Though the lament of the challenge of work-life balance is heard throughout the United States at this time, I feel that Silicon Valley has a particularly intense case of this affliction. Where start-ups are rampant and two or three year old companies are bought for tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, the number of hours put into work can simulate mania. It has not been unusual to hear clients in my office speak about 80 hour work weeks (and more). I tend to not even press for details anymore if a client tells me they work “less than 60 hours a week”. Working hours like this are common and therapeutic advocacy to further reduce those hours often falls on deaf ears. Believe me I’ve tried.
I also have to admit that until very recently, I had fallen into the same pattern so I really understand what it is like. Though a psychotherapy practice is not a tech start-up, I found that grad school, licensing exams, work at other jobs while building my practice, and supporting my family while living in this area with its high cost of living, required me to work for years at or above the 60 hours per week mark.
So, as a therapist, husband, and father of three, I have had to find some solutions to the relationship challenges posed by Silicon Valley work schedules. This post lists five solutions to the work-life balance challenge in Silicon Valley: Values Clarification, Practical Decision Making About Happiness, Massed Time Together, Reallocation of Financial Gains, and Relationship Rituals.
Sometimes, the client wants to change their work-life balance but they aren’t sure how to identify which changes to make. One way of trying to resolve a work-life balance problem is to call to mind the values that you have. Do you value money, success, and accolades or family, connections, and your relationship more? Many of my clients will answer a question like this by saying, “Both!” The question though is intended to help with the process of allocating the temporal resources first to those things that matter the most. I have seen it time and again in my therapy office where a short-term effort to support and improve career like grad school, a big project, or vying for the next promotion becomes a never-ending sacrifice of family time and energy for the next career move that will finally, “Get us to where we need to be.” The work efforts continue because the people in the relationship don’t ever reallocate their time and energy. Maintaining the career trajectory or the current salary becomes a never ending task. Clarifying your values can help you bring your behavior in line with your goals. Questions like, “What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?” can help with this process. Then, you just work backwards from there by asking questions like, “What do I need to do with my time and energy today in order to contribute to those words at my funeral?”
Practical Decision Making About Happiness
Another way to consider this question is to acknowledge that at least one reason to continue to pursue career achievement is based on the idea that, “If I get just a little bit more money, I’ll be able to stop chasing it anymore.” Yet, research consistently shows that there is a threshold above which more money won’t make you any happier. In one analysis, that number for California is $92,000 per year (read the original research here). Even if we allow that dollar figure to be fudged a little bit higher for the higher cost of living in Silicon Valley, ask yourself if you are already at that level. If so, yet you still feel unhappy, you may need to ask whether or not the source of that unhappiness is internal. That is, do you feel unhappy with your life because it is hard for you to appreciate what you have and to be content with it? Are you negatively comparing yourself or your life to others? If you have answered yes to these questions, you might want to refocus your happiness improvement efforts inward instead of outward. By tipping your work-life balance toward more life, you may find that you are better able to enjoy your family, relationship, and the beauty of nature. This may help you feel more happy and more content even if it means that you have less money.
Massed Time Together
If none of the above considerations moved you to consider a change and you are still determined to work 60+ hour work weeks, then you would be in good company with the majority of my clients and with me for many years in the past. Work can be very rewarding. Yet, no matter how rewarding, that 60+ hour work week will take a toll on your relationship unless you do something to counterbalance it.
One suggestion that several couples that I have worked with have found helpful is to plan for punctuated breaks in the crazy schedule. Product launch coming up? Great, plan for a week off afterward. Use some of the wealth you have earned to go on a beautiful vacation that emphasizes the kinds of activities that the two of you did when you fell in love.
Reallocation of Financial Gains
Especially if you didn’t grow up with the kind of wealth that is now available to you in Silicon Valley, you may need to learn a different way to distribute your financial resources. For example, you may find that you are having a hard time finding the time to spend with each other because between the work schedule, caring for the kids, and household maintenance, there isn’t a lot of time left over to spend with each other.
This process can be intensified if you grew up poor. You may have gained a “do-it-yourself” attitude that helped to conserve money at times when it was scarce. So now you save and work almost as hard at home as you do at work. However, if you do things like hire a nanny to help with child care, hire someone to assist with housecleaning, etc., you may find that you are better able to maximize the quality of the time that you have at home with you partner.
There is a caveat to this solution. As you spend more of your financial resources trying to free up time for your relationship, you may find that it creates additional pressure to maintain your income and career trajectory.
Okay, so you work a 60+ hour work week. If you can identify sacrosanct time for you and your partner, that nothing can violate. Not the product launch, not the deadline for China, and not the International Flight then you will be showing your partner that s/he is a priority for you all the time. That may sound impossible at first, but it need not be. There are just 3 steps to making this work.
First, you identify the day and the time in the week that your regular time to foster your relationship with your partner will be. I recommend at least 2 contiguous hours without interruption.
Second, if something does come up that you have no control over and that really is a non-optional career requirement, like the product launch, the deadline for China, or the International Flight, you don’t just skip that time. Instead you move the time preferably to before the interfering event not after it. This way you are showing your partner that nothing can take away the time you have for them.
Third, you keep to it. You need to tell your boss and or your team about this time, so they know when you are simply not available. They need to understand that keeping this time sacred and that your job satisfaction is related to their support of that time. Hopefully you don’t put that relationship time at 5pm on Tuesday if that is the optimal time for the teleconference with China. If travel is a consistent work requirement, you have to make it a point to be home for a few hours before a departure.
People in Silicon Valley are so often talking about changing the world and making “life-hacks”. But the most easy and definitive way to change the world is to start with yourself. The changes to create work-life balance aren’t always easy. After I propose these changes, I may hear about corporate culture or requirements for advancement. I sometimes hear the argument that my client fears not reaching their optimal career achievement. But I rarely hear people talking about their complicity in perpetuating those corporate cultures, or optimal relationship development, or even optimal happiness. Much of my work is about helping people find meaning in their lives after having sacrificed that meaning for money and success or helping them put their relationships back together after years of neglect. “Most fast and break things,” is indeed an apt motto for the area, but from my side of the therapy room, when “things” becomes “people” and “relationships” it is less laudable than lamentable.
I want to end on a personal note. I mentioned that I have reduced my working hours after years above 60 hours per week. Now I’m at less than 50 per week. The day that I announced to my kids that the schedule was ending and I would be home more, they literally jumped up and down cheering and then held a celebratory procession through our home. The corresponding reduction in income never crossed their minds (though they are old enough to understand the correlation). That moment of celebration confirmed for me that I was more valuable to them than what I could earn to give them. I encourage you to believe that you are more valuable to your partner and/or children than what you can earn too.