Even Work-Life Balance Experts Are Awful at Balancing Work and Life

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Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

For years, as director of the Work-Life Center at MIT, Kathy Simons pushed for flexible work policies, family-friendly benefits, and could cite chapter and verse the research on how taking time off to recharge improves workers’ outlook, productivity, and health. (In case you’re curious: One long-term study found that men and women who don’t take vacations are, respectively, 30 to 50 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who do. People who work long hours have a 20 percent higher mortality rate than those who don’t. And women who fail to take time off work are more likely to suffer from depression.)

Yet for five years, Simons herself didn’t take a vacation.

There are so many more stories like this. Consider Michele Vancour, for instance, a professor of public health at Southern Connecticut State University whose area of expertise is how the stress and guilt of work-life conflict can make us sick. Yet she herself gets stressed out by work-life conflict. I spoke with her on a morning when all had gone smoothly until she went to drop her son off at school on her way to work and realized she’d forgotten to put the drums he needed for the day into the car. Her head started to pound. She sighed. “Every time I have to go give a talk, I always say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’”

And a few years ago, Phyllis Stewart Pires was heading up the global gender, diversity, and work-life office of a major global tech company, traveling the world on a mission to improve work-life balance for all company employees. Until she found herself being rushed into a hospital in Germany with a potentially life-threatening blood clot. “I was literally going down the tubes,” Stewart Pires said. “I was missing family events. My friends were calling me out on being AWOL. My husband was calling me out on not doing my share. It was almost like I was obsessed with this idea that people were counting on me to really make a difference in their workplace. I couldn’t let them down.”

Stewart Pires, who left that job after she got out of the hospital and now is senior director of WorkLife Strategy at Stanford University, continues to puzzle over her behavior and that of other a number of work-life experts who struggle with balancing their own lives. “Why?” she asked. “Why is it still so difficult, when we know better?”

I’ve come to call this the expert’s dilemma. It’s something I came across again and again, both while I was researching my book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time and in my own search for that elusive state of work-life balance: At a conference a few years ago with “Pioneering Leaders in work-life integration,” I immediately gravitated to the “Overwork” table. There, academics, experts, and business leaders, including a senior VP who’d won accolades for revamping the culture of a large corporation to promote flexibility and work-life balance, confessed that they, themselves, worked like maniacs. I heard the same lament at gatherings of work-life experts from Boston to Lexington to the Bay Area. “In all my years of working in this field, I’ve never met anyone who’s not struggling themselves,” said Ken Matos, vice-president of research at Life Meets Work, a workforce-strategy consulting firm. “There’ve been way too many moments when I’ve been talking to leaders in the work-life field who work crazy hours in order to get other people time off.”

Of course, work-life leaders aren’t the only ones who suffer from the expert’s dilemma. Take doctors and nurses, who surely know better than just about anyone that smoking is bad for your health. Yet about 8 percent of health professionals smoke, including one in four licensed practical nurses. One study found more than one-third of health-care workers are obese, though they most likely know better than most how excess weight can lead to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, and even some cancers.

Store employees steal more from U.S. stores than shoplifters. Time-use researchers, I was told at a conference while awaiting a tardy presenter, can be notoriously bad with their own use of time. Even ethicists and philosophers, who earn their keep by thinking about what’s right and wrong, are no more likely to do the right thing than the rest of us. One study found ethicists to be especially delinquent library patrons, Emma Green reported in The Atlantic.

But let’s return to the question of work stress. Recent surveys show that overworked Americans put work-life balance near the top of their wish lists — but if the experts can’t seem to manage it, how can the rest of us ever hope to?

Some work-life experts I spoke to blame themselves, so we may as well start there. They blame bad habits, or worry they lack willpower. Some say they’re so passionate about their work they can’t turn it off, while others worry that there’s always so much more to do, it’s hard to know when they’re “done” for the day.

At least part of the problem with work-life conflict — for experts and for all of us — is simply the overly optimistic way we humans tend to plan (or, worse, not plan) for the future. “We’re all human,” said Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. “Expertise doesn’t protect us against having human foibles.”

The particular foible Milkman studies is the internal tension humans face between what we desire in the moment, and what we think we should do in the long run. No one’s quite sure why — maybe it’s what was required in order to survive on the plains in the age of the mastodon — but humans are biased toward the present moment, she said. We have a really difficult time making decisions that are in our best interests in the long term. In social psychology, the phenomenon is called “construal level theory”: The here and now is concrete, and the far-off future more abstract. So we’re drawn to overspend on something we concretely want now, rather than save for an abstract retirement later, even though we’ll be sorry later that we didn’t. We reach for the junk food in the moment because we’re hungry, though we really want to be trim and fit in the long run.

