We all need work-life balance (or work-life synergy) not just to thrive, but to survive. For too many of us, trying to manage these elements of our lives successfully is not a balancing act, it's a frenetic juggling act. If we drop one ball, the whole structure comes crashing to the ground.
Burnout is one of the biggest side effects of a lack of alignment between our professional and personal lives. Do you feel drained? Are your sleep patterns off? Do you have headaches or other nagging, unresolved physical issues? Are you doubting yourself and your abilities, feeling alienated from others at work, and getting little to no satisfaction from what you do? These are some of the symptoms of burnout.
Our hunter-gatherer neighbors and distant ancestors might have some good advice for us.
The Hunter-Gatherer Work-Life Balance
In the November 2, 2022, issue of The New Yorker, Georgetown University computer science professor and author Cal Newport—who has written extensively about the new ways work is taking shape after COVID—revisited watershed research on how hunter-gatherer societies addressed the problem of what we now call “work-life balance.”
As explained in Newport’s New Yorker piece, Canadian anthropologist Richard Lee lived among the Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari Desert in the early 1960s. At that time and until fairly recently, the Ju/’hoansi were relatively isolated from participation in the “modern” economy. Thus, their lifestyle was one of the remaining few among the human family that mirrored how anthropologists think hunter-gatherers lived tens of thousands of years ago.
When Lee did his fieldwork, the common belief was that hunter-gatherers lived dangerous and unstable lives due to a lack of agricultural infrastructure. He found that the Ju/’hoansi on average consumed around 2,000 calories a day, squarely in the range of a normal, healthy diet as we understand it. They accomplished this despite only spending about 20 hours a week gathering food or hunting meat, and another 20 taking care of other necessary chores. This was significantly less than the time devoted to agriculture by their settled farmer-neighbors.
For Lee, this and other evidence flew in the face of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ famous assertion that human life “in a state of nature” was inherently “nasty, brutish, and short.”
The resulting conception of prehistoric hunters as able to provide for themselves and their families in just such a “state of nature” became the dominant paradigm in anthropology. It was, however, later modified by criticisms that he failed to account for all the labor that had to have gone on within the home in addition to hunting far afield. The amount of “work” more contemporary hunter-gatherer societies like the Ju/’hoansi must do varies depending on what is considered work, environmental factors, and other considerations.
Regardless of these important caveats, Newport and other researchers today find much solid insight in Lee’s and his colleagues’ research that clearly shows the resilience and sustainability of hunter-gatherer communities as contrasted with our own.
Contemporary Work Rhythms Are Out of Whack
In our world, a typical “knowledge worker” may feel glued to their screen and email account. Numerous companies are struggling with employees newly asserting their needs for the flexibility and autonomy to work remotely and take more control generally over their work-life balance.
Anthropologists studying hunter-gatherer societies include James Woodburn, whose decades of work among the Hadza people of East Africa’s Rift Valley led him to observe that this community lived within a cycle of consuming the food they gathered or hunted on the spot. This constitutes what Woodburn called an “immediate-return” economy very different from today.
Contemporary “knowledge workers” often don’t see the “reward” of their constant shifting of attention through multiple tasks until months later or more. In addition, today’s workers, regardless of ability or drive, often feel distracted by the relentless demands of mobile devices and constant connectivity. And unlike the Agta forager communities in the Philippines studied by University College London anthropologist Mark Dyble, many of today’s cubicle denizens work consistently at peak intensity without more than brief, nominal breaks. Not to mention the fact that our devices can summon us to work tasks even during non-working hours.
As Newport writes, humans today don’t have the ability to base the intensity of their work on the actual rhythms of present needs but have become accustomed to “always being on.”
If we’re evolutionarily well-adapted to the lifestyles our ancestors enjoyed over so many eons, we can see how work-life balance patterns that diverge from them could become problematic. These studies may give us insights about how to make the experience of working better for everyone, even if Newport urges caution about wholesale adoption of the idea that human brains adapted in any way due to a specific cause.
Reclaiming Our Priorities
Newport suggests this “surprisingly effective” balance-hack: Mandate the use of chats and emails only for quick information-sharing and simple questions. If extensive back-and-forth is needed, move it to face-to-face meetings. To make this work in practice, schedule “office hours” when you’re available for in-depth conversations, signaled with an open door or your presence in an open Zoom meeting.
Other experts have added another key insight: Rebuild your corporate culture so that no one must “perform” being busy. Rather, structure time in such a way that employees can work in bursts of intense activity as needed, then take some time away for rest or reflection on other issues. Recognize that what may seem like downtime to you might be crucial to someone’s work process.
The overall point here is that we’ve evolved to get the most out of a workday that includes variety in intensity, sometimes chasing after a bison or a business deal, then taking enough time to rest and regroup. It’s the results of our work that should be the point; the exact number of hours we spent just to be “busy” are not important.
In addition to Cal Newport’s books like Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout, readers interested in finding out more on this topic might want to pursue The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow, as well as Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots by James Suzman.