How to Ruin Work-Life Balance and then Take it Back
There is no such thing as a free lunch. It’s an old and well known adage, but the bait could take on new and unexpected forms and flavors and fool you just as easy. I have to admit that I have been deceiving myself in the past four years, and I’m finally ending it.
When I started working for a consulting company I quickly appropriated the company laptop to be used at home. This was allowed and many people did just that. Incentives were quite clear: why worry about purchasing yourself a computer and why follow an upgrade cycle when your company could do it for you? I generously gifted my existing laptop to a relative, and being quite proud about my sound financial judgment I happily started sharing one laptop between home and office.
It worked great and the benefits were numerous. There was never a need to synchronize any data. A browser’s tab with an interesting article but no time to read in the office was simply left open till I came back to it at home. If an errand required me calling some business during working hours, I did all my research at home, and just left the browser open on a “contact us” page till the lunch time in the office. My pictures, documents, applications were always where I needed them and exactly in the state I left them. Dropbox and iCloud were for people burdened with extra but similar or even identical devices.
The balance started to shift slowly, inconspicuously but steadily. It’s quite all right to finish at home that email you started in the office. It’s not quite alright though to attend to your personal email on company’s time, and justifiably so. There was also this feeling of good-fellowship when I continued to reply to an important email thread on a weekend, just like almost all of my peers did. The work emails from my boss arriving on Saturday or Sunday were my favorites because they gave me a chance to childishly demonstrate my level of commitment. I found that I could also be more fluid at managing my time in the office and absorb interruptions and time overruns by taking some of my work home. It was so easy and natural: the project files were already opened and I had the whole environment set up, I just needed one extra hour… or two… or the whole Saturday. It was surprisingly easy to justify extra hours to myself. I believed in what I was doing and doing a little bit more of a worthwhile thing felt, well, worthwhile. It was a harder sell for my wife, but she understood and supported me as long as I didn’t go into extremes. I was able to accomplish quite a lot for long periods of time till I started to burn out, of course. The ostensible fluidity of my time management approach turned into sloppiness and eventually collapsed as there was no good reason to manage time – I could always catch up in the evening or over the weekend.
This was not a straight descent into madness. I felt overworked at times, recognized my state, and made explicit resolutions to leave work at work during some weekends. I only opened the laptop to check personal email and import pictures from a camera. Oh wait… Outlook has five unread messages… “Why didn’t I shut it down before I left on Friday”?.. “What if it’s important”?.. I peeked and it wasn’t anything that couldn’t have waited till Monday. “It was harmless” – I sighted but it was a lie. I just reset my decompression and recovery time to zero. Even if I wasn’t actually working, I was thinking about work. The constant mental engagement was truly exhausting because it bridged weeks and quashed all the benefits of weekends. This was sad on another level as well because it was all happening at the expense of spending time with my wife and giving her my undivided attention. It was also done to the detriment of myself as a person outside of the office. I used to have my own projects, ideas to pursue, blog posts to write and reflect. I don’t know how I didn’t see it earlier, but the office laptop never put me in a mood for personal pursuits when I opened it at home. Outlook, Jira, Confluence, Gliffy, SQL Developer, IntelliJ – how could one think of anything different when those were the applications staring at you every time you opened the lid?
The very existence of this article means that I left my office laptop in the office, and I’m typing this text on a new home computer, and I feel inspired! If I ever needed a justification for buying a new tech “toy” then here it is. I’m happy to pay for this lunch.