There’s no shortage of advice out there on the theme of work-life balance. Most comes down to common sense: If you work all the time, you’re going to burn out. You need to balance time in the office with time spent with family and friends and on hobbies.
Great. I can’t argue with that. But it’s also easier said than done. Anyone who’s started their own business or been in a high-pressure role knows that — despite our best intentions — the workday doesn’t always end at 5 p.m. Same goes for a new parent (a role I’m getting familiar with). Try telling a newborn at 3 a.m. to stop crying because you have to be in the office in a few hours and need to "balance" your family life with your work life. Good luck!
The more I think about work-life balance, the more I feel it can pose an unreasonable, maybe even unachievable, bar for many people. The truth is that there are lots of times in life when balance goes out the window. It’s not ideal. But it often can’t be helped. And — this is the tricky part — some times that loss of balance is critical to success.
I’d argue that for some people there’s actually a more helpful way to conceptualize the work-life connection. And it comes from the world of sports. Interval training isn’t a new idea. For more than 100 years, elite runners have improved endurance by alternating periods of intense activity with periods of rest or lower-intensity exercise. More recently, high-intensity interval training (or HIIT) has taken the gym world by storm. HIIT takes the interval concept to the extreme — with one-to-five minute bursts of heart-pounding, lung-busting exertion, followed by comparable periods of rest.
An interval training approach to work
You probably see where I’m going here. Starting or running a business, for instance, is a lot like HIIT. Some periods are an all out sprint. Maybe you’re racing to find investors before funding runs out. Or you’re trying to beat competitors to market with a new product. At times like these, you’ve got no choice but to drop everything and let balance fall by the wayside. You miss those family dinners. You skip the trips to the gym. The job consumes you.
Personally, I experienced this when Hootsuite was just getting off the ground. Our social media management platform had hundreds of thousands of users, but we hadn’t yet started to monetize. Paychecks were coming out of my credit card. New staff needed to be hired. There were stretches where my life simply had to be put on hold, with the business consuming every ounce of my energy. And, in hindsight, it was worth it.
Nor is this unique to entrepreneurs. There are lots of roles that require the same kind of intense, all-consuming exertion, where high performance is expected and the deadline was yesterday. The reality is that, in most businesses, slow and steady does not win the race.
And what I’m saying is that’s OK. Balance won’t always be an option. But — and here’s the key lesson from HIIT — those bursts of activity absolutely need to be offset by periods of rest and recovery. And this is the step that’s too often missed. We go right from those all-nighters back into our normal work schedule. What’s really needed is an extended period away from the job — be that in the form of a vacation or even a longer sabbatical.
It took me literally decades to understand this. Back in those early days, I wasn’t eating right or working out. I raced from one project to the next until my body literally gave out. An old sports injury flared up in the form of a herniated disc and left me unable to sit at a desk for more than a few minutes at a time. I was reduced to working on my back.
Recently, however, I was able to take a month of paternity leave after the birth of my daughter. Granted, this wasn’t exactly a vacation. But distancing myself from work gave the "work" part of my mind and body the chance needed to recover. I came back with new energy and focus.
For companies, this interval-training approach has implications, too. Vacations need to be respected and people shouldn’t feel obligated to feel "on call" while on holiday. Above all, employees need to be empowered to manage their own corporate training regimens — to go all out when needed and, just as importantly, to take the time to disconnect and recover. After all, no one can sprint a marathon.
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