB

    DaveJ has a key point about the vast majority of the workforce having daily periodicity; Fred Wilson's is perhaps even characteristic of a very driven microcosm of the workforce, dedicated to longer hours of fierce intensity. But in an age of technology such as we have, it seems a paradox that such massive amounts of travel – and inherent loss of productivity during travel time – are still the norm for transacting business. Perhaps more extensive (and effective) use of such technologies could be of benefit for both work-life balance and productivity.

  • Brad,

    An excellent insight into balance…ultimately the scope that you consider has an impact.


    It is true that people have weekends, vacations, etc., but what really counts is their own psychology. I know many people who dream wistfully of the day they leave banking or retire. That mindset means their weekends/vacations aren't providing balance.

    Balance is subjective, not objective. Each person should seek the rhythm and approach that delivers the best subjective balance for the least objective cost.

  • Eliot Jacobsen

    The "Variable" for me in work/life balance is Depth. There's only so much time in the day. During some of that I must sleep, eat, dress, and sometimes drive. The balance of time is divided between work, family, service and personal time. Imagine all these as slices of a 24 hour pie. How to make it all fit? Depth. Depth is genuine presence, commitment and connection to the people and task at hand. Often we get so busy that we're flitting across our days like a stone skipping across the water. I saw this in my life and decided to pause and GO DEEP, making each moment meaningful. Suddenly, I wasn't thinking about the next appointment or meeting or how late I was going to be, but rather BEING right there, seeing, connecting, sharing, building, driving, caring, loving. What a difference depth makes.

  • I’m really good at knowing where things are in my house even if I didn’t put them there. I don’t know if it’s because I subconsciously remember where things are when I see them, or if I can unknowingly process the motivations and potential outcomes of my family members. I found a tape measure in the fridge, the cable bill in the garbage, and my daughters doll behind the toilet… and that was the first place I looked.

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