Work Anywhere

I’ve never liked the phrase “work-life balance.” It’s a bad distinction: work is a part of life, and being alive is a prerequisite to getting work done. To think of the two as separate is to impoverish both, so I’m inclined to blur the lines. This is easier to do today than ever before. Many people see this as a negative, but not me.

By “work,” I mean creating value for others in exchange for some remuneration. There’s no reason why this should be constrained to a particular time or place. We’ve inherited our current work patterns from a previous era when work required expensive, fixed infrastructure. (Think industrial factories.) People agreed to be at this infrastructure at particular times of day, in shifts. This maximized efficiency for industrial work.

But this is not necessarily efficient for information work. If a client emails me to ask a question, a faster reply is often more valuable than one that takes longer. Using my little glass rectangle, I can get back to them from anywhere. I’ve generated lots of value while sitting in public transport, waiting for the teller at the bank, after finishing lunch, etc. These impromptu dips into “work” aren’t an intrusion into “life” — I see both as a continuous stream.

Independent consulting gives me great control over when and where I work. When I don’t have meetings, I like to work from my local public library, which is always quiet and pleasant. Or maybe I’ll walk to a coffee shop for a cup of tea. Whatever the case, changing my physical environment helps me get things done. I cordon off particular activities to one place or the other; the change of venue is a palette cleanser that allows me to shift my focus from one task to another.

This way of working is very effective for me. There were times in my career when I forced myself to sit at the same desk for eight-hour work days. Even though I was “working” more, I was much less productive. Tethering myself to the same place and forcing myself to produce “on command” was often a recipe for frustration. That’s not how the mind works — at least not mine. I need to shift modes, change the zoom on the lens, get my body moving.

I can engage more fluidly because my work doesn’t happen in physical environments; it happens in information environments. With small, powerful electronic devices, I can access those information environments from anywhere. This calls for discipline — the work needs to be done, after all — and organization. But the payoff is a release from the tension many of us feel between “work” and “life.” A well-ordered information ecosystem can simultaneously make us more effective and more engaged with the world beyond our desks.