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Dropping the Work-Life Balancing Act

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Before I get started, I want you all to take a minute and think about your definition of work-life balance. So, you don't have to say it out loud. I'm not going to make you talk to each other, but just take a moment and reflect on it. And when you think about work-life balance, are there any words, images, or even people that come to mind? What does it feel like when you have work-life balance, and is it something that you feel like you have today?

My guess is probably not, otherwise, you wouldn't be attending a talk on the subject. So, you may still be thinking of your definition, and I'd encourage you to continue thinking about it throughout this talk because what I'm going to share with you today is how my definition of work-life balance has changed significantly over the past couple of years. For much of my career, when I thought of work-life balance, the image that immediately came to my mind was of a balancing scale. My work and my personal life were the two opposing forces on the scale. And in order to achieve work-life balance, I needed to dedicate equal amounts of time to each.

And the problem with this definition was that my scale was always imbalanced no matter how hard I tried to even it out. And on top of that, I often found that a lot of the advice and conversation around work-life balance focused on setting boundaries so that I could dedicate an equal amount of time to my work and to pursuing hobbies, passions, relationships, and other things outside of work.

But I felt that it was a little bit more nuanced than that and that something was missing from all of that conversation. I often had questions such as, what if I'm working 60, 70, 80 hours per week, but I'm doing something that I love? Or what if I'm going through something really hard or even really exciting in my personal life and it distracts me from work and I'm not able to dedicate as much time to it? I don't have the answers to those questions, but I happened to have experienced both of those extremes of imbalance over the past couple of years. And that's what inspired me to give this talk to you all today.

So, a little bit about the format of the talk. Like Harry [Brumleve] said, this is the unplugged version, so I don't have any slides. And instead of showing you slides, I'm going to tell you a story. And it's a story of how I've experienced imbalance during several times in my life, how that felt, and how that shifted my definition of work-life balance. And my hope for you all is that in hearing that, it will help you come to terms a little bit with your own imbalance and potentially give you some ideas to feed back into your own definition of work-life balance.

I'll set a little bit of context before getting started with that. I'm Cameron [Jacoby], and I work on the engineering team at Stitch Fix. And since I'll be spending a lot of our time together today talking about my job, I want to make sure to get everyone on the same page in terms of what Stitch Fix does and what I do there. Stitch Fix is an online personal styling service, and the way that it works is that we combine algorithmic recommendations with the expertise of human stylists to send our clients clothes, shoes, and accessories that they will love.

And at the heart of our technology organization is the belief that we should rely on computers to do the things that they're good at such as pulling insights from large amounts of data, and we should rely on humans for the things they're good at, such as creativity and building relationships. And the way that we're able to bring this to life is that we do something at Stitch Fix that I think is really unique, and that's the fact that we build all of our internal software in-house. And so, that means that a lot of us on the engineering team work on tools that other Stitch Fix employees use to do their jobs. You'll also often hear this called Expert Use software. And I'll use the two terms interchangeably throughout the talk.

The Context Story

For most of my time at Stitch Fix, I have worked on internal tools for the merchandising team, specifically for our merchandise buyers who are responsible for deciding what inventory we're going to have in stock and then placing orders for that inventory with our external vendors. And to illustrate that, I'll give you an example of one of these pieces of internal software that I worked on for our merchandise buyers. And that's actually the first part of the story that I'm going to tell, so I'll go ahead and get started with that.

So, to anchor us in time, the story starts in April of 2017, and I was the lead engineer on a project where we were building a tool for our merchandise buyers to surface recommendations for styles that would do well for our clients. So, the way that it worked was that our buyers would log into the tool and they would see a ranked list of styles. And these styles were ranked based on algorithms developed from our data science team. So, the reason that the buyers were getting these recommendations is that so they could more quickly make decisions about which assortment of inventory we would carry for the following months or quarters.

