Not a work/life balance

People sometimes ask me about my work/life balance. It was then I realised I don't have one.

Maybe it's because as a society we've reached a certain level of affluence, but there are ideas in the wind about the reducing importance of economic measures in our perception of countries' successes, and instead emphasising "softer" factors like well-being and happiness. This includes supportive comments from leading economists, as well as a royal decree.

This is a major change for a lot of reasons, and not one that's universally recognised: my Chinese postdoc, for example, finds the whole notion of voluntarily restricting your own work and success completely incomprehensible. I think it's a defensible position, as long as it doesn't translate into offloading unpleasant tasks onto an underclass and/or increasing the existing wealth and status imbalances. But it raises some questions about how we evaluate and measure people's happiness to see whether we're succeeding in whatever measures we decide to deploy.

This is neither an uncommon nor a non-trivial problem. It's common because, like many things we want to sense, we can't measure happiness directly and so have to fall back on proxies that we can measure, such as self-reporting against a standardised scale, rates of depression and the like. We then need to show that these proxies do indeed correlate with happiness in some way, which is tricky in the absence of direct measurement.

An alternative approach is to avoid measurement and instead find a set of policies or ideas that should in and of themselves increase happiness. An example I've heard a lot of recently is work/life balance: the need to spend time away from work doing other things. Perhaps surprisingly, this idea is pushed by a lot of employers. My university, for example, runs a staff training course on striking an appropriate work/life balance. Maybe they feel they'll get better results from knowledge workers if they're appropriately rested; maybe it's setting up a defence against possible future claims over undue workplace stress. (I actually think it's the former, at least in St Andrews' case, but the cynic in me can easily believe the latter of others.)

Thinking about this made me wonder whether I actually have a work/life balance. I've decided that I don't, and that, for me at least, the work/life split is a false dichotomy. That's not to say that I do nothing but work, or that I don't have a life, but rather that I don't divide my life into those categories.

For example, I often answer email and read journals at night and at weekends. I also spend a lot of "off" time programming, writing about and thinking about computer science. It's certainly something that drives and compels me, to think about better ways to understand it, teach it, and develop new ways of doing it. You could say that, since I'm a computer science academic, this is all "work".

I also spend a lot of time taking photographs and thinking about photography. And a lot of that actually involves thinking about computing, since a lot of my photography is now digital. Being who I am, I also think about how to automate various photography tasks, and about different kinds of software and mathematics that could be applied to photography. Is that "work" too?

There are many things I do for the university that are a pleasure. Some are such a pleasure that I'd do them anyway, such as research and (mainly) teaching; some I perhaps wouldn't do unless it was part of the job, because I don't enjoy the enough to seek them out, but do enjoy sufficiently that they're not a trial: institutional strategy development, directing research and the like. On the other hand there are several things I do for the university that I really wouldn't do for choice, mainly revolving around marking and assessment: they're vital, and it's vital that they're done well, but they can't remotely be described as enjoyable.

So I suspect there's a category error lurking here. It's not so much that there's "work" and "life" sitting in separate categories. Rather, there's stuff I have to do and stuff I want to do. For many people -- most, maybe -- these latter categories conflate respectively with "work" and "life", and give rise to a desire for work/life balance: avoiding doing too much stuff that you only do because you have to, to pay the bills. But if you're fortunate enough to have a job that you love, then "work" and "life" don't represent the way you divide-up your life.

I don't think of work as work and play as play. It's all living.

Richard Branson

And this, I suspect, is a confusion that lies at the heart of the happiness debate. "Work" and "life" aren't actually the categories we want to measure: they're simply proxies acting as measurable analogues for happiness, and like any proxy they're good for some and lousy for others. A better metric might be the "want-to/have-to" balance: the ratio of time spent on things you do because you want to do them versus time spent on things that you do because you have to or feel you should. It has the advantage of being directly measurable, broadly applicable to those who love and those who hate their jobs, and more easily believable to be a proxy for happiness. I have no idea what sort of value one would target as a "good" ratio, but at least it's a more scientific place to start from.