Reflections on work-life balance

🌱Planted April 5, 2023.
seedling 🌱
1 minute read ⏱

Work-life balance has grown to be a major topic in recent years, particularly in the time when people were working from home during the CoVid-19 pandemic. Throughout my life I’ve had various types of work-life relationships with varying levels of balance. My current views on the subject are best viewed through the lens of this journey and what I learned at each stage along the way to where I am now, which is the perfect level of work-life balance for me. It is my hope that what I have found helpful will also help you reason about what an ideal work-life balance is for you. I fully expect it to be different from mine, and I hope my own reflections below will push you to reflect on what your ideal work-life balance is.


My undergrad experience was that classes are somewhat randomly distributed from 9AM-9PM Monday through Friday. In addition to class, there were also assignments and projects that could be worked on whenever I wanted, as long as they were completed by the due date. In a typical week at DigiPen (where I did my undergrad), most students would spend around 25 hours in class and another 30-60 hours on homework and projects. Not all weeks had the same workload, but school definitely dominated the week for all students. It was a common sentiment that “life is better when you graduate” among alumni, faculty, and as a general sentiment about life as an engineer. While most people looked forward to this future, I rather enjoyed student life.

During the nearly 20 years of school completed by most white collar workers prior to entering the workforce, the structure of a day looks very different from student life. Classes, unlike meetings, are punctuated by break periods of 5-10 minutes every hour. As students grow older, their schedules gain flexibility and education time shifts from being spent in class to doing homework and projects independently. There are regularly schedule breaks - winter break, spring break, and summer break. The latter of which is months long - a single break with more time off than is typical for most workers to have in an entire year. Time to explore new hobbies, learn things you are uniquely interested in, relax, and travel. Going from the level of flexibility afforded by school, I found it a daunting proposition to accept the stiff structure of corporate life.

Corporate work

After undergrad I started my career at Microsoft. While there, I learned a lot about what it means to be a working professional. One of the biggest changes from undergrad is how the day is structured. Compared to undergrad, days at Microsoft are very structured in the traditional 8-hour-workday format with 3 weeks of vacation per year and a dozen Holidays. Most corporations have work that is structured similarly. The continuous grind with little variation is wildly different from everything that comes before it.

Prior to the CoVid 19 pandemic and remote work becoming a common option, working also required a commute between home and the office. For most people, a 20-60 minute drive each way; a stark difference from the 10-30 minute commute made by students, typically on foot.

Graduate studies

While at Microsoft as a PM, I decided to pursue a “professional” MBA, which is a shorthand for saying it was a part-time MBA designed to be completed while simultaneously working a full-time job. In an average week, it added ~7 hours of work to my schedule. It would be easy to jump to conclusions about how stressful the workload was, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The weeks were never average.

Instead my weeks of graduate study followed a bimodal distribution. Some weeks involved intense study with ~20 hours of effort going to finishing coursework, projects, and tests. The other weeks involved a very small amount of effort on my MBA, probably amounting to no more than a couple hours of work distributed in small 5-20 minute chunks throughout the week.

While this approach may sound stressful or ineffective in a vacuum, I found it to be quite the contrary. Having the option to insert lulls into my studies gave me the extra bandwidth to apply what I learned in work and personal initiatives. An education, absent practical application experience, is of limited value.

This experience with graduate studies taught me an appreciation of varying intensities of work. As Naval would say, it is better to work like a lion - with intense periods of focus and long periods of rest.

Remote work at a startup

Moving to a remote startup, I found that the structure took on a happy middle ground. Instead of a strictly regimented 9-5 workday, there are a few meetings and some active projects. In this way, it much more closely resembles the structure of school with a few classes and homework to be done at your convenience. It diverges in that physical presence isn’t required for a meeting - I can call in from my desk at home, a coffee shop nearby, an island across Puget Sound, or a beach in Mexico. The expectation is that I am mentally present, with the freedom to be physically anywhere (with internet).

Similar to school, the hours put in are less important than the results that come out. Some days I’ll work a normal 9-5 day, others are much shorter, or skewed far early or later in the day. I’ve found I enjoy preparing for my planned meetings on Sunday evening and ending my work earlier in the day Monday. I find it helps me feel prepared and ready for the week, rather than stressed and anxiously trying to catch up Monday morning.

On days where I hit my groove and get into a nice flow state of work, I may opt to work for 12 or 16 hours in a day, usually followed by a couple days of only a few hours of work. When this is in my control, I find it to be far more productive than a more consistent schedule.

Absent the long summer breaks of schooling, I’ve taken to traveling whenever I feel like it. The remote nature of the company lends itself just as well to working from a coffee shop at home in Seattle as it does to one in Playa del Carmen, Copenhagen, or New York.

For me, work-life balance is flexibility

In school, there was no notion of “work-life balance.” Only a few hours of classes per day, homework/projects that were either done or not, and tests to study for.

At Microsoft the view of work-life balance is that it is a consistent 9AM-5PM Monday through Friday work week, with work ending at 5PM. This approach never felt like the right fit for me; rather than balancing work and life, it felt like work was this massive boulder in the middle of everything. It was up to me to schedule the rest of my life around it. I find the “balance” to be missing in this approach.

For me, work-life balance is just that: a balance.

I’ve since come to appreciate that for me, work-life balance is just that: a balance. There is an ebb and flow to work and life, with the flexibility to dial each up and down as needed. It’s just as easy to schedule around a 2PM meeting as it is a gym session. I can take mental breaks throughout the workday to physical tasks around home such as the laundry and dishes. I “stop” working at 3PM some days, but will answer messages from coworkers in evening alongside those from my friends and family.

If I want to visit family or friends that live elsewhere, I can! If I want to travel and work from somewhere else, I can! It doesn’t come out of my budget of 3 weeks of vacation for the year. I can go do it, and figure out where and when to work from wherever life takes me.