I was really excited to lead this project for a couple of different reasons. The first one was that it was going to have a huge impact on efficiency for our merchandise buyers. And that's because this process of our data science team recommending styles for our buyers already existed before we had software to support it, but it was an incredibly manual process. It involved our data scientists manually creating spreadsheets of the recommendations, sending them over to our buyers, and then our buyers would make their initial selections on the spreadsheets, send them back to our data scientists who would then run further algorithms on the Google sheets. They would send it back to the buyers and then they would go back and forth like that for several days, sometimes for even several weeks.

I was really excited to build software to support this process because it would allow both our buyers and our data scientists to spend time on more valuable parts of their jobs. And the other reason that I was really excited to work on this is because the project posed some challenges that were a stretch for my existing skillset. We decided to build this recommendations tool in React, and I'm a pretty tried and true Rails developers. So, front-end frameworks are not exactly my specialty, so it's a new challenge for me. And in addition to that, this was also the first time we were integrating our merchandising software with APIs from our data science team. So, there was a lot of ground to break there and the potential to set a precedent for future integrations to come.

I worked on this buying recommendations projects during the spring and summer of 2017. And during that, I literally worked all the time. It felt like an exponential ramp up as each month passed. And in the last six weeks before launching, I was working at least 70 hours per week, if not more. On weekdays, I worked from the moment I woke up in the morning until I was too tired to keep going at night. I worked from home two days per week and that's when I wrote most of the code. And then on the days I came into the office, I did everything else that was needed to manage the project, from gathering feedback from our buyers, working through API implementation with our data scientists, and fielding questions and feature requests about the project. And on those days, I wrote code at night when I got home.

I would also typically work for most of the day on either Saturday or Sunday, but never both weekend days. The other day was always dedicated to resting so that I would be ready to go for whatever the following week threw at me. And this wasn't the first time I had pushed hard on a project or worked more than 40 hours per week, but it was the longest I had ever sustained it for. I was inherently motivated by building this tool that was going to greatly increase the efficiency of this buying recommendation process. And that's why I do this job. That's why I joined Stitch Fix, and that's why I work on Expert Use software specifically. I love building internal tools because I love improving the lives of our users who are right there with us in the office. And this project really resonated with me because I was getting to do exactly that.

And the funny thing is that when looking back on that time, I don't ever really remember feeling tired. I was having a ton of fun. It was this weird mix of fear and joy that I'm not sure I'll ever be able to replicate. The fear came from the fact that every aspect of the project was a stretch for my existing skillset. I didn't know if I could pull it off, but I wanted to find out. And the joy came from the strong sense of partnership I felt from working towards a shared goal with our buyers and our data science team. So, it was those reasons that propelled me to continue working long beyond the typical 9 to 5 workday.

And when I was doing this, I knew it wasn't perceived as normal. One of the things that we often talk about at Stitch Fix is that it's such a great place to work because it's a place that supports work-life balance. And I knew I wasn't holding up this standard of work-life balance that I often heard my coworkers refer to. And on top of that, at various points in my career, I've read blog posts, listened to conference talks, and received advice that all told me I should have work-life balance. In addition to keeping myself happy and healthy, it would also set a positive example for others around me.

I heard from an array of people and sources that I should be careful with how much I was working because it could set a bad example for the rest of the team. And this idea that I was negatively impacting those around me with my working style made me feel, at best, uncomfortable and at worst, guilty and ashamed. I cared a lot about my coworkers, and I wanted to set a good example for them. But at the same time, I loved to work. And I didn't necessarily want to stop what I was doing either. I felt like something was wrong with me because I didn't have work-life balance, and I wasn't sure if I wanted it.

I can't tell you what to do if you ever feel like this, but I can tell you how I reacted, and that was to attempt to hide how much I was working. By the time I started the buying recommendations project, I already knew how to do this, and I pulled out all the tricks. My favorite one was to write code at night and then wait to push up the commits until a more acceptable hour the next morning. I never went as far as rebasing to change timestamps on commits, so it would have been obvious what was going on to anyone looking closely. But for the most part, no one was.

So, when August of 2017 came around, we launched the first version of this buying recommendations project. And I had never felt prouder of anything else I had done at work. And quite honestly, it ranks pretty highly against my personal accomplishments as well. Like everything we do as software engineers, there would be many more iterations of the project to come. But when I got to see the entire merchandise buying team using this tool to do a critical part of their job, it was an incredibly rewarding experience for me.

