Monday, February 25, 2019

From Work-Life Balance to Like-Dislike Optimization

The ongoing impassioned debated about work-life balance recently reminded me of something a McGill Professor, Joe Rasmussen, send to me soon after my arrival at McGill. “I never work at work,” he said. By this what he meant was that “work” was writing research papers, and he never did that “at work” – meaning at McGill. Instead, while at McGill, he would simply talk to people and do other administrative tasks, meet with students, BS with colleagues, teach, and so on. As a brand new Professor with relatively few responsibilities at McGill and a young child at home, this flabbergasted me. McGill (“work”) was where I went to WORK – meaning write and think. Now, 17 years later, I find that – like Joe – I almost never work at work. Instead, the real work happens at home where I have plenty of peaceful quality time to think and write. When I go to “work” now, I mostly do those same things as Joe: teach, have meetings with students and colleagues, attend seminars, do administration, and so on. All of the real “work” happens at home in evenings after everyone else has gone to bed, or on weekend mornings when the kids are off at sports (while my wife visits her horse), or on those 1-2 days a week when I don’t book anything at work and so can stay home to do some work.

Image from here.
Perhaps this work-at-home time sounds like a recipe for an unhealthy “work-life” balance – the kind you hear criticized all the time on social media, with respect to both hyper-prolific scientists or, simply, everyone that is an academic. Yet I don’t think working at home means I work more. Sometimes I don’t even go in to work at all, and most days I schedule all my meetings during the middle of the day, so I can go to work later in the morning and leave earlier in the afternoon. So, presumably, to calculate how many hours I work, I would have to keep a closer accounting and sum up the time I spent at work and the time I spent working at home. Yet all of this begs the question “what is work”?

From work-life balance …

If you work Nine-to-Five at some job you don’t “bring home”, then I suppose the accounting is simple. When you were at work you are working – apart from formal coffee breaks and lunch hour. When you are at home, you were not working – you are “living.” The commuting time is a bit trickier, of course, because one could count it as work (because you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t work) or life (because you might read a book or watch a video or whatever on your way to work). Many jobs, however, aren’t Nine-to-Five because the work you do at work benefits from additional work you do at home – so people bring their work home and are now presumably advancing at work at the expense of their life. I certainly bring my work home, so perhaps I have this problem.

Yet I obviously don’t work all of the time at home, so I suppose I would need to count only the specific time I was working at home – and then add that on to my time at work. But that hardly sounds like a fair accounting given that – at work – sometimes I am not working. I might be taking a walk, or checking the news, or checking up on sports, or simply BSing with colleagues. Should that “life at work” be subtracted from the time I work at work? And what about the time I am “working” at home but, depending on the task, intermittently watching a comedy program or a new video by my favorite band, or whatever. Considering this mosaic work-life partitioning, the accounting gets pretty fine to the point of absurdity.

And what about when “work” and “life” overlap in the same activities. My work involves a lot of field work – and that is something I love doing. If I wasn’t “working” in Alaska or BC or Trinidad or Galapagos or Uganda or Chile or Argentina, I would be outside in the “field” anyway – and, without work, I would probably not be able to visit those places that I love to visit. So, do I count field work as “work” or “life”? (People I know outside of work often ask me if my latest destination was “work” or “holiday” and I always hesitate because nearly every trip is both in one way or other.) For me, then, field work for work IS life and how would I divide time between the two. And what about those activities at McGill that I really enjoying, like discussing ideas with students and colleagues, attending very cool seminars, and so on. Should these fun work activities count as work? The point of all of this “what if” postulation is that I think the traditional accounting of “work-life” balance is not helpful and we need a new way of thinking about balance – or, in fact, optimization.

… to Like-Dislike Optimization.

I propose that instead of worrying about work-life balance, we should worry about maximizing time investment into activities that we enjoy – both at work and in life (which can be the same). With respect to work, I have some very clear duties that I do really dislike: making multiple choice exams, grading exams, dealing with students who are whining about their grades, filing in activity reports, preparing expense reports and travel advances (and then fixing and resubmitting them, and then fixing and resubmitting them yet again), checking/printing/signing/scanning/emailing financial reports, anything associated with Animal Use Protocols or collection permits, attending administrative meetings just because I am supposed to, and so on. I think we should stick these types of onerous – sometimes soul crushing –activities in a “things I dislike” bin that we try to minimize without shirking our duties too much. 