We procrastinate on deadlines in the moment (guilty), because we assume that at some abstract point in the future we’ll be so much more super-productive and efficient than we ever could be now. We tend to have overly optimistic yet vague assumptions that we’ll somehow be able to fit 28 hours or more of work and life into a 24-hour day. And only later do we discover, when that abstract future becomes our concrete reality, that that was a really dumb assumption. That human foible is called the “planning fallacy.”

All of these human tendencies can complicate the quest for work-life balance. At the start of the week, for instance, we may have every intention of working saner hours in the abstract, Milkman said. But in the moment, with so much work yet to do, we may decide to stay late, or take work home over the weekend.

And the more overloaded and tired we are in the moment, no matter how expert our knowledge, Milkman said, the more likely our choices will be impulsive. “It’s like saying, ‘I’m too tired now to eat right and exercise, but I’ll start next week,’” Milkman said, an exhausted new mother who juggled our conversation with grabbing breakfast on the fly as she headed to teach a class. “Of course, I realize I’m saying that as I rip into a chocolate croissant.” She considered. “Ugh. It’s stale.’”

That experts have trouble acting on their expertise comes as no surprise to David Dunning, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. He made a name for himself with what he called the Dunning-Kruger effect, the discovery that we humans are all “confident idiots,” unable to see our own clear incompetence. “People may overestimate their ability to achieve work-life balance,” he said. “But it turns out, it’s a much more difficult task than anyone imagined. It requires more savvy, more discipline. And we’re not tuned into that.”

So to begin to solve some of the part we, mortals and experts alike, play in our own work-life conflict, we first need to come to terms with our own incompetence at planning, he said, and then find ways to make the far-away future more salient in the present. “The real issue is, we know what we should do, but we don’t know how to do it, and we don’t know when to do it,” he said.

A raft of behavioral-science research shows that one of the best ways to bring the future closer to the present, to solve the questions of how and when, Dunning said, is to make binding contracts, or “pre-commitments.” When he and a colleague were having trouble procrastinating on a paper they were writing, juggling their own work-life conflicts and missing deadlines, they agreed that if they didn’t stick to their weekly writing schedule, they’d each have to donate money to causes and organizations they disliked. They got their work done.

It’s all about reshaping your environment to nudge you to make the choice in the moment that you really want in the long run. Iris Bohnet, a behavioral economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School, for instance, knows enough about present bias and getting wrapped up in the moment, that she and her husband decided to send their children to day care as a pre-commitment device, rather than hire a nanny. “That way, you actually have to go home. The day-care center closes at 6 p.m.,” she said. “Even though everyone loves their kids, it’s just harder in the moment not to answer those ten emails, to make this one phone call. Then once we’re home, we think, ‘My God, it’s so wonderful to be home, how could we have wanted to stay at the office?’”

Similarly, Dunning said, managers could help bring planning for a future vacation closer to the present by setting a deadline early in the year and asking workers to pre-commit to taking certain dates off. (Left to our own devices, Americans take among the least amount of vacation days of any advanced economy.)

With modern knowledge-work, there are no bright lines, no factory whistles telling you when work starts and stops. So Dunning suggests creating our own schedules. Dunning, like many work-life experts I spoke to, loves his work. But he knows he won’t be any good at it, or have many original ideas, if that’s all he does. So he’s started working in uninterrupted blocks in the mornings, when his energy is high, so he can knock off earlier in the evenings. On weekends, he carefully structures his time — he allows only a few hours for errands or work Saturday morning — then the rest of the weekend is “sacred” for anything other than work, like watching the English soccer team he follows religiously. “I think work-life balance is a function of planning,” he said. “And hopefully, planning one day becomes a habit.”

Dunning paused. “This sounds like such an American problem. I can assure you, my European colleagues have no such problem, or at least less of a problem, with work-life balance,” he said. “So the question I have is, is the real intervention here being Europe?”

Dunning’s onto something.

Humans and experts alike may be bad at planning for the future, but that can’t be the only reason we Americans struggle with work-life balance. We also are influenced by the people around us. And in order to fit in, or succeed, we tend to do what everyone else does. In Europe, that’s taking long vacations. In Denmark, it’s working no more than 37.5 hours a week to the dot. Anything more, I was told on a reporting trip there, and workers are viewed as inefficient.

