In praise of work-life conflict

Many of us find it nearly impossible to balance work and life. And most of us who struggle with work-life conflict, including me, loudly decry it.

But in this post, let me sing one particular praise of work-life conflict: a busy home life gives you a substantially stronger negotiating hand at work. How? By allowing or even requiring you to credibly refuse those annoying, unnecessary, and time-consuming organizational requests that you really shouldn’t even be hearing—but that someone is always making. Whatever its other drawbacks, work-life conflict can help make this particular aspect of work life negotiable.

Let’s make this a little more concrete and then a little more formal. Imagine Tim and Tom. Tim faces a daily struggle balancing work and life; he and his wife both work, and it’s all they can do to get their jobs done while also ensuring that their four young kids grow up healthy and wholesome. Tom, despite working in the same organization, lives a dramatically different life. Single, he rolls out of bed around 8:30 am, sips a cappuccino or three while sifting through the news, then meanders into the office an hour later. Right around 5 pm, he meanders back home and settles in for the nightly Law and Order marathon. Nor are their very different lives any secret around the office: everyone sees Tim’s pictures of his family, hanging over his mountain of paperwork, and wonders how he does it. Anyone who needs a Law and Order update heads over to Tom.

And then there’s Tammy, HR generalist. Her project of the month? “This office needs a weekly newsletter! I think we need to feel more connected to each other, as real human beings—and what better way than sharing our experiences on a weekly basis?”

Now, imagine that she approaches both Tim and Tom one morning, in hopes of recruiting a newsletter editor. “It won’t take much time,” she says, “only about three or four hours a week.” Put on the spot by an effusive Tammy, what will Tim and Tom say?

Tim will really have no choice. Much as he might love the idea of editing a weekly newsletter, there are literally no minutes left in the day. If he did, he’d have to sacrifice his “real” work and/or miss some portion of his children’s lives. “Sorry, I just don’t have enough time,” he’ll say, gesturing to his desk full of papers and wall full of pictures. But how about Tom? Well, maybe he’ll try that same line of argumentation, but where will he gesture? His “no” will be a lot less credible, and the crafty Tammy will probably know it and press him about his other commitments. With no particular answer other than Law and Order, chances are that she’s found her first newsletter editor.

So here’s the point: having a busy home life gives you a credible BATNA at work. In case you don’t feel like clicking that link or haven’t read that post, BATNA stands for “best alternative to negotiated agreement.” It’s your next-best alternative to the current negotiation, and it’s your greatest source of power in any negotiation. With a life replete with work-life conflict, your BATNA is giving up something truly important. So you can easily, confidently, and believably make like Tim and kindly refuse. With a life free of any conflict, you may have to make like Tom and succumb to the wily Tammy.

So am I encouraging everyone to develop work-life conflict (or have four kids)? No, conflicts between work and home obviously come with some major costs. But I am suggesting that the busiest among us, even while decrying their busyness, may wish to recognize and leverage that busyness to good effect in the workplace. And the most leisurely among us may wish to develop and communicate a credible hobby, or at least keep their leisure private.

Does your busyness help you to focus in the workplace?

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