The Real Secret to Work-Life Balance

a lady balancing with the sun shining behind her
You need to have faith in yourself enough to know that taking a break is not going to cause your career to halt, but in fact will give you the space to make better decisions about your priorities. Click To Tweet


Bite the bullets (a quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

  • We have a running meter of needs we balance every single day
  • These needs, unlike Maslow’s Hierarchy, do not progress from bottom to top, rather in the order they deplete
  • The primary categories of these needs are physiology, security, relationships, cognition, and tranquility
  • If we ignore these needs, they will affect our behavior in dramatic ways decreasing the amount of control we have over ourselves and our lives
  • Life is a balancing act, but it’s not just balancing “work” and “life”.
  • You’ve got to remember that working on yourself, and prioritizing your needs is what will eventually lead to total balance. Not just balancing a career and a personal life.

Even easy lives are hard

Maybe one of your days looks like this: Get up. Go to work (or school). Realize you’ve got more to do than you had planned. Feel stressed. Get a text from someone in your family. Oh shoot, you haven’t called home in longer than you’d thought! Think about something that’s been bothering you. Get home. It’s later than you thought. You’re too tired to do anything so you watch Netflix. Answer emails from work. Mindlessly scroll Instagram (or any other infinite scroll app) in bed. Sleep. Repeat.

There’s an underlying current to why your life is out of balance: priority. If you think of your life in terms of two simple categories: “work” and “life”, then you’re limiting your choices of what to prioritize. Here, we’re going to explore the many pieces of your life that you can choose to focus on and why it’s important to take time to do so.

Head up! The next few sections are a deep dive into some psychology and biology. It’s fine to skip them if that doesn’t interest you, but I would recommend two things if you do:

  1. Think of your life in broader terms than just “career” and “personal life”.
  2. Look at the section on power levels to get a feel for the categories in your life and consider which of them you’re strong at feeding and which you regularly neglect
If you think of your life in terms of two simple categories "work" and "life", then you're limiting your choices of what to prioritize. Click To Tweet

Our biology plays a role

Have you ever been hangry? If you haven’t heard the term, it means what it sounds like: hungry + angry = hangry. When some people don’t eat for a while, they get grumpy, snippy and even confrontational.

A study from Jonathan Levav of Columbia Business School, conducted in Israeli prisons in 2011, found that judges were more likely to dispense unfavorable sentences in parole hearings (I.e. denying parole) the closer they got to a meal break. The authors argue that the hungrier the judges became, the more likely they were to drift towards an easier decision of saying ”no” rather than weighing the harder option of granting parole.

Deciding what to eat and getting into a fight with your significant other is an uncomfortable experience, but imagine having to decide the fate of a person standing before you while on an empty stomach. The weight of the decision is much higher. Whether we think about the time we snapped at a friend, or a judge doling out justice, there is an arrow pointing to a fact of our existence: our basic biological needs affect our behavior.

Our basic biological needs affect our behavior. Click To Tweet

Addressing our needs as priorities: Maslow’s take

The concept that we have needs that change how we act is an old idea. If you’ve taken an intro to psychology class, you’ve no doubt run into good old Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The idea is: we have needs stacked like a pyramid we fulfill from bottom to top in order to reach a state that Maslow described as “self-actualization.” Self-actualized people, like Einstein, go on to do great things with their lives.

There are some glaring flaws in this model—which I’ll get into in a second—but before I do, let’s walk through the pyramid from bottom to top:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
The original pyramid derived from Maslow’s published theory of motivation.

As you can see, you’ve got physiology at the bottom, those are things that you need because your body needs them: food, water, sleep, sex, a thing called “homeostasis” (the body’s natural chemical balancing forces) and excretion. Once those basal needs is the need for security; essentially a safe place where you won’t get sick or hurt. Next is love, which encapsulates our relationships and need for affection. After that is “esteem,” which is a need to prove one’s self, both socially and to themselves (e.g. achieving self-confidence). Finally is the fabled “self-actualization,” originally described as a “a new discontent and restlessness” to “become everything one is capable of becoming.”

These ideas sound great. You work your way up the pyramid and then you reach the top and presto, you are creating the next Mona Lisa. But we all know that doesn’t seem to happen a lot. Tom Cruise would be self actualized by these standards, but the media doesn’t shy away from how hard his personal relationships have been. This is true for a lot of celebrities. On the other hand, we’ve all met someone who is content with a simple life, unburdened by a “restlessness” to be everything they can be. It’s really easy to criticize this model and there is a reason for that.

These ideas were originally published in Psychological Review in 1943 in a paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation.” That’s right. Motivation. Not a theory of greatness. Not a theory of behavior. In the work, Maslow says directly that this is a model to guide future research, not a research study itself. It was a skeleton to develop further understanding of what motivates people. It was never intended as a way to live life. On top of that, the pyramid visualization that has become synonymous with the hierarchy of needs didn’t show up until much later. We can do better!

Meet the POWER LEVELS: Our priorities change every day

Here is a new mental model to guide your thinking about prioritizing your life. It works well for me, and you can test it yourself. It’s not a theory of motivation as much as a theory of well-being. There is a strong case for the idea that when you’re well, you’re more motivated.

There is a strong case for the idea that when you’re well, you’re more motivated. Click To Tweet

First, I want to wholly dismiss the concept that you need to work through a static pyramid from the bottom to the top. Human needs don’t work that way.

We need to drink water every hour. We need to eat a few times a day. We need enough sleep every day. We need social contact at least a few times a week. We need to pay our rent or mortgage every month. Each of these requires constant maintenance, and regular attention.

