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For years, as director of the Work-Life Center at MIT, Kathy Simons pushed for flexible work policies, family-friendly benefits, and could cite chapter and verse the research on how taking time off to recharge improves workers’ outlook, productivity, and health. (In case you’re curious: One long-term study found that men and women who don’t take vacations are, respectively, 30 to 50 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who do. People who work long hours have a 20 percent higher mortality rate than those who don’t. And women who fail to take time off work are more likely to suffer from depression.)
Yet for five years, Simons herself didn’t take a vacation.
There are so many more stories like this. Consider Michele Vancour, for instance, a professor of public health at Southern Connecticut State University whose area of expertise is how the stress and guilt of work-life conflict can make us sick. Yet she herself gets stressed out by work-life conflict. I spoke with her on a morning when all had gone smoothly until she went to drop her son off at school on her way to work and realized she’d forgotten to put the drums he needed for the day into the car. Her head started to pound. She sighed. “Every time I have to go give a talk, I always say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’”
And a few years ago, Phyllis Stewart Pires was heading up the global gender, diversity, and work-life office of a major global tech company, traveling the world on a mission to improve work-life balance for all company employees. Until she found herself being rushed into a hospital in Germany with a potentially life-threatening blood clot. “I was literally going down the tubes,” Stewart Pires said. “I was missing family events. My friends were calling me out on being AWOL. My husband was calling me out on not doing my share. It was almost like I was obsessed with this idea that people were counting on me to really make a difference in their workplace. I couldn’t let them down.”
That experts have trouble acting on their expertise comes as no surprise to David Dunning, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. He made a name for himself with what he called the Dunning-Kruger effect, the discovery that we humans are all “confident idiots,” unable to see our own clear incompetence. “People may overestimate their ability to achieve work-life balance,” he said. “But it turns out, it’s a much more difficult task than anyone imagined. It requires more savvy, more discipline. And we’re not tuned into that.”
A raft of behavioral-science research shows that one of the best ways to bring the future closer to the present, to solve the questions of how and when, Dunning said, is to make binding contracts, or “pre-commitments.” When he and a colleague were having trouble procrastinating on a paper they were writing, juggling their own work-life conflicts and missing deadlines, they agreed that if they didn’t stick to their weekly writing schedule, they’d each have to donate money to causes and organizations they disliked. They got their work done.