HR & Personal Development

2 surprising reasons that your work life balance is off

Everybody agrees that work life balance is important, and yet, many are still unsatisfied. So what is it that keeps working against us?

Two surprising things are working against us:

  • We prefer being busy.

  • We can become addicted to being busy.

We hate being bored

I don't know about you, but I think that I am a quite efficient person. I choose the fastest way to work, optimize my work processes, and attempt to arrange my days so that I don't have to do the same thing twice. But research shows, that we are, in fact, not as rational as we might think. Several different experiments illustrate that even though it's obvious that the “active” option among two alternatives take a larger effort, it is still the one we choose.

In an experiment researchers asked their test subjects to fill out a questionnaire and hand it over at one of two places: One close by or one further away (in total 10-15 minutes back and forth). The participants could choose to hand in their questionnaire close by and then wait for the examination time to end (the passive option) or hand in the questionnaire further away, return to the starting point and wait for a shorter amount of time for the examination time to end (the active option). The participants were told that as a reward for filling out the questionnaire they would receive a piece of candy.

Which option did the participants choose? Did they choose the nearest destination and then wait passively for the time to pass, or did they spend more energy and less waiting-time by delivering the questionnaire further away?

It turned out, that the answer depends on whether or not the participant has a – even vague – reason for choosing the remote destination. A team of participants were told that the piece of candy they'd get would be the same no matter where they chose to deliver their questionnaire. Either dark chocolate or milk chocolate. Another team of participants was, however, told that the piece of candy they'd get would be different depending on the drop off point: Milk chocolate at one destination and dark chocolate at the other. These participants had a reason for choosing the remote destination, because it gave them the possibility of receiving a different piece of candy.

The results showed that the participants on the “similar-candy” team only chose the remote destination 32 % of the times, while the participants in the “different-candy” team chose the remote destination 59 % of the times.

The researchers later conducted a similar experiment, where instead of giving the participants a choice they forced them to either hand in the questionnaire close by of far away. After the questionnaire was delivered they spend the rest of the time in the test room. Then, they were asked to evaluate their level of happiness with the question: How happy have you been for the past 15 minutes?

The result indicated that the people who delivered the questionnaire far away (forced activity) were considerably happier.

You will become addicted

And this might explain part of why we can become addicted to being busy. Along with the fact that we hate doing nothing, we get happier by doing something and can, in fact, get a high from it.

This is because busyness generates an adrenalin rush, almost like the one a runner feels when exercising. Or like the one you get when you try the huge roller coaster at a theme park. Work addiction cause an adrenalin kick, from solving the unsolvable assignment for instance.

Luckily, most of us don't get to this stage of addiction, but you probably know at least one with the symptoms:

Lives in her calendar and if there, against all odds, is a free spot, it has to be filled. Doesn't like vacations, weekends or unpredicted idleness, because she (it's often women) is uncomfortable with having nothing to do.

The need busyness and the danger of getting addicted to work, fight against our efforts to achieve “balance”. And in this you also find the reason why it so often is work that carries the most weight. At work our urge to keep busy is easily satisfied, and at the same time work confirms that we are “doing something”.

What do these results mean for us?

First of all, recognize the fact it's important for us to have something to do; be busy. If we are able to choose between doing something and doing nothing, it is likely that we become happier from doing something.

Another possible effect is that the satisfaction we people get from being busy could make us blind to the possible negative effects the action might have. For instance towards stress and a poor work life balance.