Measuring Work Life Balance

This work-life balance thing, as Jon would say, feels like one big fail for 2012.

Jon was, doubtless still is, good at finding fails. Even better, he had a big fat roll of fail stickers to suitably annotate any fails he came across.


But, in today’s analytical world, experience and feeling is no longer enough. You need to be able to measure and prove that it’s a fail. How else would you know if things are improving next year? How else can you set yourself targets? How else can you demonstrate that you’re performing above national floor standards for work-life balance?

No worries. We can measure anything.

Can we really measure work-life balance? I haven’t yet found a Work-Life Balance Meter and I’d contend that even if possible, measuring it *directly* is not a sensible thing to do. So instead let’s look at some indicators that we can measure and that might be helpful in understanding what someone’s work-life balance might be.

Colour Coding Time

Years ago I was at a conference and, while waiting for the first session to begin, got chatting to the person next to me. They were somewhat glum because they’d just realised that their Filofax  diary had “too much red it it”. “Too much red?” I enquired “what’s that all about?”. It turns out this person balanced work and personal life by using different coloured ink for appointments. Work stuff went into their planner in red ink, family and friends stuff in green ink. Too much red meant it was time to organise some social stuff PDQ. Literally. They were soon on the phone arranging some social activities to balance things out.

This memory reminds me that a lot of what people talk about when thinking of work-life balance is time spent doing stuff. I could try colour coding everything on the calendar but for me I don;t think that’s a very practical thing to try.

High Tech Colour Coding

Steven introduced me to a high tech version of colour coding. He described how he categorised appointments in Outlook based on their type. Every so often he would run a script which queried Outlook for all is appointments and added up the time spent for each type of appointment. This let him see approximately where he spent his time and compare that with where his priorities were. Although I don’t recall him mentioning it, this would be an interesting way to look at where I’m spending my time except…

…I don’t live my life from my calendar and I’m not disciplined enough to categorise appointments and work time this way.

Measuring an Indicator

Instead of measuring where I spend my time it might be easier to choose an indicator and to measure that. A useful indicator might be to look at how much I did a particular activity that I enjoy and to compare that over time. One thing I’ve done for a while is to take pictures and to share them with family and friends on a photo blog. It’s something I enjoy doing but takes some time to do. It’s also easily measurable because I can *easily* query the photo blog for data on posts and pictures posted (because I can code). It’s also a good indicator because it reflects personal stuff we’re doing as a family (I only occasionally post about work things there).

So here’s what it looks like if I query the photo blog for posts (column chart) and pictures (line chart) each month since May 2005:


What does this tell me? Well, around June 2011 the monthly posting rate and number of pictures dropped. Coincidentally that’s when I started teaching. A moving average shows a less dramatic fall, but that’s because of large contributes from the holidays – summer 2011 and summer 2012.

F helpfully pointed out that the drop might not be because I have less time to post or photograph; but because as a family we’re doing less things that I think worthy of recording. That may be true (I need an additional query to look at data for pictures *taken* over the same period) but it doesn’t invalidate this as an indicator. If that’s the case it still shows a deterioration in work-life balance albeit for a different underlying reason.


Caution: measures are measures of the thing and not the thing

A big fat word of caution here. This is just a crude measure, a proxy if you like, for work-life balance. I could go out a take more pictures and then post them on the blog. That would push up the indicator I’m using. But would it improve my work-life balance? Probably not. By explicitly moving the indicator I’m more likely to destroy it’s usefulness. An analogy: moving the mercury up they tube won’t make the day warmer.

Unfortunately too many people miss that subtly. They end up concentrating on the measure rather than stepping back and taking action on the things the measure is meant to indicate.


You don’t make a pig fatter by repeatedly measuring it. The big doesn’t get any fatter if you stretch the tape measure.

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