How to Find Balance Between Work and Life

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" by Eric Barker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How hard should you work? What does it mean to work hard but smart? Is work-life balance achievable?

In Barking Up the Wrong Tree, peak performance expert Eric Barker discusses the importance of hard work and persistence. He does, however, believe that there’s such a thing as working too hard. He argues that a truly successful life involves pursuing joy, reaching your goals, connecting with others, and making an impact, and he offers tips on how to build a schedule so that you can achieve this healthy balance.

Keep reading for Barker’s ideas on finding balance between work and life.

Balance Between Work and Life

It’s essential to work hard—to be persistent and stick to your goals so you can achieve them. But, most modern experts also tout work-life balance. So, which is it? Barker agrees that working hard is essential, but he also approves of finding balance between work and life. In other words, you should work hard—but work smart.

Barker explains that, if you want to succeed, you have to spend several hours on your goals—ideally, at least 10,000 hours to become an expert. In fact, research suggests that, as long as you’re relatively smart, greatness is determined by how long you work intensely at something. 

Why 10,000 Hours Might Not Be Enough

Working 10,000 hours doesn’t guarantee that you’ll become an expert—you have to spend those hours on “deliberate practice,” a term Barker never explicitly defines. In Peak, psychologist Anders Ericsson explains that deliberate practice has five main features: It’s competitive, requires maximal effort, involves repeating time-tested skills, is performed under the tutelage of coaches, and can be measured objectively.

But, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers, spending 10,000 hours on deliberate practice is often a luxury afforded only to the privileged because having money can buy you that time. For example, someone who can afford to hire a cleaning service can spend more time practicing a skill than someone who has to clean their home themselves.

Despite this, Barker argues that work-life balance is also essential because spending all your time working comes with trade-offs. Notably, people who spend all their time working often struggle to maintain good relationships—which, as we saw in our section on networking, are essential. Moreover, working too much often leads to exhaustion—which reduces your health and creativity and can lead to burnout.

(Shortform note: Work-life balance is especially important for women: In Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez explains that long work hours are particularly damaging to women’s health because women probably also do most of the unpaid care work at home. So, as Sandberg points out in Lean In, if you’re a woman who wants a good work-life balance (including a husband and family), you should pick a good partner: someone who doesn’t spend all his time working and is willing to share equally in home and childcare responsibilities.)

The problem? Barker explains that it’s difficult to achieve work-life balance today in ways that it wasn’t in the past. Thanks to technology, we can now work anytime we want—and we feel pressured to do so because if we don’t, someone else might. When we always have the option to work—and we’re worried that if we don’t work, we’ll fail because someone else worked harder than we did—we tend to work. Unfortunately, however, this often leads us to neglect other important areas of our life—like our relationships.

(Shortform note: In The Psychology of Money, Housel also contends that we struggle to achieve work-life balance today—but not because we always have the option to work. Rather, Housel believes that the nature of work now forces us to work constantly: Most of us perform knowledge work that intrudes upon our thoughts long after we leave the workplace. This makes us feel like we’re always working and that we don’t have control over our time—and this lack of control has reduced our happiness and, as Barker notes, impaired our relationships.)

How to Build a Balanced Schedule

So, what should you do? Barker argues that the most important thing is to decide what your successful life looks like. By doing this, you’ll be able to ignore the world’s unrealistic demands and feel less guilty focusing on working when you need to and playing when you need to. Research suggests that a successful life should have four main elements: pursuing joy, reaching your goals, connecting with others, and making an impact. 

Then, Barker recommends ensuring that you’re spending time on all four of those elements. Don’t try to be perfect; just figure out what’s adequate in each category. To do so, first determine what your current schedule looks like—how much time are you spending on each element, and how much time are you wasting? Then, jot down how many hours you’d like to spend on each element, and adjust your schedule accordingly.

How to Build a Schedule That Reflects Your Values

Like Barker, productivity expert Nir Eyal recommends building a schedule that reflects your priorities in life and adjusting it as necessary. However, in Indistractable, Eyal recommends a different method for doing so. 

First, instead of focusing on activities that build joy, goals, connections, and your legacy, Eyal recommends that you focus your schedule on the three responsibilities that take up all of your time—you, your relationships, and your work—and your values in each. These values represent what’s important to you and who you want to be. For example, your value in your relationship may be to spend quality time together, so you might schedule a date night. 

Then, Eyal recommends that you timebox: dedicate specific blocks of time to specific activities, ensuring that you schedule enough time for yourself, your relationships, and your work. Every minute of your day should be timeboxed because it’s the only way to accurately gauge how often you do what you planned. Live by this schedule as much as possible, but keep a distraction tracker: Each time you deviate from the schedule, note why and how you got distracted. 

Finally, Eyal recommends that you spend 20 minutes each week with your schedule and distraction tracker to reflect on two questions: When did you stick to or deviate from your schedule and what schedule changes might help you avoid distractions? By frequently reflecting on your schedule, you’ll become more aware of when you get distracted—and can slowly adjust your schedule so that it meets all your values and works with your life. 

Worried that you can’t spend your time in your desired way because you might not be able to get all your work done? Barker proposes two solutions. First, speak with your supervisor if you need to. Ask her what she wants you to prioritize, then present a plan that makes you both happier. Say she wants you to check your email every hour, but you find doing so unproductive. When you discuss her priorities, you might learn that she simply wants to remain in the loop. You might then suggest scheduling a daily five-minute phone call with her so you can update her more efficiently without spending hours on email.   

Second, Barker recommends that you schedule your workday: Pick the time you want to stop working, then decide exactly when you’ll do which projects, scheduling the ones that require the most focus early in the day. Setting aside dedicated time to do the most important work ensures that it gets done—and still allows you the time you need to enjoy other aspects of your life. 

How to Schedule Your Workday Effectively

In Indistractable, Eyal makes more detailed recommendations on both how to schedule your workday and talk to your manager so you can get your most important work done and maintain work-life balance. 

Eyal recommends first that you create a schedule that includes both your plan for your work and any non-negotiable work commitments. Then, regularly share this schedule with your manager. When your manager has a clear idea of how your time is being spent, she gains greater context on potential issues (like a productivity slump), can suggest areas where you can reprioritize tasks as necessary, and can discern when it’s appropriate to ask you to do more work.
How to Find Balance Between Work and Life

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Here's what you'll find in our full Barking Up the Wrong Tree summary :

  • How you can achieve the ideal balance of work and play
  • The importance of kindness, networks, and your attitude towards success
  • Why you should gamify your life journey

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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