Notice that the two elements of the problem statement, work and life, are qualitatively different:
- work is tangible and well-defined: it is usually very specific. We know where to go and at what time, what we are expected to do (and not do). The benefits (cash, recognition) and the possibilities for future advancement and achievement are all well-defined too. Work is designed to be action-oriented.
- by contrast, life is open-ended and undefined. It is inherently flexible, and accommodating in the short term. It has no externally-imposed structure (other than the minimal effort required to avoid immediate threats). Most of us struggle to establish a basic structure of life goals and supporting actions.
The result is that work is inherently easier for us to cope with and attend to: we can generate endless lists of actions that can be completed, providing satisfaction and recognition which provide an addictive high for the brain. Under the surface, we are also clear about the penalties for not paying attention. By contrast, life is soft and squishy. We can damage it in the short term without realising it for years.
Because life aspirations expressed in vague open-ended generalities are difficult to take action towards, we need to get specific about what exactly the work/life problem is – and also what’s not quite right about it. A constructive way of approaching this is to ask how we know – what is the evidence for this feeling?
Let’s suppose that we are concerned about spending too much time at work:
- How do we know this? Is it our own conclusion or are we being told by others? What is the impact on us and others?
- How much, precisely, is too much? Number of hours, ineffectiveness, or absence of time spent elsewhere?
- The phrase too much contains an implication that this is a bad thing. What specifically is bad about it? Too much compared to what?
- What would be different if less time was spent at work? How is this better than the current state?
The idea is to gather as much real evidence as possible. Once this has been done, it’s possible to restate the problem in a way that makes it easier to seek solutions, for example: “Although I enjoy my work, and feel obliged to commit to it to make progress in my career, I am concerned about damaging my relationships with my family and friends because I am not giving them much priority. I know this because of the looks and comments I get when I come home late, and from my own internal feelings about losing friendships”.
Once we’ve restated the problem in this way, we can stop dwelling on the problem and start thinking about potential solutions. We do this by asking the question “if this is what I don’t want, what is it that I do want instead?”