The Ebb and Flow of Work and Life

The phrase “work-life balance” is a vexing one. Some people think it is impossible. Others strive for it. Many entrepreneurs, and pundits about entrepreneurship, reject it as impossible. Others believe that figuring out how to balance work and life is a sign of a more enlightened entrepreneurial perspective.

In Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur Amy and I talk about many of the tactics we use to integrate work and life, which Amy loving refers to as “all the time that I’m not working.”  We don’t often use the phrase work-life balance as we aren’t striving for a balance between the two, but rather an effective integration of them. I’ve been using the word “equilibrium” lately which feels different to me than the word “balance”, but I know many people will equate the two.

The challenge is that we are dealing with a very dynamic system that ebbs and flows continually. It’s early Saturday morning – I’m at the John Wayne Airport waiting for my flight home. I have an absurd amount of email backed up from the week. I’m currently on top everything in my portfolio, so I feel good about that, but I’ve got a long writing backlog. And there’s a bunch of things I’d like to explore. So I have much more work than I could possibly do this weekend, even if I spent the entire weekend working.

On the non-work front, I haven’t seen Amy (except for several times a day on Facetime) since early Tuesday morning when I left for Seattle. I miss her and Brooks the wonder dog. We have dinner with my brother, my partner Ryan, and their wives tonight. I have a 2:10 hour run on Sunday morning (I have a marathon next weekend) and a massage in the afternoon. And I want to watch last week’s episode of Scandal.

There’s no way to “balance” all that stuff or achieve any semblance of balance. But I can get to an equilibrium where I’m happy, Amy is happy, and I have fun. Sure – I’ll work some, but I’ll rest some also. I’ll spend some time by myself (mostly during my run) and I’ll get to go to bed and wake up with Amy each day. I’ll be in Boulder, a town I love, with friends who are dear to me. And I’m sure I’ll spend some time laying on the couch snuggling with my dog.

Next week will be completely different than this last week. Next weekend we are in Arkansas and I’m running a marathon. Amy will be there. Then I’ll be off to Boston for a few days. then DC, then NY. Alone again. I won’t be striving for “balance”, but I’ll roll with the ebb and flow.

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  • The one thing that came to mind as I read this is that you appear to do a similar thing that I do – which is that even your “downtime” or fun stuff is planned. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to just “be” – not have a plan or schedule for stuff I want or need to do, but just time to chill. I would like to think this would be helpful for my well being, but I wouldn’t know because I’m not doing it 🙂

    • I tend to live in the moment with very few plans – There are things that I can do something about – I choose the biggest. There are things outside my control, but in my interest – I encourage my team. There are no things that really matter, I have food to eat, reasonable health and I love what I do. What I do and “downtime” are to me no different. What I do do is get offline – that is important !

      • Nice way to think about it James, I’ll give it some thought (but won’t schedule it!) 🙂

    • I’ve always been highly scheduled, but interestingly I never consider myself a planner. It’s a strength and a weakness – I know what kind of excess capacity I have (usually not much based on the schedule) but within the longer arc (a week, a month, a year) I have goals, but not planned out tasks.

  • Hi Brad, No great insights but right now I took a break from finishing touches on a sales pitch to very important client we have on Tuesday (whole team is collaborating on a saturday and we are all stoked ). Read your post and thought how similar. I am sitting at home, cat on knee, looking out at lake surrounded by snow and just love that I could call out to my wife, upstairs in her sewing room (probably sewing or reading on how to create sustainable something out of unwanted something else). Monday I will fly to UK team have meeting Tuesday and back Tuesday night. Biggest current dilemma – to apply for Techstars London or not? – Can we afford to take out 13 weeks for great mentoring, can we afford not to, just as it seems traction is developing – distraction or life-line, what about German clients who are “close to home” and UK clients, What about wives and girlfriends and social lives of team ? Conclusion – I am going to get back to my work – sometimes its all it takes to relax and ground me in things that matter to me and my wife. And that for me is work life balance.

    • I’ve been with Amy all day. It is such a joy, even if we are just near each other. It makes it easy to dive back into the fray once I’m (your) a little restored.

  • I’m in San Francisco as we speak attending . Entire context is around awareness and consciously and compassionately existing. A couple of talks have focused on this “work life balance” notion directly. All of the conversation has moved away from the “balance” concept, and into the word “harmony.” We need to find harmony amongst all of the aspects of our lives. “Balance” by definition implies opposing forces.

    I’m now seeking harmony; not balance.

