Work/Life balance isn’t about balance.

(and other things Chronobiology teaches us about life)


Let’s face it, work/life balance is elusive. And to apprehend it isn’t as easy as putting the different pieces of your life on a scale and trimming where necessary.

That’s because work/life balance, and all of it’s assumed benefits, isn’t actually about balance. It’s about rhythm. And the natural rhythm of our life is something we, of the 21st century, traded away a long time ago.

To understand this, we’ll have to get a quick history lesson – or an abbreviated (and oversimplified) version of the far longer narrative involving the earth, the human race, and machines.

The earth is created with a sense of rhythm. Night & day. Fall, summer, spring, winter. The ocean’s tide.

The human race, too, is designed to live by a certain natural rhythm. Waking & sleeping. The human heart and it’s beat. Weekdays & weekends. A farmer’s sowing season & reaping season. Hormonal & digestive cycles. REM patterns when we sleep.

Machines were introduced during the Industrial Revolution to optimize human output. The problem is that machines aren’t alive and therefore, don’t operate based on the same inherent rhythms of life that we do.

Sadly, this era of managing machines marked the beginning of long work days for humans, “work/life imbalance,” and the subtle exchange of the natural rhythms of life for mass productivity.

It seems that since this time, humans have largely chosen to ignore these rhythms of life, unlike animals or plants or the sea. As Natan Margalit, a Rabbi and Jewish scholar, reflects,

“Humans are unique. We can choose to ignore rhythm. We can, and do, keep our factories running day and night. We try to fool hens into laying more eggs by keeping their lights on 24 hours at a time. With every new pad, pod and phone we push ourselves into 24/7 connectedness. We have created a culture which is built on the metaphor of a machine impervious to any rhythm other than the drone of production. In the name of progress, convenience, even freedom, but most of all, profits, we have lost the music of life.”

Yet, the scientific study of life’s natural rhythms – known as Chronobiology – seems to beg us to reconsider the course of our current songless narrative.

Here are 4 things Chronobiology, and it’s different cycles, tells us about how to recover the natural rhythms of life.

1. Manage energy, not time.

It’s what chronobiology calls “Ultradian cycles,” or the patterns of life shorter than 24 hours. Examples of these cycles would be the 90-minute REM cycle, the 4-hour nasal cycle, or the 3-hour pattern of growth hormone production.

However, perhaps the more helpful reality we get from these cycles is what Leo Widrich crystalizes in his recent article, “The Origin of the 8 Hour Workday…” when he says,

The basic understanding is that our human minds can focus on any given task for 90-120 minutes. Afterwards, a 20-30 minute break is required for us to get the renewal to achieve high performance for our next task again.

This understanding of our brain’s natural rhythm challenges the validity of our 8-hr-straight work days with the absence of methodical breaks, as well as our propensity to manage our clocks, rather than our mental energy.

2. Daily Routines are more useful when designed to your body’s natural rhythms.

Circadian rhythms, or our 24-hour biological patterns, are seen most clearly in sleeping and eating patterns, as well as, core body temperature, brain wave activity, hormone production, and cell regeneration.

Simply by the existence of these 24-hour rhythms, we know that daily routines are valuable to pacing our lives. Interestingly though, even if we do develop daily routines, it doesn’t mean that we are in sync with the natural rhythms of our life.

For example, on a typical sleep schedule, mental alertness tends to peak twice in a day at 9AM and 9PM, while physical strength crests at 11AM and 7PM. Yet, we try to force a workout in first thing in morning or a creative session after lunch – wasting energy that is guaranteed to be in natural supply just a couple hours later in the day.

*I can affirm the value of relinquishing to natural rhythms rather than trying to create my own. I’ve recently seen a spike in productivity after architecting my workday around my mental peaks – 9am & 9pm.

3. Sabbath isn’t just a religious act.

Research has uncovered that our heartbeat, blood pressure, body temperature, hormone levels, among other things, rise and fall in seven-day patterns – known as Circaseptan cycles. Interestingly, all of these weekly conditions are dependent on a restful period of time. In other words, our bodies and our brains NEED rest on a weekly basis to fully replenish.

