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Why Basically Everyone Fails at Work-Life Balance (& What Bob Sutton Believes)

A weekly post in which I share (some of) the most thought-provoking content I read this week(ish), which I am too lazy to write full blog posts about.


It was 14 degrees and sunny here in Toronto today, so I saw people in boots and parkas, and one guy in Bermuda shorts and flip flops…because Canada. It’s a nice end to a packed week! In addition to the great reads outlined below, if you want to hear me talk about organizational culture, please check out this podcast I was very pleased to be part of with Anthony C. Taylor at “Strategy and Leadership” (Anthony also provides an excellent summary of the points we discussed if you’re not into podcasts).

Okay, on to the musings!


13 Things I Believe – Bob Sutton

For the last 15 years of his 30 years as a professor, Bob Sutton has ended his organizational behaviour courses by sharing a list of what he believes. This list is populated with (as he describes it), “Biased but mostly evidence-based opinions on management and life”. The list has gone through a few iterations over time, and about 10 years ago, Sutton published it on his excellent website Work Matters. This article represents the latest iteration of that list.

The list isn’t long, so it’s well worth a few minutes of your time and I’ll share my favorite points below. Aside from the satisfaction of reading the distilled wisdom of such an experienced practitioner and thinker, this post made me think about how we codify our personal knowledge as professionals and humans.

I’ve kept and updated an Evernote list titled “What I Believe” for the last 6 years, refining my thoughts on organizations and people and HR based on my experiences,  reading, and learning from others. I can only hope that one day it reflects a fraction of the hard-won experience and wisdom Professor Sutton’s does. I’ve never shared it with anyone (nor do I have intentions to, although I am never shy about sharing many of the opinions it contains), but I guess I always assumed that this was just one more weird, nerdy habit I had. Reading Sutton’s post made me wonder if this is a more common practice than I have assumed.

It reminded me of this 2016 post I love from Tony Stubblebine of (great habit app!) about his Codex Vitae, or ‘Book of Life’ which contains his “beliefs, strategies, life hacks and bits of wisdom”. He credits this idea’s origin to a Rob Sloan novel. There is something extremely appealing about the idea of recording that which comes to feel true and solid to each of us. Maybe it’s the sense that it will prevent us from making the same mistakes, or that it will provide visual evidence that our mistakes and everyday suffering have been worthwhile. Or maybe it’s just another case of us humans trying to bring order and certainty to a world that is uncertain and always in flux…I don’t know. But I’m going to keep updating my list!

My favorite items from Sutton’s list include:

  • Indifference is as important as passion

  • “Am I a success or a failure?” is not a very useful question. It is better to ask “what am I learning.”

  • Fear the clusterfuck  “those debacles and disasters caused by a deadly brew of illusion, impatience, and incompetence that afflicts too many decision-makers, especially those in powerful, confident, and prestigious groups.”


Even Work-Life Balance Experts Are Awful at Balancing Work and Life – Brooke Schulte, Science of Us (New York Magazine)

This article is an excellent overview of the deeper issues underlying the normalization of overwork. It frames that exploration with the struggles that work life balance experts and advocates face to walk their talk to pose the question: why is it so hard for us to adopt change that are so clearly beneficial to us in so many ways?

Professor David Dunning (of Dunning-Kruger effect fame) suggests we oversimplify these changes:

People may overestimate their ability to achieve work-life balance,” he said. “But it turns out, it’s a much more difficult task than anyone imagined. It requires more savvy, more discipline. And we’re not tuned into that.

Among the causes of the difficulty individuals and organizations face in making work life balance more tenable is that we are driven to fit in, to measure up to our peers. When we look around and see everyone else working long hours, rushing around, complaining about their packed calendars, the pressure mounts to not look like a slacker. One problem though:

One eye-opening recent study found that some men in a top strategy-consulting firm only pretendedto work 80 hours a week to “pass” as superhero “ideal workers,” because that’s the kind of behavior that was rewarded with bonuses, promotions, and accolades. And their bosses had no idea. (Which, the researcher said, shows that putting in such nutty hours is “not necessary for high-quality work.”)

