Managing work-life balance in your twenties

In college, many of my peers did internships – and eventually went on to secure jobs – at investment banks. Some would brag about the money they made, or the number of hours they worked, as if this was something to be proud of. I quickly realized that this wasn’t for me. I knew I’d go crazy if I had to work 100 hour weeks with little-to-no sleep. The money wasn’t worth it.

A story in The Guardian referenced a memo sent to new interns at Barclays:

When a new group of interns recently arrived at Barclays in New York, they discovered a memo in their inboxes. It was from their supervisor at the bank, and headed: “Welcome to the jungle.” The message continued: “I recommend bringing a pillow to the office. It makes sleeping under your desk a lot more comfortable … The internship really is a nine-week commitment at the desk … An intern asked our staffer for a weekend off for a family reunion – he was told he could go. He was also asked to hand in his BlackBerry and pack up his desk.”

The memo was meant as a joke, but I heard stories that weren’t that far off.* It was a powerful thing to know what I didn’t want and to look for companies that valued work-life balance and a basic sense of humanity.

*You may know about Moritz Erhardt, the 21-year-old London intern who died after working 72 hours in a row at Bank of America.

It’s just not healthy or productive to work long hours consistently.

Research from the Australian National University recently found that working anything over 39 hours a week is a risk to wellbeing.

Is there a healthy and acceptable level of work? According to US researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, most modern employees are productive for about four hours a day: the rest is padding and huge amounts of worry. Pang argues that the workday could easily be scaled back without undermining standards of living or prosperity.

Other studies back up this observation. The Swedish government, for example, funded an experiment where retirement home nurses worked six-hour days and still received an eight-hour salary. The result? Less sick leave, less stress, and a jump in productivity.

But in today’s world, even if you’re only working 40 hours a week, it’s hard to fully disengage. You have email on your phone and access to internet anywhere. Sometimes you get texts from your boss or co-workers. Our smartphones make it difficult to separate work from play.

My friend Alex and I have talked a lot about this, because we’re both on the same page—we believe employers should do more to encourage a healthy work-life balance and repress a culture of working late and taking your work home with you. Alex also wrote about this at length in his book Too Much Meat on the Sandwich.

I also find I need meaningful distractions during the week so that I’m more productive, rested, and energized at work. Here are some of those things:

  • Run. In the warm months, I run a couple of nights a week after work. It is the ultimate distraction, because it’s hard to think about anything but the pain and agony that you’re going through. And then after a few miles, the endorphins kick in, and you go into a weird trance, and it all feels good.
  • Sleep. I still try to get eight hours of sleep every night.
  • Take a two week sabbatical. Every year since I graduated college, I have taken off the last two weeks of December (sometimes more!). In lieu of traveling, I become a hermit and take time to read, catch up on Netflix, watch old baseball highlights on YouTube, and just putz around with no responsibilities at all. It is sublime.
  • Write. I was doing pretty well at this up until a year ago. I’ve written like a million words on this thing.
  • Baseball. You may know that I enjoy baseball. It is wonderful to get so completely wrapped up in this world, to watch the Yankees on hot summer nights, to devour the news of the day, to spend hours combing through Baseball Reference, to read wonderful stories from Joe Posnanski and Jayson Stark and Tom Verducci and Ben Lindbergh and so many others. Baseball is an absolute delight.

It can be difficult to maintain this balance, particularly in your twenties when you are trying to make an impression and carve out a career for yourself. And late nights will inevitably happen at almost any job. But I think being mindful of what gets you recharged and refocused, and actively pursuing those things, will keep you happier, healthier, and an all-around sane person.


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