Next to hitting the lottery or becoming CEO of Google, the Holy Grail of the working class seems to be achieving that ever-elusive work-life balance. It’s definitely one of the hotter “martinis after work” topics, that’s for sure.
Everyone talks about how busy they are and complains about having no time to think or breathe. But is that actually true? We’re taking shorter lunch breaks and fewer vacations. Stuffing our faces behind the wheel. Even squeezing out a few quick text messages in the bathroom. But is too much work really the problem?
One thing’s for sure. An awful lot of people are profiting from the whole work-life balance thing.
If you want to capture loads of eyeballs or make a few bucks, write a blog or a book about work-life balance or one of its siblings, personal productivity and time management. Besides leadership, those are the big self-help topics of the day. And they’re growing bigger all the time.
Remember Tim Ferriss’s bestselling The 4-Hour Workweek? Now there’s The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef. I don’t know about you but I’m holding out for The 4-Hour President. I bet Barack Obama could get there if he puts his mind to it.
Last year, before she was tapped to run Yahoo, then Google executive Marissa Mayer did sort of a press tour about her love affair with workaholism. You know, how executives can work 90-hour weeks packed with 60 meetings or more without burning out.
In Google’s early years, Mayer said she pulled 130-hour weeks by being “strategic about when you shower and sleeping under your desk.” Come to think of it, didn’t she have a baby soon after taking the reins at Yahoo? Wonder if she was back at work that afternoon.
Just last week, Glassdoor released its third annual list of 25 best companies for work-life balance. It was fascinating to see Yahoo at number 16. That’s right, Yahoo. You know, where Mayer banned working from home a few months back. Yeah, that Yahoo.
So why all the hoopla over work-life balance?
Are companies really working people longer and harder? Is 24x7 connectivity courtesy of the high-tech industry the culprit? Is that why we’re all getting fatter? Are we really so swamped that we don’t have time to cook a decent meal? Is that why we stuff ourselves with fast food and never have time to get a little exercise anymore?
The truth may be hard for you to swallow, but it’s the truth, nevertheless. It’s all a myth. We actually have just as much leisure time than we did in the past. And we’re not working any harder, either.
So why all the complaints about work-life balance? Why the endless need to improve our personal productivity and time management skills? Simple. Personal choice.
We stay connected 24x7 because we want to. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head when you answer a call or a text when you’re supposed to be playing with your kids or out to dinner with your better half. So why do we do it? We love the attention. It makes us feel special. We’re addicted to it. No kidding.
And guess what? Companies know that and leverage it, if they’re smart. By providing flexible work conditions, by allowing people to work and conference from home, by buying them smartphones and notebook computers, they’re getting something in return: more of your time and attention when you’re not at work.
Besides, there have been plenty of studies that show men and women have more leisure time today than they had decades ago – if that’s what they want. Sure, executives and professionals work longer hours – I know I did – but it’s a matter of choice. They make big bucks.
Some of us who choose the entrepreneurial route may feel like we’re working constantly. We may find our home and work lives mashed together. But again, that’s a professional or a lifestyle choice. Either that or we simply lack the discipline to keep our personal and professional lives separate.
Come to think of it, back in the day we used to have a concept called “prioritization.” It worked like this:
You’d set your goals and your priorities. And that’s what you’d spend your time doing unless an emergency popped up. If you somehow got it all done and still had time left over, then you did some lower priority stuff. When work was over, you went home. Anything that didn’t get done, we’d say, “Tomorrow’s another day.” It was genius.
As for all the personal time we supposedly have so little of that we don’t have time to think or breathe, that’s also a myth.
I’m pretty sure that nobody’s spending less time on Facebook and Twitter, watching 200 cable channels, playing with their game consoles, and smartphone apps, or shopping for all the stuff we all have to own these days. We’re eating more and more food, going out to dinner plenty, and drinking record amounts of booze, wine and beer. So we’re certainly not partying any less or having any less fun.
So, the next time you hear yourself complaining about how little time you have or your lack of work-life balance, try this instead. Think about your priorities. Think about what you spent your time on that day, that week, that month. Then think about what you didn’t get to do. If there’s a disconnect, do something about it. Simple as that.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive and author of "Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur." Learn more, contact Tobak or follow his new blog at stevetobak.com. Any opinions expressed are those of the columnist.