Sabien on "work-life" balance

by Rob Bensinger1 min read20th May 202120 comments

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From Duncan Sabien:

This morning, a friend of mine referred to his "work-life balance" and then grimaced at himself, and noted that he doesn't really like that term.

(As far as I can tell, he doesn't like it because his work is important to him, and is part of being alive, and his non-work life isn't some fundamentally different kind of thing.)

This led me to the mental distinction between one's directly valuable life experiences, and one's indirectly/instrumentally valuable ones.

Like, there are many fewer layers involved when you, say, snuggle up to someone you love, or pop a delicious food in your mouth, or bounce on a trampoline.  There's a very short, direct path between the action and the reward; it's just straightforwardly close to your values and the things which bring you joy and fulfillment.

Whereas if you're good at your work and you think that your job is important, there's an intervening layer or three—I'm doing X because it unblocks Y, and that will lead to Z, and Z is good for the world in ways I care about, and also it earns me $ and I can spend $ on stuff...

I think it's less about "work-life balance" and more about the ratio of direct vs. indirect value.  "How many of the things that I'm doing pay off directly, versus how many of them are knocking over dominos that eventually lead to the payoffs I'm seeking?"

(And how close is that ratio to one which I will actually find sustainable and enjoyable and healthy.)

This, to me, is a distinction that cuts closer to the true joints of reality than the arbitrary categories of "work" and "everything else."  As a single easy example, this also applies to the balance, in one's relationships, between straightforwardly valuable interactions with people you enjoy, and meta interactions/maintenance/laying the groundwork for the future.

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FWIW, I think work-life balance is one of those things that made sense in its original context and then generalized and stopped making as much sense.

As I recall, the term first appears in the 80s and context was women trying to find a balance between workforce participation, which had recently transitioned from a novel thing for women to do to established norm, and other life activities they had an interest in. It came up in the transition of traditional Western gender roles where men focused on work and women focused on home and family to one where both, ideally, had a more equal balance between the two concerns.

That context is still relevant to a lot of people, but for many it makes a lot less sense, and work-life balance more seems to be refer to not letting work consume your life when you can be contacted anytime anywhere day or night.

And as Duncan is getting at, employment has changed a lot since the term was coined and there's now a lot more opportunity for jobs and work to be aligned with a person's personal goals. So rather than a job being something instrumental that simply funds the rest of life but is otherwise disconnected from it, it's now more often an integral part of what you're choosing to do with your life. Definitely not true for everyone, but it's especially true for highly demand folks like programmers who have the luxury of choosing work that's aligned with their interests.

Definitely not true for everyone, but it's especially true for highly demand folks like programmers who have the luxury of choosing work that's aligned with their interests.

This sounds overly optimistic to me (am a programmer). I wonder what fraction of programmers would stay at their jobs if they had "fuck-you money".

Maybe this is a consequence of me not living in Silicon Valley, but the job market for programmers seems... weird. On one hand, every company is complaining about how difficult it is to hire programmers. On the other hand, most companies keep doing things that many programmers hate: "agile" micromanagement, open spaces, no working from home (pre-COVID), etc. I would naively assume that given the amount of complaining, the companies would compete harder at being attractive places to work at. Somehow, they do not. Most programmers I know are complaining about their jobs. This may be a coincidence, or a selection effect on my side; but that's how I see it.

In my experience the american programmer market is vastly more skewed towards benefitting programmers than anywhere else in the world. I have many friends in Germany working in programming, and starting salaries easily tend to be 2-3x what they are in Germany if you include stock compensation, with much greater benefits and flexibility. 

So if you are somewhere else than the U.S., the programmer market is very different and more comparable to other industries, in my experience.

Oh interesting. I am In the Bay Area bubble and working as a programmer which is why I felt like this was an exception to be called out. Here, if you hate your job enough and you're legibly good, you can always just go start a company instead.

Looking at your points, I think a lot of the things you bring up are different from alignment. Like, I might put up with shitty working conditions to get a job that is aligned with my values and so maybe won't feel so bad about the tradeoffs I'm making. Sure, you might say, work 60 hours a week, but at least it's 60 hours doing something you think matters. Traditional work life balance matters more when you have a job producing something you don't care about, like say a job in manufacturing making a commodity product that you know someone else could make just as well if you didn't.

Here, if you hate your job enough and you're legibly good, you can always just go start a company instead.

Starting a company takes skills that go beyond being a good programmer.

In the Bay Area for better or worse not knowing how to start, let alone run, a successful company is not a blocker. If you have a good enough idea and enough desire, you can either get assistance or get enough money to learn by trying. Of course you do have to pass some minimum bar of social skills to be able to interact with others and convince them to work with you.

If you don't like doing all the non-programming work that running your own company entails, you might prefer a annoying job that still only requires programming over starting your own company.