The author outlines other factors that contribute to our inability to dial back the work hours and connectivity, but one of the most intriguing is that we simply haven’t designed work to be balanceable (that is totally not a word).

Right now, the way work itself is organized is enough to drive anyone mad. Email flows in instantaneously, at all hours, in a constant flood. As do the incessant pings and dings of social-media notifications. Meetings eat up large chunks of our day. That structure makes it difficult to focus attention and energy on important work. Ariely calls it “structured procrastination” — ploughing through the inbox or rushing to meetings creates an illusion of hard work, when we’re not making real progress on the things that matter. He’s right. Between answering emails and preparing for and going to meetings, a recent study by Bain & Company found that the average middle manager spends only six and a half hours a week doing real work in the office. Which helps explain why work hours continue to creep into nights and weekends. “We’ve created a work environment that gives us a lot of empty calories,” Ariely said

Although the author doesn’t touch on it here, I think that collaborative overload (which I wrote about in last week’s musings) figures into this heavily. I am open to being proven wrong, but I have yet to encounter a role regardless of how senior or complex, that delivers the intended value to the organization primarily through meetings.

So, work life balance is a complex and multi-faceted problem that requires changes not just to policy, or our own intentions, but to workplace culture and the actual design of how we work together. No wonder then that our old standby, the ‘flexwork’ policy does little to shift people’s behaviours in the way that we intend.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about this topic recently in part due to my own recent move to a completely virtual, results only work environment. Working at home, for an organization that genuinely places value on work that matters over busy work, significantly reduces some of the factors which lead to overwork. On the other hand, having almost complete control over when I work and how I structure my day is, at times, an almost alarming amount of freedom after working in a traditional office environment for 15 years. And working from home has means that setting boundaries is entirely my job. It’s really easy to think idle time could be better spent doing those last few things I meant to get to earlier today…and all of sudden find myself hours into “accidental work”, as my colleague Alysha calls it. There is a line where that negatively impacts my brain’s ability to recharge and be productive for the full day that follows, so…it’s a work in progress for me, and I’m noting my experiences with interest, and learning from my team members, to get a better handle on how we can help others new to a virtual environment adjust as they join the team. More on that in the near future.


Why We’ve Stopped Saying “Culture Fit” and What We’re Saying Instead – Courtney Seiter, Buffer

Gah, I love this a lot. Chock full of relevant data and thoughtful insights, this is absolutely worthy of reading and reflection. As I’ve argued before, we are so sloppy at defining the word ‘culture’, and ‘culture fit’ gets even hazier.

The phrase “culture fit” is a bit of an Inkblot test in the world of work—even when we all hear the same two words, we might be thinking entirely different things.

Hiring for culture fit is often nothing more than fooling ourselves into accepting our own gut feelings and biases as indicative of whether someone will succeed at our organization. This ignores the fact that often the individual making that assessment has their own unique experience of the culture (culture is not monolithic, so to think we are measuring every candidate against the same ‘thing’ when we assess them on culture fit is inaccurate), and that humans are incredibly adaptable, so the notion that assessing someone on the basis of their behavior in a situation as artificial as an interview is deemed to say something permanent and immutable about who they are is, well, wrong.

“It is an incredibly vague term, and it’s a vague term often based on gut instinct,” says Wharton management professor Katherine Klein. “The biggest problem is that while we invoke cultural fit as a reason to hire someone, it is far more common to use it to not hire someone.

This is a huge problem. Not just for those of us charged with finding the right people to meet the needs of our organization in pursuit of its mission and goals, but also because when we do find those people, the ones that get past the ‘culture fit’ test, they might do more harm than good.

When we use these kinds of methods—gut feeling, the “airport test,” or looking for shared experiences, we run the risk of creating a culture in which everyone is similar. In the best-case scenario, this leads to a lack of creativity and stunts a company’s problem-solving capacity. In the worst-case scenario, it creates a faulty feedback loop that fulfills existing prejudices.

So what to do instead? Well, that’s complicated, and while this article from Buffer doesn’t dig as deeply as I’d like to on this topic, I admire their efforts to change the way they are collectively talking and thinking about their appraoch to culture and hiring. Two of the ways they intend to change their approach is to think about ‘cultural contribution’ instead of culture fit, and to assess prospective team members on their alignment with specific values, kind of ‘values fit’ instead of culture fit.