Your need can’t be solved once, they need to be maintained over time. Not only that, they each have different rates for resetting.

Here I present these needs as power levels that contribute to your overall well-being. If they are not met, your ability to do good work, to make decisions, to learn, to be a good friend or significant other is lowered.

It looks like this:

As you can see, the basic ideas of a hierarchy are hidden in there, but these are hopefully more useful in a day-to-day sense.

Now let’s flip it on it’s side:

There are five high level categories broken into fourteen sub-categories.

Each sub-category contributes to the overall level in its parent category, and each category contributes to the overall level that is you; your sense of well-being.

Here’s the kicker: these need attention in a dynamic way. Because they deplete at different levels, the priorities of each category (and even subcategory) change over time. That means you need to pay attention to your mind and body to stay happy.

They deplete like so on each of their respective timelines:

I want to highlight one major modification before digging in. I’m going to ask you to buy into an assumption. Transcendence and self actualization have been replaced by a more humble term: tranquility.

Tranquility is a concept stolen from a stoic philosophy; you can think of it as an overall chill-ness with whatever is happening. I’ve found this is a great ideal to strive for, because it is attainable both when happy and sad. It’s also much more maintainable than just trying to be happy 100% of the time. The world hits you with good stuff and bad stuff, it’s better to be tranquil and still feel what emotion you naturally feel. In short: Shoot for happiness, miss it for contentment and settle for tranquility.

As I mentioned before, you go through life and the “levels” in each of the subcategories deplete over time or based on events that happen in your life. The good news is you’re probably already taking care of a lot of these things. When you get hungry, you eat; thirsty, you drink. But then problems arise, or maybe you are having trouble getting something that you say you want. What gives? Below is a breakdown of each category and sub-category. I’m going to skip ones that are self explanatory.

Really important note: rather than focusing on working your way from most basic to complex, this is a dynamic model. That means the order of importance of each of these is based entirely on their level. For instance, you might be having a rough time financially, and need to solve difficult problems to fix that. It might seem counterintuitive, but if you have been neglecting your friends to focus on this problem it’s probably time recharge that level. What will surprise you is that you’ll probably have a clearer head when you come back to it.

The simplified version of Power Levels

If the breakdown of each subcategory is overwhelming, just remember that the top level categories deplete over time and that you need to watch how that process happens:

Physiology

  • Sleep
    • Affects mood, cognitive clarity and decision making.
    • Depletes: daily
  • Sex
    • Varies by person. Lack can cause irritability.
    • Depletes: varies by libido
  • Food
    • Low blood sugar affects mood and mental clarity.
    • Depletes: every few hours
  • Water
    • Even mild dehydration can impair cognitive function and decrease mental performance.
    • Depletes: hourly
  • Exercise
    • Regular exercise improves memory, mood and thinking skills.
    • Depletes: daily

Security

  • Physical
    • Having a physically safe place to live decreases stress
    • Depletes: depends on geographic location
  • Financial
    • Obsessing about money (or a lack of money) causes stress. Can also affect entire physiology category if you can’t afford food.
    • Depletes: weekly/monthly

Relationships

  • Interactions/ face time
    • Every person needs some amount of social interaction. This has less measurable but important effects on thinking and mood.
    • Depletes: varies by person
  • Challenges
    • When you have a conflict in a relationship it affects other aspects of life.
    • Depletes: based on conflicts in relationships

Cognition

  • Interest (in whatever you’re doing)
    • Disinterest in whatever your task at hand will mean that you need to exert more effort into whatever you’re doing at any given time. This can take away focus and effort from other parts of life.
    • Depletes: based on what you’re spending your time on
  • Stimulation
    • We need a certain amount of mental stimulation in our week. The type of mental stimulation goes hand in hand with interests.
    • Depletes: weekly

Tranquility

  • Mindfulness
    • Mindfulness has a ton of benefits. They range from better mental performance to lower blood pressure.
    • Depletes: daily
  • Gratitude
    • Gratitude is the antidote to anger.
    • Depletes: daily
  • Comfort
    • Important to manage but not over optimize.
    • Depletes: based on situation

How does this relate to work-life balance?

In order to maintain total well-being, you need to constantly prioritize and re-prioritize what needs attention. It’s easier to think of each of these as a part of a whole. It takes a lot of patience and practice to master when to re-prioritize.

Within the power levels, you need to ruthlessly prioritize whatever needs your attention. For example, if you notice your lips are dry, drink some water. If you notice that you’re starting to act irritably, maybe it’s time for snack. If you haven’t done something that makes your heart sing for quite some time, it may be time to go to a movie.

You need to have faith in yourself enough to know that taking a break is not going to cause your career to halt, but in fact will give you the space to make better decisions about your priorities. When you prioritize things that need your attention right when they need it, your overall well being improves. And when your well being improves, you get better at prioritizing what’s important! Positive feedback loop.

The best place to start is with some simple mindfulness. Remember that your needs operate on a sliding scale. When you recognize needs are dynamic, life becomes more interesting than “I have too much to do.” Suddenly, you gain control over what you choose to do. If you choose to work late because that’s your priority and it’s nourishing you, then all the better. But if you find that you’ve been working late too many days in a row. It may be time to take some of those “important tasks” and ruthlessly re-prioritize them against your whole life.

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Nirmala

Hey, you have crafted a mind-blowing article. Excellent write-up. Balancing work and life is an art. I have learned a lot from your post. The image that you have added looks great. how to subscribe to your blog? Do you have any YouTube channel? Awaiting for your reply, I need a help.

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Nirmala
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