Here, if you hate your job enough and you're legibly good, you can always just go start a company instead.

It sounds good. I have no idea how high bar is "legibly good", e.g. whether I would have a chance to pass it. (This is not just about me, but generally, what percent of programmers this actually applies to.)

Working 60 hours a week on something truly aligned to my values doesn't feel so bad. Still, it would compete for time with everything else, such as social life, family, taking care of health.

It also seems to me like a harmful meme, on a society level. With imbalance of power, you get preference falsification. You get people who are not aligned with their jobs, but need to pay their bills, and sometimes the condition for getting the job is pretending that you are super passionate about it. Then the employers can use this meme to push them to work 60 hours a week. In such case, "work/life balance" is the socially acceptable excuse you can use when you are not allowed to express your true preferences.

That context is still relevant to a lot of people, but for many it makes a lot less sense, and work-life balance more seems to be refer to not letting work consume your life when you can be contacted anytime anywhere day or night.

Right -- though you could say the underlying core sentiment is still somewhat similar in that regard.

 "Old work-life balance" -- work and life are separate spheres, don't let the work sphere (a time block of say 9-5) expand to take up space at the expense of the other sphere, a separate time block. 

"New work-life balance" -- let's try to not let the work sphere intrude too much into the other sphere as a single time block (e.g., turn off the screen after 5 pm and that's it) but if that doesn't work pragmatically (e.g. on-call, work from home), still minimize the time/effort that work saps from you (that 10 min interruption to check an email followed by 5 min of worrying and planning for the next day could be shortened to 3 min total, or something, then forgotten about before returning to dinner).

In one case, I imagine work as one single bloc of contiguously colored territory and non-work as another, and you want to avoid the one territory expanding too much at the expense of the second.   In the other one territory has made small patches of enclaves into the other, but the balance is the same -- you want to make sense total area of one color is not too big or small, whether it's contiguous or not. (The area or size of patches could be time, mental effort or whatever in the metaphor).

>And as Duncan is getting at, employment has changed a lot since the term was coined and there's now a lot more opportunity for jobs and work to be aligned with a person's personal goals.

I can agree, I am skeptical that this ...integratedness(?) is actually a good thing for everyone. From point of view of the old "work vs life" people who valued the life part, it probably looks like them losing if what they get is "your work is supposed to integral part of what you choose to do with your life" but the options of where and what kind of work to do are not that different than they were some decades ago. And even the new^1 options present trade-offs.

Maybe there are some people whose true calling is to found a startup or develop mastery in some particular technology stack or manage projects that create profit for stockholders. However, if the job market environment is shaped by it so that every job expects an applicant whose life goals are integrally aligned to performing the job, it plausibly affects what kind of goals people think are thinkable when they think of their life and careers, because it certainly affects how they present themselves to the hiring committee or people with equivalent power.

--

Another point, concerning integration of work in ones life. I found myself thinking of the movie Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, 1953), which I saw maybe two years ago. While the story is not exactly about jobs, it explores how the modernity (the contemporary, post-WW2, kind  of modernity in particular) intersects with the Japanese society through the lenses of single Japanese family. The many characters in the film work various jobs: there is a son who is a physician (the kind of one who does visits and has a private practice), a daughter who is running a beauty saloon (a family business like setup; if the husband did something not affiliated with business, I forget what), and a daughter-in-law who is a menial clerk at a corporate business.

The part where this musing connects to anything, while writing the first part of the comment, I started to think about, what are the personal goals of the physician and the beauty business owner? If I recall, both of them are the kind of person who wants to strive and get forward and upward in their life in Tokyo (this leads to the one of conflicts in the film) and view their jobs integral to that goal. Their jobs are quite integrated to their life in concrete terms, both practice at their homes. Both kind of professions predate the work-life balance, probably. One could replace the beauty saloon with something a bit more traditional, like a restaurant or inn without much difference to their relevance to story, at the very least. The character with clearest difference between time off and time in work is the office clerk. Which actually connects to another plot point. I recommend the movie.

Maybe the big difference comes implied in the "good for the world in ways I care about" angle There is no crusader or activist, someone who seeks to make change in the world instead of making it well within it. Today the doctor would be likely to emphasize how he wants to help  people by being a good doctor, the family business would have a thing (natural beauty products that help the environment, powered by solar!), and the big corp would have mission, too. The owner of the corp, several echelons above, might be even serious about it. Nobody goes to found a start-up.

So, I guess my point is that there always have been people who don't view their work and non-work lives a fundamentally different kind of thing.

1: The newness might be debatable, though. I don't think starting a technology business because you have skills and ideas is something truly new in the US, I think both Edison and Tesla tried their hands at it and I have read Tesla's interviews which indicate he thought it was for the betterment of mankind? It would have been with the spirit of the times.