At home, I also have a set of things I similarly dislike, such as vacuuming, washing floors, doing taxes, meeting with banks or financial planners, GOING TO THE DENTIST or doctor, waiting in lines or on hold, arguing with my family about anything, and so on. Of course, most of these things must be done, and so I will do them; but only because I have to do them. (Again, part of the reason is to avoid shirking responsibility that someone else in the family would then have to take up.) I suggest that all of these “things I dislike”, whether at work or home should be in a single bin that we will seek to minimize.

The juxtaposed bin is then, of course, “things I like” both at work and at home. These things I like include doing things outside (field work, hiking, fishing, photography, climbing, diving, kayaking) and inside (lecturing, writing papers, climbing in a gym, attending awesome seminars, talking about science, reading about science or Middle Earth, watching movies about science or Middle Earth, reading to my kids, and so on). For this bin, I can sometimes make what amounts to extra time by creating an intersection between multiple activities: next week I am taking my students and kids in the field where we will do and talk about science while taking pictures and watching wildlife.

Cedar and Aspen helping with field work (and camping and hiking and wildlife watching and photography) in Haida Gwaii. My earlier post about "Work-Life Fusion".

Between the “things I dislike” and the “thinks I like” bins is a intermediate bin of “things that are OK” but must be done either to minimize things I dislike or maximize things I like. For me, we here have raking leaves or shoveling snow, writing research grants, sitting on planes or in cars, reviewing manuscripts for journals, attending boring seminars, etc. This bin can be viewed as the route by which we maximize the transition away from “things I dislike” and into “things I like.”

Accounted for time in this new way, I would say that I have a great Like-Dislike Optimization. Indeed, I suggest that many academics who would seem to have a bad Work-Life Balance do, in fact, have a good Like-Dislike Optimization. Since much of my work overlaps with my personal interests – field work and reading and watching videos (every BBC Earth video – over and over) are good examples – much of what a cynic might call “work” is, for me, “life” – and I therefore like both. Moreover, some people just like to work: getting things done makes them feel good about themselves or puts them in a position to do other activities they might not otherwise be able to do. Who are we to gainsay them?

The key point I am trying to make is that tabulating hours of WORK per day, from which hours of LIFE are calculated by subtracting from 24, is not the right way to think about your activities. Instead, the right way is instead to think about how much of your time falls into the “Things I like” versus “Things I dislike” versus “Things that are OK” bins. Then try to minimize things in the dislike bin and maximize those in the like bin. There is no need to feel guilty (or to make others feel guilty) when they work a lot – as long as they like it.


Notes and caveats:

Of course, I am not saying that it is easy to achieve Like-Dislike Optimization, just as it isn't easy to achieve Work-Life Balance. Sometimes the things you dislike simply must take up a lot of time - and some people have more unpleasant responsibilities or constraints than others. I am simply saying that - when possible - we should seek - lives and jobs (BOTH) that we like; and, for a given life and job, we should seek - to the extent possible to spend more time doing the things that make us happy and less time doing the things that make us unhappy.

Also, it is sometimes (often?) the case that optimization isn't just an immediate concern. That is, long-term "like" optimization sometimes requires a bit more of the "dislike" and "OK" stuff in the short term.

* A previous version of this post used "Hate" rather than "Dislike" - but Hate sounds strange out of context, and perhaps too severe: hence, the change.


  1. Love it - I follow the Joe R model - I don't do much creative AT "work" - that all happens elsewhere (often in front of the fire place in the winter or on the deck in the summer). I use the "happy-unhappy" method increasingly... is that a project that will bring me joy? Is that a paper I REALLY want to write? Is that a committee I REALLY want to join? It is possible to pick and choose - although both Andrew and I have tenure so maybe we have more flex than the newer folks.

    1. Indeed - it is easier for some people than for others. Nevertheless, we should strive for the best optimization within the constraints each of us has.

  2. From Robert Frost's "Two Tramps in Mud Time" (

    But yield who will to their separation,
    My object in living is to unite
    My avocation and my vocation
    As my two eyes make one in sight.
    Only where love and need are one,
    And the work is play for mortal stakes,
    Is the deed ever really done
    For Heaven and the future's sakes.

  3. Very well said. This also describes my approach quite well. I would add one thing though regarding “some people like to get stuff done”. This is a dengerous one for me. It feels good to get stuff done which can reinforce taking on too much. But this is a knife-edge that can go very sideways if there are unexpected hurdles. I have found that this is a denagerous form of job satisfaction that I try and be aware of and minimize.


My Coincidental Journey to Relevance

1 pm Paris time today saw the official release of the long-awaited Global Assessment by the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity an...