Shortly after launching that first version of the buying recommendations tool, I moved on to a new project in merchandising engineering. At the time, at Stitch Fix, we were ramping up and moving towards a service-oriented architecture. We had, and we still have today, a large shared database that's a single point of failure for all the applications that connect to it. So, the project I was working on during the fall of 2017 was to move applications off of the shared database and onto a new service for merchandising-related data. And this project was really different than anything I had worked on before, especially after coming straight from the buying recommendations project. There was no product work or direct interaction with the merchandising team, and I spent most of my time during the day writing code. And I found that I didn't have the same inherent motivation to continue coding after work as I did when I was working on something where I was directly interacting with our users. I noticed that there was a real limit to the amount of service migration I could do in a day, and that left me with a lot more free time outside of work.

I remember the first week I worked on the service migrations, I finished my work between 5 and 5:30 each day and I literally didn't know what to do with myself. This was a completely new experience for me. And I know that might sound sad, and maybe it was a little bit sad, but pouring my entire self into work had just been the norm for me for so long. I was really unsure what other parts of my identity even existed or if there even were any. And I also realized that I didn't have a great idea of what I even enjoyed doing outside of working.

In the past, when someone would ask, my honest answer was, "I like to go home and work more." And I knew that wasn't a normal thing to say, so I would often hang back from those types of conversations. But it was with this new found free time that I decided to explore this a little bit more and see if I could figure out if there were any other parts to my identity besides working. And I thought that if I could figure out some things that I was passionate about doing outside of work, that I would have a more well-rounded personal identity and that maybe I would figure out this work-life balance thing.

It seemed achievable enough to me at the time, at least in my head, so I did a few different things to try to experiment with this. I talked to people inside and outside Stitch Fix about work-life balance. I read books and blog posts on the topic, and I thought back to hobbies that I had enjoyed in the past. And I tried a bunch of things. I tried meditation and journaling, which were common pieces of advice from others. I tried adjusting when and how much I slept and what I ate, which are the cornerstones of any blog post about self-care. I tried art and running, which are two hobbies I have enjoyed in the past, and I tried some new things too, like learning how to play the piano.

And at any given point, I was often trying many of these things at the same time. I think the technical term for this is multivariate testing. And this wasn't working quite as well as I expected. I was often left feeling exhausted from trying to achieve a balanced mix of exercise, mindfulness, and creativity all on top of getting my work done each day. So, I was pretty frustrated at this point. My energy was low. I still felt imbalanced, and I still felt like something was wrong with me for not being able to figure this out.

So, at this point in the story, we're in December of 2017. So, I worked on the service migrations all throughout the fall. And at this point, I got an opportunity to join a brand new engineering team at Stitch Fix. And it's the team that I'm currently on today. So, my current engineering team is called The Expansion Team, and we're responsible for making the engineering changes necessary to expand Stitch Fix into the UK, which is happening at some point next year. So, this was super exciting for me. I was the third member of this brand new team, and I would get to expand my scope outside of merchandising, engineering and get to work across all of our engineering systems at Stitch Fix.

So, work was going really well. There was this exciting new change, but I think one thing that I didn't totally account for, in that having more time in the fall to reflect on my identity and my life and what I wanted that to look like, is that it would make me realize that there were some other changes that needed to happen in my personal life at the same time as this big change that was happening at work.

Feeling Imbalanced

So, at this point in the story, we're in January of 2018, so we've made it to this year. And about a week after new year's, on Sunday, January 7th, I left my apartment with my backpack and a suitcase containing barely a week's worth of clothing, which marked the end of my five-year-long relationship with my ex-boyfriend. I didn't know where I was going, and I didn't know when I'd be back to get more clothes or the rest of my belongings. Through the shock and adrenaline in that moment, the only thing I could focus on was finding a place to sit down and figure out what was next, at least for that night. I remember calling a Lift, but I must've been on autopilot since I don't consciously remember typing in the Stitch Fix office as the destination.