Seiter notes that this last concept may not eradicate bias in making an assessment, but in true Buffer fashion, she acknowledges that it is a ‘healthy step forward’ that continues to evolve.


Do you write down some version of your beliefs, core principles, or lessons (life or professional)?  How would you rate yourself on work-life balance? 1 = you actually live in your office parking lot in a van, and 10 =  the last time you answered an e-mail after 5 was when you had a geocities site. Tell me in the comments!

Image credit: Eutah Mizushima via 

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’d rate myself a 7 or 8 but only due to my wife. when I was MD of another business some years ago I wanted to buy an apartment next door to our head office – fortunately she refused to accept this.
    Key values – Integrity, Ethical behaviour, Fairness – treat all equally regardless of station, gender, religion etc, Congruence – words & actions always match (tough sometimes), Persistence & Self-discipline.

    April 10, 2017
  2. Jason Martin #

    I think it’s more helpful to regard balance as a very active verb, as in, “How are you balancing the various demands, wants, needs, and aspirations of your life?” What many people think of balance occurs to me as a kind of routinized stasis. It doesn’t mean “all things equal,” on any given day, week, month, or even year. Life is too messy for that. At least my life is. Some weeks my work completely dominates because I am pushing toward a goal that is important to me. Other weeks, the needs of my aging parents come to the fore. In yet other weeks, my health needs a more intense and deliberate focus. There are very few weeks in which the distribution of my time and attention feels something like what we usually mean by balance. And this is fine. It is a life fully lived. A life with ups and downs, challenges and rewards, getting it right and getting it wrong.

    Some people value balance in and of itself. It’s a value they will pursue, sometimes even to their detriment (like most values). However, I think many people are generally after something they think balance will get them, rather than balance itself. Room to breathe. Better relationships. Sleep. Happiness. My recommendation is to start with what you want to see different in your life, then decide what you must “balance” to achieve it.

    To answer your question…some days I’m a zero, and other days I’m a 10; mostly though, I’m giving it my best shot and adjusting as I go.

    Demonstrated values: creativity, novelty, competence, intelligence, reliability, resilience, inventiveness, self-development, service. What might not be as demonstrated is my fondness for nuance, acceptance, heart, reconciliation, forgiveness, and vulnerability.

    April 10, 2017
  3. Wow, this is really insightful, and I’ve been thinking about it all week. Your comment “What many people think of balance occurs to me as a kind of routinized stasis.” is so on target. It feels like ‘balance’ is often a kind of protective wall we imagine will help us maintain our sanity, rather than a fluid mindset. I’m totally guilty of this in my own life, and need to be reminded of this. Also, “However, I think many people are generally after something they think balance will get them, rather than balance itself.” YES! I have a theory that often wanting ‘balance’ is a false flag for a desire to not feel guilt, anxiety, or fear (add other uncomfortable emotions), and that our approaches often include adding other things to ‘balance out’ the parts of our lives that may not be working so well (and are provoking those negative feelings), rather than seeing those feelings as valuable signals/information that we may need to change something or take action. Whew! This is a such a big topic, and my views on it are still ‘incubating’. Thank you so much for reading and contributing your thoughtful comments, Jason.

    April 14, 2017
  4. John,what??? I want to hear more about this story; I have so many questions. And your wife sounds like she would have lots to add to the discussion too! Given that I now work in a totally virtual company, I’m especially curious about the connection between proximity and productivity/control/impact that I can only assume you felt existed (and that I suspect all of us feel exists). I’m still getting my head around what working together virtually should feel like, and when it is a positive and when it is a challenge, but I think there is probably some fascinating insights in your experience, and your effectiveness despite *not* moving in next door to your head office…thanks for reading and taking the time to comment 🙂

    April 14, 2017
  5. Jason Martin #

    My pleasure Jane. I look forward to your weekly musings, even if I can ‘t get to them every week.I am musing myself over today’s on Control vs. Chaos. Enjoy your week!

    April 17, 2017

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