“I don’t believe in work-life balance. I don’t think it’s possible.”
An entrepreneur named Steve Chin said this to me. He had earned an opinion on the subject. His startup Survature had successfully raised $660,000 in a seed round, and as anyone who has done it would tell you, riding the fundraising circuit in the Southeast is exhausting.
I had asked this question: “How do you protect against burnout?”
A couple dozen of us had gathered at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) as a part of KEC’s MediaWorks accelerator. Seasoned founders like Steve were fielding questions from younger founders like myself, whose startups were a part of that MediaWorks cohort.
Still new to the startup world at the time, I was supporting my family with marketing consulting gigs and mobile apps while also trying to validate the business model of my startup Closeup.fm.
I knew I couldn’t keep up the pace forever, so Steve’s answer struck a chord in me. He avoided the neat, easily digestible answers that are in such wide circulation these days. All the boisterous talk and bravado in the startup subculture reminds me of the locker room from my high school football days: “Oh… you’re tired? You must not be fully committed, and in that case, you don’t have what it takes to win.”
Brief Tirade: I never liked people telling me that I needed to give 110%. Even if that were possible, I’d end up dead. Then how vital would the team, the company, the business opportunity be? Beware business truisms that cause you to abuse your biggest asset: you.
Since that summer night in 2014, I have skirted burnout territory, sometimes coming close enough to recognize that I was burning down but not out quite yet; sometimes crossing that unmarked border and feeling my energy bleed out and graying exhaustion seep in.
You know you’re approaching burnout territory when you’re tired and grumpy all of the time; when you have heated dialogues with people in your head; when you have trouble sleeping; when you can’t celebrate other people’s successes; when you become skeptical of people and their motives.
Resentment replaces passion. Why do other people seem to be thriving while I’m floundering? It’s not fair.
Anxiety replaces optimism. What if this person, this situation, this event—which posts a vague yet ominous threat—ruins my dreams and hurts my family? I need to quit taking these stupid risks and be responsible for a change.
Complacency replaces drive. If this enterprise is doomed to fail then what’s the point? Might as well sleep in.
I needed a better way to think about and practice self-care, and in May of 2015, I stumbled across a framework that has proven both strong and flexible.
But before we get into Five Buckets, I want to touch on a burning question:
Why is work-life balance so hard?
Three reasons immediately come to mind:
1) Popular culture lacks depth and substance.
We live in a society that rewards dysfunction and encourages unsustainable habits and lifestyles. Many celebrities and influencers, who by hook, crook, or hard work manage to become household names, lead lives characterized by broken relationships.
Artistic, professional, and financial accomplishments aside, can we not find better icons, better entertainment? Is the paragon of human expression and experience really what we find in Us Weekly? If everyone were to churn through money, friends, and lovers at such a pace, society as we know it would implode.
Most of us know better than to tell our daughters to model their lives after Kim Kardashian, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think we can give attention to the Kims of our era without also losing an equal measure of sanity and soul nourishment that we might have gained elsewhere.
Every folly and vain pursuit has embedded in it an opportunity cost.
(Did I just use the word “folly”? Now I’m really starting to sound like a recovering English major with two kids. Sheesh.)
2) Our definitions of success lack depth and substance.
“Success” has become one-dimensional. It has turned green.
“Success” is predicated upon achievement, and achievement is measured by financial surplus. Success is money, and money is success. This definition persists despite the fact that we know, we know, happiness still eludes the glitterati who can pay cash for yachts, private jets, and exotic cars.
Lots of us would find a way to be miserable on Necker Island. We could be in paradise, in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and we’d still have to live with ourselves.
Chronic discontentment is a spiritual wound that requires a spiritual salve. Money can’t heal it.
3) Our lives lack clear purpose.
Because we’re uncertain what the good life is—let alone how to attain it—we grab at anything that promises purpose, prospering, or transcendence.
Concepts like work-life balance seem to offer a way out of the workaholic trap.