When I got to the office, I walked into the kitchen, popped open a La Croix, made myself a sandwich, and booked a hotel across Market Street to stay in that night. The next morning I woke up, and I called my parents. From 3,000 miles away, I could feel their sadness and fear when I told them what had just happened. I hung up the phone, checked out of the hotel room and walked back across Market Street in time for my 9:00 a.m. standup.

The reaction that I had just felt from my parents was not completely off base. I had just walked away from the life that my ex-boyfriend and I had built together for the past five years, which was both heartbreaking and terrifying. But the weight of that hadn't hit me yet. I didn't know where I was going to live or what my life would look like that week or even for the rest of that day. But the thing that worried me the most on that short walk to work was, "What am I going to say when people ask me how my weekend was?"

So, as I've been talking about this whole time, work has always made up a significant part of my personal identity, so much so that I've struggled to even figure out what the other parts were. But what this experience of my breakup made me realize is that my personal life also has a significant impact on who I am at work. When someone asks me the question, "How are you?" Or, "How was your weekend?" If the answer is somewhere in between, “Not great” and, “My personal life just went up in flames”, hiding that information drains my energy and makes me feel worse.

But at the same time, I know that some people prefer to keep their work and their lives outside work more separate. And I want to be respectful of that. I often worry that sharing the details of my personal life, especially when things aren't going well is going to make my coworkers feel uncomfortable. So, in the days and weeks following my breakup, I was hyper-aware of these types of "How are you?" questions at work. Every time someone asked, I felt like I was doing mental somersaults to try to figure out how honest I should be with that person in that moment. I was constantly weighing the tradeoffs of covering up what was going on and taking the additional hit to my energy level, versus speaking up at the risk of causing discomfort for someone else.

During the week of January 7th, I don't remember the code I wrote, the meetings I went to, or the interviews I conducted, but there are a few things I do remember very clearly. I remember that leaving my old apartment was inconveniently timed during the J.P. Morgan Annual Healthcare Conference, which is one of the worst times to find a place to stay in San Francisco. I remember telling each of my team members about my breakup, and not knowing what I expected them to do with that information, but just that I wanted them to know. I remember breaking down in tears during a yoga class because sometimes crying when I'm not in public is too much to ask for. I remember telling people at work how I was really doing when they asked me, "How are you?" And I remember it being okay.

So, after getting through that first week, a lot of change was in store over the following months. I moved out of my old apartment. And from January through March, I stayed in two different hotels and three different Airbnb's. So, this meant that all of my belongings were scattered between a storage unit, my temporary housing arrangements, and a lot of times, the office. And this desperate state of my possessions was a pretty accurate outward representation of how scattered I was on the inside as well. I was often late for stand up for no other reason than I couldn't get myself together before at 9 in the morning.

While all of this was going on, I pulled much less weight at work than I was used to, and I had to learn to be okay with that. I had never experienced such a large amount of change and instability in such a short amount of time than I did in those few months. My personal life had to take priority in a way that I wasn't used to. And so, in case it wasn't clear, I definitely didn't feel any type of balance. I felt like I lacked the time, energy, and emotional capacity to dedicate even half of myself to work, and certainly not my whole self, in the way that I had done in the past. I want to say that I felt guilty about that, but I honestly don't know if I even did. Looking back on that time, what stands out to me the most is an overwhelming feeling of being drained for weeks and months on end.

So, to wrap up this part of the story on a more positive note, I'm happy to report that my life outside work is a lot more stable now. Towards the end of March, I moved into a new apartment that has some of the best views of San Francisco I've ever seen. And I have two roommates who I absolutely love living with. So, why am I telling you all this? I'm telling you this because life can be really messy, and that's true for all of us. Whether it's a breakup or something else, hard things are going to happen that completely derail our lives. And that includes the work part of our lives. Going through something difficult outside work cannot be contained or kept separate or balanced out. It affects how we feel at work, how we relate to work, and how much time and energy we can devote to our work.

So, tying this back to the beginning of the talk when I was describing the excitement and sense of purpose I experienced from working, that's the other extreme when it comes to feeling imbalanced. I've spent a lot of time trying to reconcile these two periods of my life and figure out what that means for work-life balance, and I have a few thoughts about that that I want to share with you all.