    • Me I am happy with balance – every action has equal and opposite reaction. Opposing forces are necessary. The influenced and the influencer both require contact and force – and it can be good. All forces are opposed – only some are beneficial.

      • agree on the logic around balance and trade in forces. what I’ve come to realize however is that that trade, for me, is limiting in how I think about getting everything to work together.

        it’s easier for me to think about, and see, and feel, all of these facets of my life, being in harmony, or not, which allows for “ebb and flow” at various times without the consequences of feeling “out of balance” or that one side is overwhelming the other.

        there’s an element of semantics in here I realize :).

        its a woven fabric with threads from all these areas of life… not several spindles of thread/yarn mashed together to find balance.

        • Perhaps the precise semantics are less important than that we take time to reflect and figure out where we belong and what things we do that do not belong. If I find my integrity is challenged (I am tempted to be weak) it is often that I have put myself in the wrong place and can learn from the process. So whether that is rebalancing , harmonizing or getting in touch with what you are – I guess its useful

  • Tami Palmer

    I think work life balance, or the idea of designating “non-work” periods, is less critical when you love what you do and would do it, even if you didn’t have to make a living. When you’re contributing to the world in a meaningful way and receiving the feedback loop of satisfaction, then working in your “off” time doesn’t really feel like work. The key though is to not fall so in love with your work that you forget you’re in love with people and animals too.

    Good food for thought Brad.

  • johnfein

    I agree 100% Brad – equilibrium is a great descriptor because it’s more of an internal measurement. Any kind life “balance” should be unique to the individual so they can meet their basic personal needs while succeeding at work. Lots of big company HR departments use “work-life balance”, where it’s much more achievable. But in the startup world if entrepreneurs can achieve equilibrium then I think they’re positioning themselves for the marathon of long term startup success. Well said!

  • I think my Hulu queue is up to something like 249 now – most of which will expire long before I have time to see them. The list of books l’d like to read is just about as long. My garden resembles an abandoned lot, although the strawberries continue to thrive in their current state of neglect. My interests far exceed what time will allow, but I hang onto the lists just to remind me of how much else there is to life besides running a startup. My husband and I will take a long walk today and will likely spend most of it talking strategy and what needs done next week in the company, but we’ll also share some New Mexico sunshine and have an excellent time together. Right now my startup requires a huge amount of attention, but I’m learning to take it in stride and give myself permission to play again. Good luck with the marathon.

  • ‘Roll with the flow’ is the key – sometimes you gotta zig when you planned to zag.

    An observation: it’s weeks like this that lead into months + quarters of near-total travel burnout for you, which (almost invariably) leads to you posting ever-increasingly-stressed-out-sounding treatises abt dialing back, starting in Sep + progressing thru Dec. Each year.

    I’d suggest that you try private jet travel for a quarter + see how much this helps. Up to this point, you’ve (like me back in ’02) decided that it’s too expensive. Maybe so, but until you actually use it, you’re making that decision on only half the data.

    • Well – I’ve got one coming up in March (almost no days at home) so let’s see how that goes.

      • If you want to do the private jet, I’ll go in on it w/ you. And by ‘in on it w/ you’, I mean I’ll fly “in it”, “with you”.

        Because that’s the kinda guy I am.

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  • John Cunningham

    This gets back to the question if effective vs efficient. How to add the most value, have the best life, do the most good in the world.

    Maybe being super busy is not the answer. I know for myself I crave times with wide open spaces, and the freedom to take random walks. Perhaps even more than maximizing impact.

    I am sometimes reminded of the story of a feed salesman who visits a farm not too far from your marathon next weekend. He goes around back and sees the farmer holding a pig in his arms under an apple tree. The salesman says ‘sir don’t you think that there is a better way to feed your pig – I see that he likes apples, but isn’t that a waste of time?’ ‘Time?,’ replied the farmer, ‘what’s time to a pig?’

    • Love this. I spent most of today just “being” with Amy. We had lunch together. Went to the jewelry store and bought some earrings. Watched the Eagles documentary. Had some adult entertainment. Took a nap. I was a pig today.

  • balance is never an end state between work and life. it’s that wavelength between control and letting go. it’s a continuum. for me, the challenge has become less about achieving equilibrium and more about tuning and channeling.

  • I like “equilibrium” as well and also think of life in terms of a three-legged stool. Each leg representing work, love, and play. Sometimes things overlap like work/play or play/love, but if you fall short in one area the stool falls over.