But work isn’t the problem. For those of us who enjoy our work the line between work and play will always be blurry. Why would we deny ourselves the pleasure? No, the point is to ensure that one thing we value doesn’t crowd out all of the other things we value.
The concept of “work-life balance” is thus too binary. It presupposes that work and life are separate, at odds even, on two sides of a teeter-totter. Finding better work-life balance thus becomes another opportunity to achieve a better output.
Life is reduced to rule-keeping and performance.
The world doesn’t need more highly productive acrobats any more than it needs billionaires. The world needs more whole people. The world needs more passionate, purposeful men and women at peace with themselves.
So where do you and I fit into that?
Well, I can’t say I’ve got it all figured out. I do know some people need to work more, not less. Others need to work less.
The problem stems not from work but from allowing one thing we value to crowd out other things we value.
“How do you protect against burnout?” isn’t a bad question. Neither is “How do you achieve work-life balance?”
But we can substitute better questions:
- Are you spending your time on the things that bring you joy?
- Are you doing what you want to be doing?
- What do you want?
On a call one day, I told my coach Daniel that I wanted a better routine. He was quiet for a few moments, then he said, “I’m not convinced you want or need a better routine. I think you want to spend your time on things you really value. You want to lead a values-based life.”
The conversation that followed planted the seeds of a meditation I named “Five Buckets.” I use it at SPACE Retreats, and I hope it helps you redefine success and take better care of your greatest asset.
The meditation is simple. Imagine that you holding a water pitcher and standing over five red buckets lined up on the sidewalk. The water in the pitcher is your time each day, your waking hours each day, and the buckets are the things you value enough to pour time into.
The buckets will vary from person to person. Here are my five:
- Spirituality – Carving out space for solitude and connecting with God
- Stewardship – Thoughtful care and use of my mind, body, and resources
- Creative Expression – Writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction; cooking; planning trips; even business ideas
- Relationships – Meaningful time with family and friends
- Fruitful labor – Making my contribution to the healing of the world
The amount of water I pour in each bucket will change from day to day, week to week, season to season. Some days will have more fishing and conversation and prayer and poetry in them. Others will have more work in them.
I love my work. But if I work all the time than I won’t make space to connect with God or to write a humor piece or to color with my daughter Salem. I want to look back on a life spent on all five buckets, not one.
I want to live a full, abundant life, not a balanced one.
As I mentioned before, the goal isn’t to work less. The goal is to spend our time on the things we value. For one thing we value to dominate other things we value equally will burn us down.
Flexibility, Not Rigidity
There’s a similar concept similar to Five Buckets in monasticism. The word for it is horarium.
Benedictine monks spend time each day on work, study, prayer, and rest. These pursuits make up part of their rule of life. The Latin root for rule is regulus, and its original meaning is closer to the word rhythm than to the word rule.
A rhythm of life suggests flexibility, not rigidity. You must have grace with yourself when you make mistakes, when your work too much or play too much, went you burn down because you have misspent some of your time.
Your Five Buckets
How you spend your time either moves you toward wholeness or away from it.
It’s your turn to pick Five Buckets. What do you really value?
- Map out your perfect day.
- Who or what is a part of it?
- Write down the people and pursuits.
- Write down the values that those people and pursuits represents.
- Organize those into affinity five affinity groups and label each one. For example, I like reading, running, and giving, and when I gave that more thought, I realized that all three are different forms of faithful stewardship—stewardship of my mind, body and resources.
Now you have your Five Buckets. Life need not be a balancing act. Success is as simple as pouring time each day into each of your buckets.
Do you want to build a profitable business you love?
Duh. Pony up that email address, and you can learn from my failures. You can laugh at my mistakes. You can envy my success at croquet, slow running, and modest bank accounts. Let’s make good money and leave the world better than we found it.
No-nonsense business advice for content writers and freelancers. Served warm with a side of dad jokes.
Also published on Medium.