So, the first thing is that I've realized that I'm never going to feel an overwhelming sense of balance or equilibrium, so I need to stop making that the goal. The amount of time and energy I'm able to devote to work is going to be different depending on what else is going on in my life at that time. And it may not be as drastic as the two extremes I've talked about, but it will always lean at least a little off-balance. And recognizing that there will be this ebb and flow has actually made me really grateful of the times when I could dedicate most of myself to work. Working a lot, especially on things that were way outside my comfort zone, allowed me to gain a ton of valuable skills in a short amount of time. And it's those skills that I consistently rely on to get my job done, especially on days when I'm not feeling my best.

But it's not all positive. One thing I want to make sure I'm honest about is that working a lot can be rewarding, but it can also lead to some really bad habits. I'm horrible at prioritization and time management because I got by for a frighteningly long time without having to learn those skills. When I had what felt like endless energy to work, if I didn't finish something I said I would do during the workday, it was totally fine because I would just work more when I got home to get it all done. It's been extremely painful to realize that habit is unsustainable, and it's been an uphill battle to try to recover from it. And to be completely transparent, I still don't have that figured out.

Empathy

The other main learning that I have from these events is around empathy. And this goes back to the anxiety that I experienced when answering those "How are you?" questions after my breakup. That experience made me realize that we don't always have the full picture of what's going on in someone's life when we interact with them at work. Recognizing that I'm operating on a limited set of information has helped me in trying to approach my interactions at work with a little bit more empathy than I have in the past.

When I ask someone how they're doing, I try to leave more space for a real answer if they want to give it. And if I notice myself feeling annoyed or offended by something that happens at work, I try to remind myself that we're all just doing our best. I still fall short all the time at being empathetic and often rush through my days wrapped up in my own problems, but it's something I'm trying to get better at.

Revisiting the Definition of Work-Life Balance

I want to revisit the definition of work-life balance that I shared at the beginning of the talk, and that was the balancing scale with my work and my personal life on either side. I mentioned that I've stopped trying to make it a goal to feel like I've reached any sort of balance or equilibrium. So, I want to talk a little bit about what I have shifted that definition towards. So, instead of thinking about work-life balance as a scale, I try to focus more on the interaction between my work and my personal life. And I try to pay attention to whether or not those are interacting in a way that's making me happy and making me feel fulfilled.

So, instead of asking myself, "Am I dedicating equal amounts of time to my work and my personal life?" I ask myself questions like, "Am I working on things that motivate me? Am I working with people that I can learn from and who are kind? Am I doing things outside of work that make me feel rested? And am I spending my time with people outside of work who are bringing a positive energy into my life?" So, I know that this idea of work and personal life interacting might sound a little bit abstract, and I think that's why we often fall back on time as a measure of work-life balance because it's a little bit more straightforward to measure, unless you're trying to write a program to measure time, in which it's not straightforward at all.

I want to spend our last few minutes together kind of talking about how I have tried to make this idea of interaction a little bit more concrete and what that looks like in my life on a daily basis. So, the caveat to this part is that I'm going to share some of the things that have worked for me, and it's an ongoing process to figure out what that looks like. They may not necessarily work for you, and you have to do the work to figure out what your definition of work-life balance looks like and how that manifests in your daily life. But I'll share a little bit about what works for me in case that gives you ideas of things that you can try.

Focusing on the Energy Level

So, instead of focusing on this measure of time, I've shifted my focus more towards trying to pay attention to my energy level. The idea is that I want to feel like I'm recharged each day to the extent that I'm able to focus on work and also enjoy my life outside of work. So, feeling like I have enough energy to be fully present in whatever I'm doing at the time. So, this idea of energy and recharging kind of has two different parts to it. And so, the first part is trying to minimize things that drain my energy and then the second part is trying to focus on things that replenish my energy. And I think the hardest part about that is actually figuring out what those things are and also kind of figuring out how do you even measure what an energy level looks like.

