May 14, 2021
If you use computers and phones to get things done, you will have noticed the blurring line between work and life. We take work wherever we live and life to where we work. Checking email on vacation has become as common as browsing through Facebook while you’re on the boss’s clock. Whether you like it or not, we're living in a world of work-life integration.
Modern technology — mobile connectivity, social media, smartphones — is not the only culprit. This integration of work and life started with the advent of knowledge work, when our mind took over from our hands as the primary tool to get things done.
Knowledge work happens inside your brain, so it’s difficult to “clock out” when you end your day. There’s no escaping thoughts about work in bed, during your commute, or when you go for a run. On the flip-side, a family crisis at home can affect your creativity on a weekday in the office.
While this situation has existed for decades, the process of integration is accelerating because of modern technology. Now we literally carry work and life in our pockets everywhere, all the time. This causes friction as our habits, cultural norms, and organizations are still based on a world of work-life separation.
This discrepancy between reality and culture affects our performance, social relationships, and well-being. Naturally, this has some people calling for a return to the good ol’ days of nine to five, while others go the other extreme and worship at the church of 24/7 workaholism. Neither of these options is realistic. Instead, we can — and should — adapt to work-life integration. By updating our norms, tools, and habits, we can make the best of both worlds and thrive in work and life, reaching new levels of happiness, fulfillment, and performance.
Integration of work and life might sound scary, a situation to be avoided at all costs. Who voluntarily wants to be available for colleagues all the time? To never have downtime? To always be answering emails? Except for a few natural-born workaholics, the answer is “not me.”
This response is based on our current reality of everything, all the time. A world where we’re a slave to our phones, where there are no clear expectations around availability, and where putting in as many hours as possible is often seen as a badge of honor. #hustle, anyone?
What if there was a different way? What if you can mix up your day between work and play? Where you’re rewarded for your actual performance instead of for the hours you sit at your desk? For quality instead of quantity? A world where it’s ok — and even encouraged — to disconnect on weekends and evenings, and where regular vacations are the norm instead of the exception.
This is what real work-life integration should look like, and we’ve been there before. Before the Industrial Revolution, work and life were integrated. A farmer could work the land in the morning, have lunch with his family, take a nap, and then do additional work in the afternoon. And, as Mason Currey describes in his book Daily Rituals, many creative geniuses follow similar routines, where play follows work, and then some more work is followed again by play. We only found ourselves drawn to a stricter schedule of separation once we started to gather large groups of people in one physical location to get work done. First in the factory, then in the office; it was just more efficient for everyone to be on the same schedule.
The combination of technology and the changing nature of work have the potential to liberate us from this constraint. Because of mobile computing and connectivity, we can work anywhere, whenever, and with whomever we want. There is no more need to come together in an office every day, to work from nine to five, and for life to happen exclusively in evenings and weekends. But, in an ironic stroke of collective masochism, we seem to have only captured the downsides of work-life integration, while failing to make use of the potential upsides.
Before you can reap the benefits of work-life integration, you need to recognize (and counter) its negative side effects. These are the issues most knowledge workers are all too familiar with. Problems like stress, constant distraction, illness, having no time for family and friends, and depression. There are many others, but we can trace all these symptoms back to a select group of causes:
Let’s look at all of these in detail.
Too connected. Most of us are now connected to the internet non-stop. Whether through our laptops, phones, or even watches, the internet is with us wherever we go. This has its advantages, but the downside is that we never get a chance to be in the moment, to relax our brains, to reflect. A distraction is always just a tap away, and we’re available to the whole world everywhere, all the time.
Erosion of natural boundaries. Not too long ago, writing a letter involved real effort: you had to sit down and actually write, by hand, with pen and paper. Then you’d have to put it in an envelope, bring it to the post office, and finally, wait for a reply.
These and many other natural boundaries have disappeared, opening us up to both our own and others' worst impulses, leading to an endless stream of requests and choices vying for our attention.
Infinite choice. We live in an age of everything, all the time. Information, entertainment, communication, shopping, dating, work projects; whatever it is, you can access it from a device you carry around in your pocket. As professor Barry Schwartz notes in his book and TED talk “The Paradox of Choice,” some choice is good, but too much choice is overwhelming and counterproductive. No wonder we feel anxious and worn out, carrying infinite choice around with us all day!