In America, everybody who’s anybody these days seems to work all the time.

Or at least we think they do, because that’s all we see. We don’t actually see people live their lives outside of work. Marilyn Kraut, who for years ran the work-life programs at Penn, said people who worked flexible schedules tended to keep their work-life situation under wraps. “When people were trying to put balance in their lives, they kept it secret,” she said. “They were afraid others would be jealous, or see them as lesser workers.”

So we see people bragging about being “crazy busy” and sending emails at all hours. But maybe they’re really not that busy. One eye-opening recent study found that some men in a top strategy-consulting firm only pretended to work 80 hours a week to “pass” as superhero “ideal workers,” because that’s the kind of behavior that was rewarded with bonuses, promotions, and accolades. And their bosses had no idea. (Which, the researcher said, shows that putting in such nutty hours is “not necessary for high-quality work.”)

Wendy Wood and Dennis Rünger, psychologists at UCLA who study habits, have found that habits form most easily when specific behaviors are rewarded.

In most American work environments, that’s overwork. “The contexts in which knowledge workers operate today are biased towards overwork,” said Dan Connolly, a behavioral researcher with ideas42 who is studying work-life conflict. “And that’s even before you add the social influence of others’ behavior.” Which makes overwork a hard habit to break.

Humans are also influenced by role models. But if even our work-life experts aren’t showing us the way, it’s hard for us to imagine a different way of living and working. “If you spent some time in Europe, you’d think there are different ways to arrange civilization and work and family life. You’d get to see other choices are possible,” Dunning said. “A lot of Americans are stuck in the workplace overworking because that’s where everyone else is. That’s all you see. And unfortunately, in life, we’re channeled into who we are by what we don’t know is possible.”

Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan, who teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, have spent their careers studying human adult development, and how hard it is for people to change. What they’ve found is that people think what they need to change is willpower. Or tips, tricks, and tools, like Dunning’s pre-commitment devices. And for some, that’s enough. But if it’s not — if we really intend to have work-life balance, but continue to overcommit, overwork, never say no, never set boundaries, never delegate, never take vacation, never put down the damn smartphone — then something else is getting in the way. A “competing commitment,” they say, to what is most likely an unconscious assumption or belief.

They call this the “immune system.” And, much like how the body’s immune system is designed to fend off viral and bacterial attacks, the psyche’s immune system is designed to keep you safe. So if you work and live in a frenzied, overwork culture, then you may be driven by the unconscious assumption that the only way to stay safe, to be liked, to be seen as indispensible, a team player, not a prima donna, is to overwork, or at least look like you’re overworking, just like everyone else.

That’s the conclusion Phyllis Stewart Pires came to. It’s hard for her and others to model their expertise in work-life balance when “the people who are even informally praised or put up on a pedestal are likely to be the people who are available 24/7,” and the unspoken assumption is that total dedication is what’s really required to do excellent work. (It’s not. Productivity falls off a cliff after about 55 hours. But that’s another story.)

Kraut, now retired, realized that part of what motivated her overwork was the assumption, working in that always-on environment, that people may not have taken her work seriously, that promoting work-life may have been seen as soft, or for people who couldn’t hack it. “I do think there was a subconscious desire to show the legitimacy of the work I was doing.”

One prescription is for people to uncover their unconscious assumptions, and then begin to test them, says Harvard’s Lahey. “People talk about how cognitive dissonance should shape your behavior — work-life experts not having work-life balance — but it really doesn’t,” she says. “People may feel guilt and shame, and I would guess, if you’re an expert, you would also end up feeling like a fraud. But it’s not you. It’s that you haven’t been able to understand what’s driving you — your unexamined beliefs about how the world really works.”

Maybe.

But maybe what keeps us — and experts — from having the work-life balance we desire isn’t really about us at all. The parable of the Good Samaritan may explain why.

In the early 1970s, two social psychologists, John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson of Princeton, wanted to test how much personality and individual character — with all our human foibles, our drive to conform, and unconscious assumptions — shape the decisions we make. Or whether the situation we find ourselves in matters more.

Over the course of three days in December, 1970, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., Darley and Batson asked Princeton seminary students a series of questions about their religious beliefs. One group was then asked to plan a talk about seminary jobs. And another, to prepare a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story in the Bible of a man robbed, beaten, and left by the side of the road who was passed over by a priest and a Levite, before a Samaritan bound his wounds, took him to an inn, and paid for his care.