Perhaps, God rested on the seventh day and invites us to do the same for a reason. And perhaps, if we wanted to recover a healthy rhythm of life, we would take His cue and start sitting out one day a week out.

*The same reality in how staying busy 7 days a week disrupts our internal rhythms applies to eating healthy as well. We cram our bodies with all kinds of artificial foods that destroy our internal rhythms -making our blood pressure, body temp & hormones rise and fall at unnatural rates and killing our natural rhythms.

4. We can’t control the seasons.

Annual rhythms are reflected in the 4 seasons, the lunar cycles, the growth of most terrestrial plants, and the reproduction of animals in the temperate zones.

In our modern world, we can control most things in our life – including our schedule. However, there’s something deeply valuable in recognizing that there is an ebb and flow to our existence -just like the seasons of a year – that we can’t ultimately control.

All we can really do is learn to understand the time of year – the season of life we’re in – and embrace it entirely.

We’re not machines, but we’ve chosen to operate like them – forcing our lives in to unnatural patterns. I think it’s time to reconsider. And in many ways the choice is a clear one: adapt to the natural rhythms of your life or go on fighting them.

Okay, I’m done talking. What are some ways you’ve abandoned and/or recovered your natural rhythms?

  • Teri Goetz

    SO happy to see someone discussing this. I’m a coach, but also a practitioner of Chinese medicine – where it’s all about rhythms – yin and yang. We’ve lost our ability to connect with that, and with ourselves. We’re not going to stop the machines, they’re only coming faster and more furiously. We can, however, choose to pay attention to ourselves and our rhythms. High five on putting this out in this way, and as you point out, take a day of rest!

  • Nathaniel Durgasingh

    “We’re not machines, but we’ve chosen to operate like them – forcing our lives in to unnatural patterns. I think it’s time to reconsider. And in many ways the choice is a clear one: adapt to the natural rhythms of your life or go on fighting them.”

    Those words were basically all that needed to be said. I am an adamant believer in the phrase, “balance is key” but with the research you’ve shown regarding our body’s natural rhythm as opposed to balance, it definitely gives me a different perspective to consider when looking at the contrasts of activities in our lives and how we maneuver through them.

    What may be the tedious task in my life with regards to adopting a natural rhythmic lifestyle approach would be organizing my day around those peaks and valleys while still remaining productive and joggling university, independent studies, work and other activities I have going on. However, anything that increases my productivity naturally is always worth looking into. Once again, it’s always a pleasure reading your work, much love from the Caribbean Tyler!

  • tyler ward

    Thanks for the feedback @nathanieldurgasingh:disqus.

    Thrilled to hear it helped!

    Keep us in touch with your exploration of these rhythms. I’d love to hear how they compliment or contradict your current approach of balance.

  • tyler ward

    High five back @terigoetz:disqus. I love that you practice Chinese medicine. A very intriguing space to me.

    Thanks for chiming in!

  • Jamie

    Loved this post. Great job providing valuable content – it will change how I operate in my daily life. Thanks!

  • tyler ward

    Happy to hear it Jamie.

  • Caleb Campbell

    Really great post, Tyler. Wouldn’t it be beneficial to get to the root issues of why we have chosen to operate like we are machines? Most of the points you brought up became the fruit of my life when I addressed and dealt with the fears that were the driving force behind my life. The fear of rejection can produce one heck of a mean machine. Unfortunately, I know this all too well.

    I’ve really enjoyed going back and reading a lot of your older posts. Thanks for all you do. Blessings.

  • tyler ward

    @calebcampbell:disqus: I think it certainly would be beneficial and entirely agree that fear, and other unhealed motivators, makes us live and act like machines.

    What are some others?

  • K.A. (Kim) Reedy

    Good information, Tyler. I abandoned my natural rhythms when I sat at my desk ignoring hunger pangs until the company’s official lunch time. I’d feel irritable, groggy and distracted by the hunger. When noon finally came around I would overeat to compensate and then I’d feel overfull and lethargic.