However, if the job market environment is shaped by it so that every job expects an applicant whose life goals are integrally aligned to performing the job, it plausibly affects what kind of goals people think are thinkable when they think of their life and careers, because it certainly affects how they present themselves to the hiring committee or people with equivalent power.

No matter what the market is like, your goals are not going to be 100% economical. I suppose many people value things like being healthy, being fit, reading books, watching movies, spending time with friends, spending time with family... but all of these are only valuable to you personally, no company is going to pay you for this. (Okay, there are some rare situations, like movie reviewers or professional sportsmen; but even then the reviewer is not paid for being fit, and the sportsman is not paid for watching movies.) So you already have the inevitable conflict between "whatever you want to be your career" and "all other personally valuable things". And the market insisting on employees being passionate about their jobs pushes them to prioritize the former at expense of the latter.

It's like a psychological ploy to make you feel guilty about having complex values and personal boundaries.

I thought work-life-balance is the term accusing the exploitation of workers: Chronic overtime work and frequent night work with strict penalty on late coming. Although I know such workplaces exist in America, I expect them to be much more frequent in Asia. If the author haven't worked in those, he or she may not see the whole picture of the pursuit of work-life-balance. I generally agree about the point of the writing though.

This concept of direct versus indirect value seems quite related to the concept of alienation from the product of labor. In both cases, although the worker does receive value from their work (a paycheck or feeling like they're helping the world), the worker does not directly benefit from the actual labor that they are doing, making them feel unconnected with their work and lose motivation.

This sounds correct to me. Both job and non-job can contain some activities that are intrinsically valuable and some activities that are instrumentally valuable. For example, at job you may enjoy coding and hate meetings; in the afternoon you may enjoy sport and hate housework.

With further complication, that even if your job mostly consists of enjoyable activities, you might still prefer to not spend too much time doing it, simply because you also want to do the other enjoyable activities. You may love coding and sport, and still resent overtime, because although you can code a lot, you have no time left for sport. Heck, you may resent overtime if it means you have no time left for housework, and your home is a dirty mess, even if you enjoy coding and hate housework per se. (inb4 "hire someone to do the housework", okay imagine a different activity that cannot be delegated)

The post takes a very consequentialist point of view. Activities may be unrewarding and useless, performed out of principle that is not itself justified in a consequentialist framing, or in pursuit of a hedonistically unrewarding purpose. Important productive things can be done this way as well, motivated neither by their potential use nor enjoyment of the process (even when potentially useful and enjoyable).

I'm in particular contrasting hedonistic enjoyment with motivations that are not emotional or otherwise grounded in psychology. The objects of an activity can themselves constitute motivation, which is unrelated to hedonistic side-effects, as those are not the point (and don't have to be absent). This is like an anti-wireheading injunction.

Whereas if you're good at your work and you think that your job is important, there's an intervening layer or three—I'm doing X because it unblocks Y, and that will lead to Z, and Z is good for the world in ways I care about, and also it earns me $ and I can spend $ on stuff...


Yes initially there might be a few layers, but there's also the experience of being really good at what you do, being in flow, at which point Y and Z just kind of dissolve into X, making X feel valuable in itself like jumping on a trampoline.

Seems like this friend wants to be in this state by default. If X inherits its value from Z through an intellectual link, a S2-level association, the motivation to do X just isn't as strong as when the value is directly hardcoded into X itself on the S1 level. "Why was I filling in these forms again? Something with solving global coordination problems? Whatever it's just my Duty as a Good Citizen." or "Whatever I can do it faster than Greg".

But there is a problem: the more the value is a property of X, the harder it will be to detach from it when X suddenly doesn't become instrumental to Z anymore. Here we find ourselves in the world of dogma and essentialism and lost purposes.

So we're looking at a fundamental dilemma: do I maintain the most accurate model by always deriving my motivation from first principles, or do I declare the daily activities of my job to be intrinsically valuable?

In practice I think we tend to go back and forth between these extremes. Why do we need breaks, anyway? Maybe it's to zoom out a bit and rederive our utility function.

investing-consumption ratio

related: "Consume now or later?": https://matiroy.com/writings/Consume-now-or-later.html

From Duncan Sabien:

I find that line strange. Did you decide to publish something that Duncan wrote elsewhere (did you ask for permission)? Did Duncan ask you to publish something?

Duncan posted it in a private chat I was in (and on FB); I asked if he'd cross-post to LW, or if he'd prefer that I post it for him; he voted for the latter. He didn't ask for it to be cross-posted, but also didn't object.

(Meta - the OP contains at least two major points to fence with, the second being more novel, as far as I can tell. But the first one is more engageable. Maybe we should experiment with changing the order of points, or just leave the more-engageable-less-novel parts trivially less convenient to access.)