Last week, we explored the balance between work and play, and dug into some of the feelings and motivations that lead to an unhealthy balance.
But what’s the end goal? What would a balanced life look like? And how we might rebalance it when it becomes skewed?
Forget about identity
To even begin answering this question, we have to let go of seeing ourselves as “a workaholic,” “a playaholic,” or similar.
Sometimes we identify with our behaviors, as if they are us. Without getting lost in philosophy, I’d like to draw a clear separation between ourselves and what we do.
If I identify as a workaholic, or playaholic—or simply as someone who “works/plays too much”—then I deny myself the possibility of change. As I mentioned last week, for many of us this struggle isn’t a serious addiction or mental health condition, but a skewed balance we can usually correct on our own.
Personally, I go through many distinct phases of imbalance. Perhaps I get caught up in a project and work all hours of the day, every day. Or maybe I’m lacking inspiration and I struggle to do the bare minimum. Or my mind might be constantly drawn to an exciting new passion.
This changes over time. If I identified as a workaholic for a few months, what would it mean if I then called myself a playaholic for months afterwards? It’s more accurate to zoom out and say “right now I am struggling to work/play at the amount I would like.”
Frequency and amplitude
As a physicist, I have been taught to pretend that literally everything can be broken down into a combination of waves, so I’m primed to see them everywhere.
So let me imagine this aspect of life as a wave:
There are times when the balance is in favor of work, and times when the balance is in favor of play.
But this graph has no scales. It’s impossible to say whether this represents a “good” or “bad” balance. (And remember: we decide what represents a good or bad balance for ourselves.)
Imagine if the frequency—the timescale—varied over “decades.” I spend one decade working, one decade playing, and so on. That would be a perfectly valid way to live a life (if it were possible to pull it off), but for most, it doesn’t seem desirable.
Then imagine if the amplitude—the size of the wave—varied from “complete and total dedication to work” to “complete dedication to play.” At these extremes I would do nothing but work or nothing but play—not even eating or sleeping. Clearly that would be terrible.
I don’t believe a balanced life would be a straight line. We don’t want to eliminate this sine wave. We’re human. We’re never going to have ideal balance between work and play at all times.
Instead, a balanced life is about managing the scales of this sine wave. Rather than spending months in favor of work, followed by months in favor of play, imagine getting the oscillation down to days, or hours.
In theory, this is what weekends are for: 5 days of work, 2 days of leisure. In practice, the two often bleed into one another.
Perhaps this work week would look like this:
But, as humans, we operate more on the scale of hours than of weeks. What would an ideal day look like? Would I be perfectly committed to work for eight hours? Or twelve? Or two? Can I guarantee I can completely switch off in my leisure time?
As well as adjusting the amount of time spent, I can adjust my levels of commitment. What if barely committed to work, but spent most of my time on it? My graph might look like this:
This is a lot of words and pictures to remind ourselves of a simple concept: the amount of time and level of commitment we give to work/play are variable.
Sometimes this is due to personality. Often, it’s about circumstances—we rarely are in complete control of how much time we spend on work.
But it’s not about identity. Even if you’ve felt like a workaholic or playaholic all your life, you can consciously exercise more control over this balance in future.
Think over the last week, and plot your own sine wave of your work-play balance. How long did you spend working versus playing? How far did you go in each direction? Does your wave look skewed or balanced? How do you feel about it?
Now try the same exercise for the last year… or even decade, if you’re feeling ambitious.
I’m not going to claim that there is a perfect shape to this wave that we all should aspire to. There isn’t. But what would a perfect balance look like for you? How much time would you spend on work, how much time on play? Would it alternate daily, monthly, weekly or hourly? How absorbed would you be in your work, and by your leisure?
Obviously, our actual lives are never quite as good as our dreams. That’s fine! We can still make changes that will bring us closer.
So the final question is this: are there any practical changes which could make your actual balance look like your ideal balance? What’s stopping you from making them?!
What has your work-play balance looked like in the past? How would you like it to look in the future? Share with the community in the comments.