    Finally I realized how ludicrous this was and started eating when I was hungry and stopping when I was full. My natural rhythm seemed to fall into place where I would eat between 10am and 11am, go for a walk between 12pm and 1pm, and then eat again around 1:30 and again around 3:30. My energy was more consistent throughout the day and I was more amiable, relaxed, focused and productive. It’s so much easier not to fight the natural rhythms!

  • tyler ward

    I love this @kareedy:disqus. Perfect example.

  • juliana javier

    Chronobiology..why did we know about this only now? Imagine how many of us had been forced to start school early, walk too soon, even diet at an early age in order to “train” how much our stomach should take. Natural rhythm should guide us also in giving ourselves a solitude break…just to be quiet for a few moments a day and listen to silence.

  • tyler ward

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. And yes, more breaks & silence please.

  • Josh Collins

    The beauty of the created order, the natural rhythms, as you speak to, are such that when we live by them, rather when we submit to them, that’s the very place we experience the greatest degrees of happiness, fulfillment, and success!

    And you my friend, by calling us all towards this, is awesome! Thank you for that!

  • Andrew Girardi

    I was thinking about these very things as my wife and my work schedule was getting more hectic this month. I found myself thinking about Saturday mornings, where I clean the kitchen to sparkling then make a fresh coffee, eat biscotti and read the paper, which is one of my favourite times of the week. (my sabbath, that recharges me) I think part of the rhythms are finding time to do what you love, in the busyness of life, like for me cooking dinner and singing as I go. It reminds me of a more civilized time as a child watching my parents at dinner time, cooking for 10 kids, singing, talking and creating joy in food.
    Thanks for your post Tyler!

  • Emily H

    hi Tyler – I’d love to read more about this – are there any books you recommend?

  • claire

    I’m lucky enough to be consciously redesigning my life at the moment, changing my work source entirely. Thanks for this post, I’ll be keeping track of my energy levels and listening to what my body wants to do at each point of the day. Exercising at mid-morning is already great for me, I have tried the dawn approach for a fortnight last year and I was exhausted by 1pm. Hopefully with the advent of more machines will come the ability to work at times we choose, where we choose. For me, this will be working from home and doing the bulk of the brain-intensive work in the morning and evening.
    Is there anything in people naturally being owls or fowls? My kids are like night and day, one is bouncing around at 6am and the other needs a pail of water thrown over him to wake up. Well almost. Are everyone’s rhythms similar do you think?

  • Charisnotparis

    Love this, it’s so much more productive to go with our natural rhythms versus cramming our lives into machine mode and paying for it later.

  • Clim Pacheco

    Spot on, Tyler. Just love this article. In May last year, I decided to reinvent my life (after wonderful careers in engineering, senior executive positions in transport management, education and insurance and finance) as after a time, it all gets to the same point- 24/7 engagement at work and not enough time to enjoy the finer joys of life. Decided to try out a career where I consult for 3 days a week, volunteer my time for 1 day a week for social and community causes and decide what I want to do for the other 1 day in the “working week”. So far it has been great. Your article reinforced my resolve to continue this lifestyle, as long as I can!! Must admit that the family are happy when the 3 days a week brings in the income- so some pressure helps!!!.

  • tyler ward

    “I consult for 3 days a week, volunteer my time for 1 day a week for social and community causes and decide what I want to do for the other 1 day in the “working week.”

    I love this Clim. Thanks for sharing.

  • tyler ward

    Agreed @Charisnotparis:disqus! Thanks for chiming in.

  • tyler ward

    Thats a great question. Im sure all of us have differing rhythms. However, I tend to believe that as long as were healthy, we can find plenty of common threads between the different paces.

    Id say in the end, its all about learning your rhythms and designing life accordingly – as much as possible.

    Thanks for the thoughtful response.

  • tyler ward
  • tyler ward

    @sixsteps268:disqus: kind words, as always. Thrilled it resonated with you Josh!

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  • Dennis

    How often are you doing your workout per week? And what kind of workout?
    Also what kind of nutrition is recommended

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