F*ck Work/Life Balance; Try Creative Flow Instead


Progressive organizations today talk a lot about work/life balance — the idea that employees should spend a certain amount of time focused on work and a certain amount of time focused on the rest of their lives (family, personal health, leisure pursuits, etc.). And while this is a huge step forward from the “work is your life” ethos of the past centuries (which a shocking number of organizations still adhere to), it misses the point.

First, work/life balance implies that we are in a zero-sum game: that work time and the rest of life exist in opposition and that time spent in one area degrades the other. That we need time away from work to recover from it (if this is your reality, there’s a more elemental discussion to have about your job).

Work Is Life

My experience is that work is essential to human life, and not just because it sustains us with money and food. Work is how humans express themselves; it is literally how we create something bigger than ourselves. It is how we take ideas and bring them to life.

Second, work/life balance often is seen as dividing up the day into inviolable sectors and one should never intrude on the other. In this view, the key to happiness is getting the balance of the sectors right: eight hours a day to work, eight hours to sleep, four to family, one to exercise, two to eating, one to general leisure — as if a healthy life is just an elaborate scheduling exercise.

It’s All About Creative Flow

The reality for most people is that these spheres of existence intermingle and are not always under our control. Inspiration hits us in the shower; a friend wants to connect in the hallway at work; our kids want attention when they get home from school (or not).

So instead of work/life balance, truly innovative organizations and leaders think about creative flow. Instead of neatly delineated sectors of the day, these conscious leaders think in terms of rhythms and waves, the peaks and valleys of thought and energy that support our work and the rest of our existence.

These leaders know that it’s not the quantity of work that counts for most skilled workers; it’s the quality of the work. Rather than try to answer every email that crosses their computers as quickly as possible (a prevalent measure of effectiveness today), effective leaders focus on creating time for doing their best thinking. Which creates more value: promptly answered emails or an innovative solution to some long-standing problem?

Creativity Is Not a 9-5 Job

Those valuable ideas and insights generally don’t come while we’re sitting at our desks 9-5. I always got my best ideas away from work: on the ski lift, running that 7th mile, or reading that book at the beach.

Similarly, we can’t always schedule when our 8th grader wants to have that discussion about peer pressure or romance. We can’t always calendar quality time to really connect with our spouse. And fun doesn’t happen on demand.

How to Create More Flow

If we’re focused on enhancing our creativity throughout our day instead of carving up our day into activity sectors, things begin to look much different than they do for work/life balancers. The number-one question conscious leaders ask themselves is: “What practices support me and the people around me to be as energized and creative as possible as often as possible?”

Some common answers:

  • Set aside time for work on my most important projects early in the day and don’t respond to email during that time
  • Get up and move at least once every hour
  • Pay attention to when I have a “No” to something
  • Pay attention to what my body is telling me about any decision (do I feel relaxed or tense about the possibilities; where do I feel pain; is my gut churning; do I have a hunch about this; etc.)
  • Start meetings with a moment of appreciation and personal connection
  • Pay attention to when I am most energetic during the day and schedule my work accordingly
  • Keep a notebook by the bed to jot down those midnight inspirations and insights
  • Set aside time to check email at home because I’m curious, not because I’m afraid of missing something

All of these moves are aimed at increasing creative energy. The result is a day that looks more like a wave with peaks and valleys devoted to work and life intermixed with each other. Each benefits from and supports high achievement in the other.

So, what can you do to support your maximum creative flow right now?

BTW, a great book for creating practices to increase your energy and creativity is “The Power of Full Engagement,” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. Here’s a good summary of its key points.

Photo Credit: Radhanath Swami