In my last post, I argued that it’s time to ditch the Lightbulb Model of Balance, the outdated idea that work-life balance is achieved by timing out how long to be “on” and how long to be “off.” Burnout often stems not from work being overwhelming, but rather from work being unsatisfying. Put another way, burning too bright is rarely the cause of burnout. Rather, burnout is caused by “flickering” too much: when flurries of emails, conference calls and meetings prevent us from ever finding time for the sustained work that made us want our jobs in the first place.

This is why we at Getaway see balance differently. Work-life balance, as I explained in Combatting the Great Spillover, is less about the frequency of hitting the off-switch and more about separating and balancing three modes of being: production (focused work), coordination (interaction with others about work), and leisure (not work). When you prevent the three modes from spilling over into each other — say, by preventing conference calls (coordination) from interrupting vacation (leisure) or preventing Youtube videos (leisure) from interrupting a work session (production) — all three modes can support work and life.

The Lightbulb Model = Broken Vacation Day Policies

The Lightbulb Model has broken the traditional vacation day system. If all we need is to be “off” every so often, the thought goes, then all we need is the option to not show up to the office every now and then. But we all know this model does not work.

First off, because most vacation days are voluntary and not mandatory, we never use all of our days. Employers know that most of us have a “work martyr complex” that leaves us not wanting to disappoint our teammates by taking off when projects need to be done. (And guess what: there is never a time when projects do not need to be done!)

Second, when we do take vacation days, we bring our work with us. According to the U.S. Travel Association’s “Overwhelmed America” survey, forty percent of us don’t take all of our vacation days because we worry about coming back to a mountain of work. Some of us try to square the circle by thinking we can solve for our post-vacation piles by carving out a few hours on each vacation day to get a bit done. But, of course, this leads to second-rate work and second-rate relaxation.

Finally, even if we do not bring our work with us on vacation, our work seems to find us. Our co-workers still leave us “a few quick questions” voicemails and our bosses still send us “I know you’re on vacation, but could you just read over this before I send it out” emails. As long as the lines of coordination are still open (and they always are if our phone is on), we can never escape work.

The Balance Model = Vacation Days for Deep Leisure

Vacation policy under the Balance Model is different: not emphasizing shallow senses of “on” time and “off” time, but rather acknowledging the need to separate and balance production, coordination and leisure.

  • First, a certain number of leisure days have to be mandatory. Setting a leisure quota is the only barrier strong enough against work martyrdom. If implemented, it will empower us to say things like “I wish we could finish Tuesday, but I have not hit my vacation quota for Spring yet and the deadline is May 31, so we are going to have to push to next week” and have our teammates understand.
  • Second, leisure days should not be interrupted by production. We should discourage each other from promising to complete any task on vacation or, worse, expecting each other to complete some task on vacation. Ideas like “I’ll bring the report to the beach and edit here and there” — an invasion of deep leisure days by production — should be as taboo as “I’ll bring my suntan lotion to the office and tan here and there” — an invasion of deep production days by leisure.
  • Third, leisure days should not be interrupted by coordination. Team members should be strongly discouraged from emailing, Slacking, or calling co-workers who are taking a leisure day. And on the flip side, those on leisure days should also be strong discouraged from emailing, Slacking or calling in to the office.

Supplement Leisure Days with Production Days

At Getaway, our newest addition to office balance policy has been to roll out what we call a “Production Day” policy. Production days are similar to vacation days, but instead of being centered on deep leisure, they are centered on deep work: clearing away all distractions so as to get a project done.

  • Just like with leisure days, you can put in requests for production days. Just like when you are on vacation, you do not have to come into the office or call in to routine meetings. The only difference is that you should indicate in production day requests what you intend to accomplish on your days.
  • Production days are not mandatory, but are encouraged. Employees should know that they always have the option to schedule a production day. Team leaders should notice when a team member is being bogged down by emails and meetings and recommend taking a production day to jump start or finish a project.
  • Just like with leisure days, coordination channels should be cut off. The whole point is to free space for deep work, away from email, phone calls and Slack messages.

Making Leisure and Production Days Work

Office balance policies are easier said than done. It’s hard to transition from a culture of work martyrdom to a culture of balance. Here are three ways to make it work:

  • First, acknowledge that there are going to be emergencies that require breaking the leisure day or production day barrier. But, just stay committed reminding each other that, 9 times out of 10, the office can survive for a few days without any given teammate.
  • Second, in periods that seem to require too much coordination to have teammates take full Production Days, start with half days to ease in to the new culture.
  • Third, incorporate production days and leisure days into the employee feedback process. Check in with each other on how many vacation and production days have been taken, and how well they have been able to hold the line against invasions by emails, phone calls and meetings.

Office commitments to work-life balance is just talk if not tied to routines and policy. Implementing better leisure day policies, and supplementing them with production day policies, helps us take balance seriously.

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