Brad Feld

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The Variable in Work Life Balance

May 03, 2009

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.