    Also, I think many entrepreneurs, and others with high operational tempo, suffer from anxiety partly due to attempting control of all/most outcomes in their life. I spent about three weeks with my PTSD counselor talking about this very thing. The culmination of our discussion was about learning to let certain things “unfold.”

    Life is truly an art and trying to operate by the dogma, or general rules others have set and/or recommend, is not the way to go. We are each Captains of our own ship.

    • Justin Sharpe

      Great response. I love the analogy.

    • excellent analogy… plan on repeating. thanks

  • Christina Roberts

    Ah equilibrium. When the supply and demand match. So, the “supply of Brad” matches the “demands on Brad” to a degree that everyone is satisfied. That’s cool. I like it. When the demands are too high, the costs of providing Brad are too high. Makes sense.

  • fwmiller

    There are both personal and generic comments in your post. I’ll comment strictly about the generic “work-life balance” for folks working startups. This is one of the major differences I’ve seen here in my time in Denver/Boulder vs. my experiences on the East Coast. I can still remember the day about two weeks after I started working in my first startup when it all became very clear. I had just come out of school and was working 9+ hour days. I thought I’d never worked so hard in my life. My boss came to me at the end of that day and told me he was disappointed in me. I didn’t know what to say. He told me I was expected to stay for the group dinner and work at least 10-11 hours per day and to come in at least one day on the weekend. He then told me that if I didn’t want to do that, I would not be meeting expectations and needed to find another job. I increased my effort. It wasn’t until a year later, after the CEO decided to double my options that I really understood. This differs from every single startup I’ve encountered in the Denver/Boulder area. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are a lot of folks busting hump to get things done here. Its just that the what I experienced in NoVa was the norm, I have yet to see it here.

    Here’s what it comes down to, the clock. For VC backed startups in particular, the day the money is deposited is not the day to take a deep breath, its the day the clock starts. You have to build something, take it to market, sell it, service it, and ultimately get to making some money and the clock is ticking. Every second that passes by reduces your account balance and therefore your chances at making it. Anyone who becomes part of that has to understand it and embrace it. If they don’t, they need to find something else to do. Most startups will have a period of a few years from their initial funding until something happens, e.g. they run out of money, they become viable, or they get acquired. During that time, there is no balance, only the job. Its really as simple as that. If you want to do a startup, you’ll have to arrange your life so that you can make that kind of commitment.

    Denver/Boulder doesn’t seem to think this way (at least from my limited experiences here). The balance seems to be as important as whether the product starts to take off or even makes it to market in a meaningful way. That’s kewl, but IMHO if this area wants to really lead as an entrepreneurial community, they’ll have to figure that out at some point.

    • Frank – I’ve lived here since 1995 and I don’t have the same view. I think people in Boulder/Denver are actual more productive than their east coast counterparts because they take a different approach. I learned a long time ago that “hours at the office” doesn’t translate into productivity. It’s an organizational man myth from the 1950’s that continues to be perpetuated today. It’s especially true given the always connected, easy to work remotely world we are living in. I guess I should write a longer blog post about that.

      • Would like to read that post. IMO productivity purely as a function of time makes some sense where it’s clear that time is inherent to product[ivity], e.g. manufacturing when quantity is the primary objective, or old-school QA. But it starts to break down past the short-term in any case. In software I see it generally as a violent process standing in for trust, a red flag with a herring logo on it, beating in the breeze over management’s head. If the objective is to serve your time then time is who you serve. You are timetive, not productive. I reckon.

      • fwmiller

        We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one. Ask Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs and Wozniak, etc. Tell you what, go look at this list then point to one of them that was focused on “balance” at any point early in their company histories. With all due respect, you’re not in a startup with the clock ticking anymore. When you’re in your first one and still hungry, its all about puttin in the time.

        • I think you misinterpreted my response. My experience is that people in Boulder works as hard, or harder, than people not living in Boulder (I have plenty of reference points from NY, Boston, Seattle, SF, and LA, among other cities). They just don’t spend as many hours physically in the office. This doesn’t mean they aren’t working incredibly long hours. And – re: me – I’m 47 but I’m still working 80+ hours a week. But I don’t spend anywhere near 80 hours a week physically in the office.

          • fwmiller

            Oh, my bad then. Cheers!

    • Looking only at hours in the office does not make a strong case, results matter. For a community like Boulder to give birth to an organization such as TechStars and have NY follow in their footstep is pretty impressive.

      Having balance will only improve a startup’s chances of being more productive and innovative. Working smarter always beats working harder.

  • No balance just integration is a honest way to look at it.