Ignorance about our minds. Even though your brain is your most valuable asset in a knowledge economy, few people really understand how the brain works, even at its most basic level. Your grey mass needs downtime, just like your body. It doesn’t function well on a lack of sleep. It can’t multitask. It can’t concentrate for longer than 90 minutes at a time. It’s easily distracted. Few people take these and other limitations into account to create an environment in which the brain can perform at its best.
Disregard for our well-being. With everything that’s going on in our modern lives, we seem to think we can beat biology. Cheating sleep is a common one, but also eating poorly, being sedentary, and heavy use of intoxicants. We also fail to adjust our overuse of addictive devices and consumption of digital junk food, even though our mental health suffers because of it.
Some of these behaviors give us a boost or relief in the short-term, but they always harm us in the long run. Sometimes it’s a work behavior that destroys life, other times it’s a lifestyle habit that destroys work. Either way, you can’t ignore your well-being if you want to experience harmonious work-life integration.
Outdated norms. Our cultural and organizational norms about work and life are outdated. The way we structure organizations stems from the Industrial Age when manual labor and factory output were crucial. In our personal lives, we do the same by clinging to notions from that same period, hoping that approach will solve the problems we’re facing. For example, some of us think the past ideal of working from nine to five is the cure to always being available and excessive working hours. But we can’t go back, because the nature of modern technology and knowledge work won’t let us. The fundamentals have changed and we — as individuals, organizations, and society — will have to adjust our norms to find a better way of dealing with this new reality, instead of longing for a past that will not return.
Lack of relevant data.
“Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they’re held against. Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric. What you measure is what you’ll get.”
We don’t have any relevant “metrics” to measure modern work performance, nor our quality of life. We still use time to evaluate most things we do, but minutes and hours don’t tell us much in a world of knowledge work. If I spend two hours with my family at home for lunch, that time is traditionally seen as unproductive. But what if those hours gave me the energy, motivation, and inspiration to have a breakthrough idea in the afternoon? Through that lens, those seem like two hours very well spent.
The rise of surveillance capitalism. On top of these challenges, we’re also the main target in the war for attention. Big Tech companies like Facebook and Google convert our attention and personal data into advertising dollars. Their business models depend on getting and keeping us hooked. This means many of the above vulnerabilities get exploited and often purposely magnified to mine ever more of our attention and data.
While the list seems daunting, it’s not impossible to counter the dark side of work-life integration. What we need is a new set of values and principles to guide us. Just like “work from nine to five” and the 40-hour workweek were sound principles for the Industrial Age, we need a new foundation of basic rules to manage life and work in the age of Everything, All the Time:
These principles cut at the roots of the problems we just identified. They counter the negative feedback loops and replace them with positive ones.
When you do just one thing at a time, you’re in the present moment. It means you’re not switching between tasks every few minutes, sending emails while in a meeting, nor that you phub your kids while you’re supposed to be playing with them. Trying to do too many things at once leads to many of the problems we struggle with — feeling overwhelmed, getting distracted, erosion of social relationships — and this simple principle gets to the core of those issues.
Even if you do just one thing at a time, you can still be doing the wrong thing. Checking your email first thing in the morning while you could have been working on your new book is a mismatch of priorities. So is pulling an all-nighter while you should have been sleeping. Asking The Most Valuable Question can reveal all:
What is the most valuable way I could be spending my time right now?
This question is your North Star throughout the day. It seems like a simple question, but to answer it truly is difficult. It takes mindfulness, self-awareness, reflection, and honesty. This requires practice, and you will not always get it right, but if you aim to have the correct answer to this question, then you will be on track to doing the right thing most of the time.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Richard P. Feynman in his 1974 Caltech commencement address
In a world of infinite choice, someone needs to set limits and create friction. More specifically, the person who needs to do that is you. There are many ways to go about this, for example:
In our age of everything, all the time, creating clear boundaries and some friction is a good thing. It works for almost any area where we feel overwhelmed, addicted, or not in control. And you don’t have to rely on willpower alone to adhere to these limits. You can involve others (family, friends, colleagues) to hold you accountable, and, as we’ll soon see in the next section of this article, there are lots of technological tools popping up that can help too.
