It’s not always about balance

When I was talking with a friend recently about our start-up, we were discussing a bunch of items that need to get done. And how would we manage to do them all? I replied something about balance, and my friend, rightfully so, said no, it’s not balance, that’s not the right word. Which lead me to think about this more afterwards.

We often talk about the work-life balance. Or, in the case of the start-up and grad school, I’ve been talking/thinking about the work-work balance (there’s no time for life). And the problem about always thinking of tasks in terms of balance, is that the idea of balance is predicated on the fact that you can give or take from both sides of the equation. You give up life time to do work, or vice versa. However, many tasks that we have to “balance” don’t allow us to do that.

For example, I need to finish writing my dissertation (2 chapters done last week, 4 to go) and I also need to do bug testing on the start-up. Both of these tasks must be done. I am not in a position where I can afford to give from one of them. I can’t have the chapters take longer to write in order for the bug testing to get done and vice versa. They both just have to get done. And there are often lots of parts of our lives that end up like this. You have to both finish your experiment and write a paper. In this case, balance is not the right word, because the goal is not to “balance” the two competing tasks (which usually results in longer time or lower performance), but to finish both. And instead, the concept of balance has to come from the rest of your life.

If both tasks need 4 hours of work today, then you need to find 8 hours to work. Where you end up getting this time depends of course on the rest of your life. It could mean going with less sleep, exercising less, going out with friends less, or even just watching less TV. We need to realize that sometimes, the balance must come from somewhere besides the actual tasks.

What tasks, and how you choose to balance them in your life say a lot about your priorities. For many of us on my start-up, we’re in a position of trying to figure out how to deal with grad school, the start-up and having a life. For a long time, I was prioritizing the start-up over everything, but have now shifted towards giving grad school as much of a priority. However, I do this knowing that there just isn’t a lot of time for the “life” part right now. However, others in my team have chosen differently, with life and grad school being their main priorities. This isn’t a wrong choice, it’s just a different one. But it will effect how we move forward as a company, and what positions everyone takes on.

So next time you complain about work-life balance, or work-work balance, think about what areas of your life you can afford to give and take from, and where you can’t. And use that to help you prioritize what needs to be done,and where you’re going to find the time to do it.

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