    And Brad (we don’t know each other I realize) if you are in NY and I know you are interested in greens, let me know and I’ll have a drop of arranged for you.

    • Thx for the offer. I’ll be there the week of 4/15.

  • Over the years I’ve figured out that (for me) a work/life balance or equilibrium is a conflict between my animal and intellectual sides.

    The intellectual side is what we’ve developed in the time since straightening our backs, learning to use objects as tools and communicate with grunts and moans. It’s this side that makes me strive to do something positive and productive by continuously learning new things and putting them to use to change the world and the people in it.

    My pre-back-straightening, pre-grunt-communicating animal side want’s to live free of modern society, or all societies for that matter. It wants to have nothing to do and do exactly that. It wants to compete with our cat in a napping contest and win. It wants to live on the beach all day and make beer money by playing Margaritaville over and over on the guitar for tourists.

    So in the end I’ve determined that both sides want to exist, and it’s up to me to make them get along. By working hard and accomplishing my goals each day or week, I can then reward my animal side with some great nothing to do for awhile.

  • Ebb and flow fits perfectly to what you’re saying. Worklife balance is always in a constant state of flux, it is never a solid state of perfection,

  • I like this post alot!

    For me, and what I think “rolling with the ebb and flow” means – its about having acquired an inner peace, understanding, and general satisfaction with the ever-moving/changing lifestyle and/or target goals, ideally aligned with your mate and children with shared understandings of the whys and to also find this peace (for themselves as well and the lifestyle).

    Not all can achieve or find this peace – or even know to look for it. And in fact, even those that find it, I would bet it was not always there. It is acquired, over time, with the reality of bad times and progress – with life experience. It is not an assumed state – it is a state of understanding with experience, and mutual resolve with your mate and family, over time.

    Ultimately this “equilibrium” peace resembles nothing of the “balance” that normal people seek/talk about.

    Which lends to the next point: *why be normal?* Extraordinary outcomes or desires are also not normal – and they require extraordinary approaches, efforts, and drive – typically.

    Extraordinary effort does not == balance usually, but it can == equilibrium. It can bring peace, to roll with the ebb and flow.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • Your post was timely. Right now I am not involved Entreprenuership but am a salesman at a used car sales lot. I work 6 days a week I leave the house at 7 AM and get back between 10 -11 PM at night. Sunday is my only day off. My wife and I go to church but I am wiped out. I usually sleep 8 hours Saturday night and then another 3- 4 hour nap on Sunday afternoon.
    I just have to make Sundays count more. Do more with the family. Somehow.

  • Brad, thanks for taking time in your busy schedule to stop by in Orange County, I can tell you I saw a good number of people very excited after listening to you. In my experience work-life balance is not a all or nothing game, it’s a continuously evolving process and as you say it has it’s ups and downs. Question is are we improving towards balance or getting closer to the end points.

    • Thx – I’m glad I came – I had a fun time Friday night and am glad it had some impact.

  • was in ATL for StartUp Riot last week, and TA McCann spent a good amount of his keynote covering “work/life harmony”… thought the terminology was great.

    i know a lot of people are polarized by different theories on the issue, but often your thoughts – and definitely TA’s last week – seem to be scalable and resonate with me. As always, appreciate you taking time to share on the subject.

  • Sorry, I don’t like “equilibrium” or “balance”, but I like the term flow, it’s moving, and like an ocean the same flow can nurture more than one shore. I also in favor of integration, if you can contribute to more than one important thing during the same period of time that is great, for example I work 80+ weeks but most of it is from home and every two hours I need to relax for a couple of minutes, perfect time to go tell my children that I love them and to receive an incredible smile from each of them. It requires some special skills and occupation but is really worth it (in this period of my life)

    This month challenge: 30 days without my wife, two children 5 and 2 years old and a critical project with a tight deadline, I guess I will have to sleep faster (aka less)

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  • I struggle with finding the balance every day, adding a toddler and a baby into the mix has shattered all my plans! But, the one thing that has really worked for me, walking to work. I’m lucky that my office is a 30 minute walk through wooded trails. But, then again, as a founder I was in the lucky position of choosing the office location 🙂

    But, what I found surprising is that the simple act of walking home from work really cleared me head, no matter how crazy and fast paced my day was, it creates a firewall stopping my stress to affect my family. It creates a psychological separation between work and home.

    The days I drive home, the traffic just adds to it so the time I’m home I’m still thinking about work, still stressed, still thinking at a million miles a minute when I walk through the door.