Then each group was told they needed to go to another building to deliver the talks. One group was told to hurry. Another was told to take their time. On their way to the next building, each student had to pass a “shabbily dressed man” slumped in an alley. What happened next changed social psychologists’ view of human behavior forever: 63 percent of the students who were not in a hurry offered to help the man. Of those who were in a rush, only 10 percent did. Religion didn’t matter. Personality didn’t matter. Even expertise on the parable of the Good Samaritan didn’t matter. The situation is what drove the students’ actions. The study, published in 1973 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, gave weight to what’s called the “fundamental attribution error,” our faulty proclivity to attribute our behavior to our personal disposition rather than the situation we find ourselves in.

So when Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke, author of the best-selling Predictably Irrational, and founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, thinks of the power of situation over personality and why work-life experts — and the rest of us — struggle with work-life balance, the first thing that comes to mind is a refrigerator.

“How many people right now have rotting fruit and vegetables in the refrigerator? Lots. Lots of people have a lot of stuff they paid a lot of money for, and by the time they get around to checking on it, it’s too late. They take it to the garbage in a sad little funeral,” he said. “The reason why, is bad design.”

Instead of washing and putting fruits and vegetables at eye level in the fridge, where they would more easily come to mind when we open the door, we put them, unwashed, in opaque drawers that require us to bend down and open them, he said. It’s not a lot of extra work, but enough to make choosing them effortful instead of easy. It’s an example of what he calls “choice architecture.” And if we design systems to make it easier to make better choices in the moment in the workplace, then we’re more likely to end up doing the right thing in the long run. Like better balancing work and life. “It’s okay to blame yourself if you don’t have work-life balance,” he said. “But it’s not very helpful, because the environment is so powerful.”

Right now, the way work itself is organized is enough to drive anyone mad. Email flows in instantaneously, at all hours, in a constant flood. As do the incessant pings and dings of social-media notifications. Meetings eat up large chunks of our day. That structure makes it difficult to focus attention and energy on important work. Ariely calls it “structured procrastination” — ploughing through the inbox or rushing to meetings creates an illusion of hard work, when we’re not making real progress on the things that matter. He’s right. Between answering emails and preparing for and going to meetings, a recent study by Bain & Company found that the average middle manager spends only six and a half hours a week doing real work in the office. Which helps explain why work hours continue to creep into nights and weekends. “We’ve created a work environment that gives us a lot of empty calories,” Ariely said.

Michelle Carlstrom, senior director of the Office of Work, Life and Engagement at Johns Hopkins University and Health System in Baltimore, can’t do much to change how heavy workloads and how complex work itself have become. But she is trying to change the choice architecture and environment by getting workers to sign a 30- or 90-day Work-Life Pledge and commit to choosing one strategy a day to make their work-life balance better, like sleeping seven or eight hours, setting time limits on texting and emailing, scheduling off-hours communication to go out during business hours, scheduling concentrated work on the calendar, or making time for fun. More than 1,000 people have taken the pledge in the past year, she said. They meet regularly to reinforce this fledgling effort to change culture, and she blogs about her own struggles.

What Carlstrom is doing, social psychologists would say, is restructuring the environment through two of the most powerful modes of change: creating new informal social peer expectations, which can rewire our unconscious assumptions, and new “channel factors” that design around our human foibles by making it easier to choose behaviors that improve work-life balance. “Designing and leading this project has been the single best thing for my own work-life mix in years. In years,” she said. “I had to take a public position to talk the talk and walk the walk. And it’s the first time I have.”

Ariely’s work-life balance solution would go further: completely redefining what we mean by work, redesigning the way we do it to conserve our attention and focus the mind on important work. “We need to design a system with a very, very different view of what is our true capacity.” That’s a heavy lift, especially with entrenched work cultures. But we can at least start small, he said, by rethinking our own environments: disabling notifications, limiting email checking, stopping the obsession with inbox zero — because all that does is interrupt our time with other people’s priorities. To keep him from the temptation of interruption, Ariely also uses different devices for concentrated work and connecting with others.

“Human freedom is not in our ability to make decisions. It’s in our ability to put ourselves in an environment that will lead to better outcomes,” he said. “And even experts don’t do that very well.”

At least, not without a lot of work.

Brigid Schulte is a journalist, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, and director of the Better Life Lab at New America. The Better Life Lab is partnering with ideas42 and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study overwork and work-life conflict through the lens of behavioral science.

Work-Life Balance Experts Are Bad at Balancing Work and Life