In this post, I will talk about the importance of work-life balance and my experience related to that. I didn’t know the concept of work-life balance before I moved to Paris in 2017. I was introduced to it by my French colleagues. While I will mostly talk about my job, some of this is also applicable to students. Just think of your studies as your main job.
So, what is work-life balance? At any given point, I find that my thoughts revolve around mainly 3 categories: Job, Health and Relationships. These are general categories that include specific things. However, the amount of time I spent actively working on them, in other words, trying to improve my life in those areas, didn’t really match the time I spent thinking about them.
When I moved to Paris, I observed a huge cultural difference. In my previous work location, once a program manager demanded justification for me denying attending a not so essential meeting at 8 PM. Whereas here, my tech lead told me to not work after I leave the office on weekdays. He told me to not even read papers related to my work after my working hours. Well, so what should I do? I mean, I liked my work. In fact, I was passionate about it. The tech lead gave me an answer which sounded so bizarre at that point. “Watch Netflix” he said, “or follow some hobby that is not directly related to your work”. Now, after so many years, I believe that it was one of the life changing advises. Let’s see how.
When I stopped working after leaving the office, I had nothing to do at home. So, I started watching Netflix after finishing some chores. That was just the beginning. I kind of felt like I wasn’t working hard enough and that will bite me. However, I was enjoying my work even more. I was reaching my office with a very fresh mind and excited. Which, in turn, resulted in me being more productive during my working hours. But there was an issue. I was not completing as much work as I could before.
Now, this is where the magic happens. Because I was forcing myself (didn’t feel like forcing after a point, though) to not work beyond working hours, I had to find ways to finish more work in my working hours. Which led me to actively fight against any kind of distractions or procrastination. It took a while, but within a short period of time, I was matching my previous level regarding amount of work done. It didn’t stop there. After some more time, I was getting even more work done. I had developed a system of weekly goals which not only included my regular work, but also included reading at least one paper a week and recording a summary of it. All of that during my working hours.
Now, let’s look at the other aspect. My ‘life’ part. Clearly, watching Netflix is not the best thing to do. While it did the job of keeping my thoughts away from my work, on its own it didn’t really bring any improvements in my life. A desire to learn something started popping in. But I had promised myself not to spend time in activities related to my work. So, I stated exploring hobbies. Reading books was one. Luckily, someone suggested an excellent book to me, “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. It was very engaging. I started reading more books after that. There were many benefits. For starters, it kept me away from Netflix (not completely, though). Reading books has a profound effect on our thoughts. Soon, I had started developing opinions and I had things to talk about.
My mind started seeking more things to learn. Sometimes completely random things. At times, there were some workshops at Google. I ended up learning things like solving a Rubik’s cube, juggling 3 balls, knitting, origami, operating a sewing machine and many more. Since my productivity was high, I could afford to do many things and still have spare time.
That spare time and energy led me to focus more on my health. Active focus on health and hygiene helped me find areas for improvement. For example, I stopped drinking coffee after 2 PM to improve my sleep. At some point, I stopped drinking coffee completely. I remember talking about it to my teammate one day, and he asked, “How do you stay awake then?”. My answer was, “I sleep enough at night”. This is just one small example. I am sure we can find many little areas of improvement if we look for it. In fact, we are all improving with time anyway. Just that explicitly looking for such improvements speeds up that process. Of course, all these improvements lead to higher productivity, which kind of completes the cycle.
Coming back again to the ‘Job’ part. I did get my promotion and didn’t have to work more than 35-40 hours a week on average. Just like me, other people in that office also got their promotions time to time. Note that Google expects the same amount of work regardless of the location. Not only the number of working hours are lesser in European offices, they also get more vacation days compared to American and Indian counterparts. Yet, they manage to deliver the same.
We all have big dreams, but we rarely spend time finding actions that would take us closer to them. We often only think about our day-to-day tasks or, at max, our immediate promotion. Let’s quote Master Yoda here.
I was also using that ‘extra’ time to think about my long-term career. This was one of the key factor because of which I could decide to quit my job to start my PhD.
I also sometimes think that the organization culture plays a big role when it comes to work-life balance. Some regions, like Europe, have specific labor laws to promote a good work-life balance. But it mostly comes down to the individuals implementing it. If I write a piece of code on Saturday and send it for review, but my reviewer doesn’t open their laptop until Monday morning, what’s the point of working on Saturday? Typically, this odd hours working starts with some sort of emergency, but not enough steps are taken to analyze and avoid such emergencies, and soon it becomes a habit. Shouldn’t the emergencies be rare? A lot of my friends can relate to a time when they worked on odd hours, even when there was no urgency. But they did it anyway. They fail to figure out why. I agree that there can be some weeks when it is burning like hell at work. But it should not become the norm, right? Some even brag about working more hours constantly. This doesn’t show that you are working hard, it shows that you are incapable of finishing your tasks in regular working hours.
Such habits spread quickly. Today it is just you working at odd hours. Very soon others will observe that. Specially the newly joined fresh graduate. When they see you getting that promotion, their unconscious will join the dots and start thinking that working more hours is essential to get promoted. In fact, it spreads so much that after a while it is expected from you to work more hours each week. The manager would start getting upset if you don’t work more hours. It becomes harder for any person to detach from work when all the colleagues are working extra hours. One often ends up taking more work than they can handle and then eventually delivering mediocre performance.
To sum it up, The work-life balance is not about working less but is more about being more productive and optimizing other areas of our lives. This becomes even more relevant in the covid lockdowns when there are no boundaries between home and office. Have some rules about your working hours. Have some time and energy left at the end of the day. Use it to learn something new. Read a book or learn to play that musical instrument you always wanted to. Explore new hobbies. Maybe you will find one worth sticking to. For me, it was chess. If you can’t think of anything useful, then even start watching Netflix or get a dragon in your home.
Thanks for reading. In the future, I plan to write about my research, chess, books I am reading and more. Stay tuned. See you again!