Google research shows that most people can’t maintain a boundary between work and life


Lazlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations, is taking a long-term view to issues like work/life balance. (Note: I recently wrote about Lazlo Bock’s approach to hiring in Lazlo Bock talks about hiring at Google, and why the GPA is irrelevant.)

Bock’s first observation is that there is little ‘scientific certainty around how to build great work environments, cultivate high performing teams, maximize productivity, or enhance happiness’ at work. Inspired by long-range research like the Framingham Heart Study, he has started what could be a 100 year research program at Google.

Google researchers Brian Welle and Jennifer Kurkoski are two years into the gDNA study, and some initial understanding is starting to emerge. 4,000 Googlers have completed two in-depth surveys for two years.

One finding is that the majority of Googlers — and presumably other people — have difficulty in ‘balancing’ — meaning keeping separate — work and personal realms of life. As Bock says,

Our first rounds of gDNA have revealed that only 31% of people are able to break free of this burden of blurring. We call them “Segmentors.” They draw a psychological line between work stress and the rest of their lives, and without a care for looming deadlines and floods of emails can fall gently asleep each night. Segmentors reported preferences like “I don’t like to have to think about work while I am at home.”

For “Integrators”, by contrast, work looms constantly in the background.  They not only find themselves checking email all evening, but pressing refresh on gmail again and again to see if new work has come in. (To be precise, people fall on a continuum across these dimensions, so I’m simplifying a bit.)

Of these Integrators (69% of people), more than half want to get better at segmenting. This group expressed preferences like “It is often difficult to tell where my work life ends and my non-work life begins.”

The fact that such a large percentage of Google’s employees wish they could separate from work but aren’t able to is troubling, but also speaks to the potential for this kind of research. The existence of this group suggests that it is not enough to wish yourself into being a Segmentor.

I am reminded of cognitive biases — like the sharedness and preference biases (see Dissensus, not consensus, is the shorter but steeper path) — where explaining the biases to people does not lead to them being able to overcome them. We cannot reason ourselves out of ways of thinking that are habitual, or even more so if they are innate, as these biases are. So, just wanting to be able to stop thinking about work activities and pressures may have no effect.

This does not mean there aren’t techniques to help people decrease the likelihood of thinking about unresolved work activities. The Zeigarnaik effect is a well-known phenomenon where people can easily fixate on unfinished tasks and forget those that have been completed. Tom Stafford relates a research experiment that showed how an unfinished task interferes with our ability to do a subsequent task (see Checking off our to-dos makes us happy, and others, too):

[Roy] Baumeister and [EJ] Masicampo discovered that people did worse on a brainstorming task when they were prevented from finishing a simple warm-up task – because the warm-up task was stuck in their active memory. What Baumeister and Masicampo did next is the interesting thing; they allowed some people to make plans to finish the warm-up task. They weren’t allowed to finish it, just to make plans on how they’d finish it. Sure enough, those people allowed to make plans were freed from the distracting effect of leaving the warm-up task unfinished.

So, this is the trick that can help the Integrators get better at ‘balancing’. Before you leave work, walk through your list of tasks that are unfinished, and make notes that solidify what the plan is to complete them in a timely way. Then you can go home, and your mind will be less likely to stray back to the unfinished work in the office, just as annoying as dental floss stuck between your molars.

Personally, I’ve given up on work/life balance: I am going for depth.

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