Work and life: Which has the right-of-way?

There are times when the convergence of work and life reminds me of two cars on opposite sides of an intersection arriving at a stop sign simultaneously. Each driver kindly waves for the other to ‘go.’ Both vehicles begin to move; then, each driver abruptly stops when they realize each has entered the intersection. The little dance going back and forth until someone throws their hands up in frustration. Of course, most driver handbooks will tell us that the vehicle on the left must yield the one on the right, but it doesn’t always play out so smoothly.

So who gets the right-of-way when ‘work’ and ‘life’ both arrive at an intersection together? This got me thinking about the expression ‘work-life balance’ and whether the words and the order they appear suggest a hierarchy. Here is my critique of this famous corporate saying:

  1. I’m glad this phrase exists, but it has some flaws
  2. The words seem to pit ‘work’ and ‘life’ against each other as opposing forces, creating tension
  3. ‘Work’ is positioned first, which suggests ‘life’ is the recipient of time that is leftover
  4. ‘Life’ is too broad of a term and not as actionable as ‘work,’ which may cause some ambiguity

The Re.Structure Project exists to promote healthy habits and positive thinking for the modern worker, so perhaps some wordsmithing can make this traditional phrase more direct, actionable, and useful?

What if we put our ‘health’ first? As in, ‘health-work balance.’

By frontloading ‘health,’ we signal to ourselves, like the flash of a high-beam, that ‘health’ gets the right-of-way when we arrive at an intersection, and a decision must be made. Over the past nine months, I have been trying out this shift in perspective. During that time, I observed small behavioral changes that led to more productivity, making me better at my job while still caring for myself and those who depend on me.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

The workday is drawing to a close. It’s already pretty late, but there are still hours of work to be done. You break for dinner and take care of your family and some things around the house. Then the question arises. Do I log back on and stay up late to finish the work, or do I get some rest and wake up early to complete the job? Which receives the right-of-way, sleep, or work?

If health comes first in this scenario, then you would choose to sleep. Now, this may seem like procrastination in disguise, but I assure you that is not the case. By making the healthy choice to get some rest, you preserve your sleep patterns and allow your brain to get the rest it needs. You may even find that the work you do in the morning takes less time to complete, and the quality is higher. Now obviously, there will be situations when staying up late to finish a task are unavoidable. But before you settle in for that next all-nighter, check to see if there’s an alternative approach that puts your health first.

Some may be thinking, what about this past year with the COVID-19 work from home mandates? Health and work under one roof? How can you balance two things that have essentially been super-glued together? All the more reason to create some separation and give your health the right-of-way. Even if work ends up receiving most of the time in your day, frontloading some health-conscious habits will go along way in assuring you maintain your health and fitness momentum while still being a champion at work.

So what are some situations where you have put your health first and, as a result, saw improvement at work?



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