On Work / Life Balance
I originally wrote this document in response to a recurring question from my team: some variant of "How do you keep work/life balance given your role?" It has turned out to be a very popular document, and after review I am sharing it with a broader audience: everyone.
On Work / Life Balance
Or, how I learned to maintain balance while running 24x7 at Google
by firstname.lastname@example.org et.al
., Jan. 2015
Human effort is a finite resource. When you’re surrounded by outstanding peers, it’s easy to feel like you constantly need to work harder, do better, produce more. But, like it or not, each of us has a throughput limit: the amount of work we can get done, on average, in a given timeframe.
Realizing that I had a throughput limit was key to my understanding work/life balance: how to live up to my work commitments without feeling I was shortchanging my family, my friends, my health, or myself. Once I calculated my throughput limit, I got rid of the fantasy that I could do everything — or, some idealized quantity of work that always seems to be greater than what I actually did this week — and started getting realistic about how to allocate my time. Work/life balance went from being an ego problem (I’m not good enough, I should be able to do more) to being a personal math problem:
((Work hours per week) - (essential meetings))
multiplied by (email or project throughput)
equals: How much work I can do in a week
In order to draw boundaries between work and non-work, I first needed to decide how much I am really willing to work. Through my career, I noticed that I would start feeling burned out when I consistently worked more than X hours per week, and X has been fairly constant over the last 20 years. Therefore, I set my average work hours target a bit below X, and ensure that I do not exceed my target most weeks. In practice, that translates into ‘normal’ hours in the office, some email in the evenings, and a few hours of email/project work on the weekends. This allows time for my other priorities — family, exercise, hobbies, etc. — and it’s a pace I can sustain indefinitely.
From what I have observed, the sustainable work hours number varies considerably by person. For some folks at Google the number is lower than my own. I also work with several for whom it is significantly higher. I also see no correlation between work hours and level; the vast majority of senior folks I work with maintain normal work hours and few unused vacation days. Your work hours target is ultimately a personal choice and one which, made deliberately, optimizes personal productivity over extended periods of time.
Once I had established my work hours target, I looked harder at where I was spending my time.
Every hour spent in a meeting is an hour not spent doing something else. Yes, meetings are sometimes an important part of work, but often they’re not personally productive. Meetings also tend to accumulate over time, like luggage. I have repeatedly had the experience of waking up one day and realizing I don’t have time to review design docs, answer email, etc., because my work hours are chock-full of meetings.
My solution is a form of garbage collection: Every quarter, I review my calendar and for each meeting ask, “What will happen to Google, and to me, if I stop attending this meeting?” The goal is to reduce my schedule to only high-value events — meetings that can’t happen without me. Many meetings produce results I need to follow, but don’t require my input in realtime; I skip those meetings, read the slides and meeting minutes, and save 80% of the time. Finally, in my quarterly meeting review I apply exponential backoff to many recurring meetings: monthly meetings become quarterly, weekly meetings become bi-weekly or monthly, etc. If the new frequency is sufficient to accomplish the meeting’s goals, the change sticks.
Email, Project, et. al. Throughput
Much of my work is reading and responding to email. A while back I decided to measure how quickly I process email, and it turned out to be a fairly consistent rate when averaged over many mails: although some take more time and some less, I can on average answer 13 emails per hour. Knowing this means I can look at my inbox on any given day and know whether or not I can get through it all in time. I can also look at the rate of email inflow and the amount of free time on my calendar, and know whether I’m going to be able to clear a backlog, keep pace, or fall behind. The same logic applies to pages of design doc review, function points of code, etc.
When I notice I’m consistently getting more email volume than my throughput rate will accommodate, I know that I’m either about to drop the ball, or work too much. Again, rather than feeling like I should somehow magically stretch my time or energy to encompass whatever gets thrown at me, I recognize that it’s just a math problem and I need to alter one of the variables. That realization in turn prompts me to make a change to remove engagements and obligations — which may mean delegating where I previously was personally involved, declining an activity, triaging my calendar, etc.
A Note on Being Essential
It feels flattering to be essential to a particular project. But that usually also means that project won’t make rapid progress without me, which often is not a good thing. What happens if I get sick? Or take a vacation? Or there’s a big outage I must be personally involved in? Further, if I’m critical to every project I’m involved in, there’s no slack left for anything new or urgent, so what flexes are my working hours. And maintaining work/life balance won’t succeed by preventing new things from showing up — they will, you may count on it. Rather, it’s about being able to deal with things as they do show up without becoming overloaded. I do this by always having some of my project time spent in a nonessential role, so that I can dial back or end my involvement without damaging the project when something more important arises. Whenever I find I’m essential to all the projects I’m working on, it is once again time to make a change.
So, How Can You Balance Your Work With Life Outside of Work?
It’s straightforward, although not particularly easy: Do the Math.
Identify the value of each piece of the equation in your own life: how many hours/week you’re willing to work, how many of those hours need to go to meetings, and how much work you can produce in the remaining hours. Then adjust one or more of the variables until the equation balances. You are a finite resource, and wishing it were otherwise is not going to help you or Google. By being realistic about how much time you choose to devote to work, by being deliberate about where you choose to spend your working time, and by making effective changes when you become overloaded, you’ll do a better job of meeting both your work commitments and your own personal goals.
Finally, an Important Note For Managers:
Your team relies on you to help maintain their work/life balance, and they can’t read your mind. In addition to the obvious points (i.e., help them do everything described above), you have the ability to help or disrupt their work/life balance through your communication practices. For example, if you send emails to your team outside of their working hours, they will probably feel the obligation to read and respond to them outside of working hours — whether that is your intent or not. For this reason, I consciously avoid sending off-hours emails to much of my team unless the issue is urgent. Another approach is to mark time-sensitive emails with “URGENT” in the subject, so recipients know which ones they may defer until the next business day. Seemingly small changes like this can have a large impact on your team’s work/life balance and their stress level. Consider them when you communicate.
-Benjamin Treynor Sloss, January 2015