Setting boundaries goes hand in hand with embracing downtime. In a world that’s always on, we shouldn’t worry about being more productive and connected. Instead, the risk is that we become too productive and active, with every minute of the day accounted for, every waking moment optimized, any moment of “idleness” eliminated. Connectivity is our highway to infinite choice, so disconnecting is the easiest route to calmer lands.
Living life in the connected fast lane is not how you create the optimal conditions for your brain to focus, to learn, and, most importantly, to feel fulfilled and happy. Our minds and bodies prefer cycles of focus and rest. Reflection and true restoration only happen when we schedule unconnected downtime. This applies on a micro-level (taking breaks throughout your day), as well as on the macro-level (observing a Sabbath Day each week and taking regular vacations).
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
All of this is hard to implement and track if we don’t have a way of measuring. How can you set a limit when you don’t know when you’ve reached it? How do you know if you’re balanced if you don’t keep track of your hours, especially those that happen outside of the office? While many aspects of work-life integration seem too abstract to track, we need to make an effort to measure the unmeasurable. Finding a way to replace the outdated metrics from the Industrial Revolution with more appropriate ones is a crucial element of solving work-life integration.
You don’t have to implement the above principles on willpower alone. In fact, you will find help in an unexpected ally: technology.
While our modern inventions cause many of the problems we’ve discussed, this is not the natural state of affairs. Technology in itself is neutral. Its creators (designers, product managers, developers, entrepreneurs) determine whether it will be a force for good or for evil. Since the business models of the current dominant creators — the Big Tech companies — are based on grabbing as much of your attention as they can, our modern gadgets are a detriment to our quality of life and work performance. More of your attention for Big Tech means less of your attention going towards living a fulfilling life.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Your phone, your computer, and your apps can nudge you onto the right path. They can be the best aids we’ve ever seen for enriching our lives if the incentives of its creators are aligned with ours, its users.
We already have plenty of examples but fail to see them as they’re being overshadowed by the fallout of Big Tech abuses:
None of these tools are comprehensive enough yet to address the entire spectrum of challenges we’ve discussed, but I believe they are a sign of what is to come. The same practices Big Tech applies to mine ever more of your attention — software engineering, artificial intelligence, big data analysis — can also be employed by the tools I just listed, allowing them to get better at improving your life and work.
This brings us to the final piece of solving the work-life integration puzzle: data.
As more sophisticated life-improving tools emerge, the amount of available data that can be used for this purpose will also increase. You no longer have to guess whether you’d be better off sleeping in, taking a vacation, or can step on the pedal and work a bit harder this week. Technology will guide you in such decisions and ensure you always strike the right balance.
Such a notion might still sound strange today, and perhaps a bit scary. But as our tools, habits, and, ultimately, the way we live our lives, change, so should our metrics and culture. If it’s hard for us to keep track of things like our phone usage and our balance between work and life, why don’t we create technology that does this for us so that we can live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives?
Consider an age when humans determined the time of day by looking at the position of the sun. The people then assuredly would have questioned why anyone would need a clock in the center of town to keep track of time, let alone a wristwatch to carry around with you wherever you go. The sun worked just fine.
Fast forward to the present and few people need to be convinced of the usefulness of a more accurate reading of time. Managing modern life by the position of the sun would be unthinkable.
Using technology and data to manage work-life integration might still seem similarly absurd today, but, like the more precise tracking of time, it can lead to an entirely new way of living. Striking the right balance between the activities that matter in life has become so much harder due to all the reasons we’ve discussed in this article. Many of us need help with staying human in a world of automation, to ensure we live meaningful, rich lives and reach our full potential. Otherwise, we risk turning into either complete zombies or hardcore Luddites, the two extreme outcomes we seem to be headed for now.
Let there be no misunderstanding: there is a long road ahead. If we want technology to help us manage work-life integration and ultimately, in finding fulfillment, we need to change our norms and be able to trust our most sensitive data to those tools that help us accomplish this objective. To do that, trust in its creators is a requisite, something that’s not in high supply at the moment.
We’ll need different tech companies, values, and even laws than what we currently have. But change is possible, and it is coming. We’ve planted the seeds, and once the ideas mature, we’ll arrive in a world in which humans are augmented by technology to live richer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.
Big thanks to Josh Catone for being the editor on this one (like the good ol’ days!).