And so, to provide a little bit more detail into that, what I mean when I say energy level, is the first thing I ask myself is, "Am I feeling tired?" And what I've learned, that was kind of a big unlock for me, is that there's a difference between feeling tired because of lack of sleep, and feeling tired because something is draining my energy. And so, pinpointing that is really the first step for me and trying to figure out how to feel recharged. And it takes a good amount of self-awareness to get to this point, and that's a skill that you can practice like anything else. But one thing that has helped me is framing it similar to how we talk about the five whys in retrospectives. So, when something happens, you ask why and then you keep asking why five times until you get to the bottom of it.

When focusing on my energy level, I've started to do the same thing. If I'm feeling like I have low energy, going through that exercise of the five whys, trying to pinpoint what's draining my energy, and then hoping that that will also provide some insight into how I can replenish my energy as well. And it takes practice. And over time, that does get a little bit easier, and you can start to notice patterns and build habits around those patterns. So, since I've shifted my focus to thinking more about energy, I'll start with sharing some of the things that I do to limit activities that are draining my energy.

Reduce External Noise

What that looks like for me on a daily basis is that I try as hard as I can to reduce external noise. So what this means is that I don't use social media, I don't watch TV, I don't read the news aside from a daily summary email. And my phone is always on silent and do-not-disturb except, of course, when I'm on call. And I know that might sound like a lot of rules, but they're actually reactions to feeling like I have too much mental clutter to either focus on work, enjoy my life outside work, or both. And rather than making me feel restricted, not doing things like checking Instagram or responding to texts right away gives me the freedom to focus on things that do give me energy.

So, speaking of the things that do give me energy, this one's actually a little bit harder for me to figure out what those things are. But one thing that helped a lot with that is the period of experimentation that I talked about a little bit earlier where I was trying out a bunch of routines and activities almost to the point of exhaustion. And while that definitely wasn't sustainable to try to fit as much as possible into one day or one week, it did give me a lot of data points that I could use in terms of activities that would replenish my energy level. So, some examples of this are reading fiction and autobiographies, practicing yoga and riding my bike, all of which I really enjoy, but I wouldn't consider any of those things to be my life's passion.

A few things I learned through this process. One that was a little bit surprising to me is that it's less important for me to feel an overwhelming sense of passion for the hobbies that I do outside work. It's more important for them to be concrete ways to clear my mind and replenish my energy level. And another thing that I learned that was counter-intuitive is that I don't need to be building a routine where I'm doing the same things every day. I think one of the pitfalls I ran into when trying to achieve work-life balance is thinking that if I can just find the perfect routine where I go to bed at the same time every night, wake up the same time each morning, work for the same amount of time and do the same hobbies outside work, I'll be super energized, productive and happy all the time.

But that mindset always set me up for failure because whatever I was trying to achieve was unrealistic. So what this means for me is that each day looks a little bit different, and that goes back to the high value I place on reducing noise and mental clutter. I try to pay attention to what I need and leave space to do those things, as opposed to pre-planning everything out in a set routine. So, like I said, those are just some of the things that I've discovered that work for me in figuring out how I want my work and my personal life to interact, how to replenish my energy, but it's definitely an ongoing process. And I'm still self-reflecting and learning about these things every day.

Conclusions

To wrap up, there's a couple things I want you all to do when you leave here today. The first one is think back to periods of your life when you've experienced imbalance, and you might be going through that right now, and think about how that felt and revisit that definition of work-life balance that I asked you to reflect on at the beginning of the talk. Does it need to change at all? And if you're feeling stuck and you're not sure where to get started, the advice I'll give you is that I think storytelling is a very powerful way to do this.

So to get a little bit meta for a second, preparing this talk and giving this for you all today was a very important part of my process in working through what these times of imbalance meant for my life. And you don't have to share your story in a forum like this. You don't even have to tell it to someone else, but I would encourage you to at least write it down or reflect on it. And you might be surprised at what comes out of that. So, the final thought I'll leave you with today is this. If you ever feel imbalanced, and if you struggle to figure out how your work and your life outside work relate, you're not the only one.

 

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Recorded at:

Jan 29, 2019

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