• Xavi Flores

The three pillars of harmony

The essence of a 40-hour work week

New York, USA, August 4, 2020

A commonly accepted life principle today is that a 40-hour work week is generally longer than 40 hours. Many people regularly find themselves spending more than those 40 hours just to keep up with the workload. Working late and on weekends is a common theme, from corporate executives to independent contractors and entrepreneurs.

Then there is the work-life balance trend that has emerged in recent years in response to overwork. Although there is no universal consensus on how to achieve work-life balance, its proponents call for a blend of intensity both at work and outside of it, as well as quiet time to compensate both. To many, myself included, that is not a satisfactory path towards a 40-hour work week.

The ancient Greeks spoke of the balance of the four elements for a harmonious life. Pre-Hispanic Americans spoke of the balance of supernatural forces for the world to move forward, thus the need to offer sacrifices to their gods to guarantee harmony and prosperity. In Japan, the philosophy of the Zen mental state calls upon the balance of thought to achieve a life in harmony. Current theories of mental health range from having the various aspects of harmony (body, mind, spirit) in sync to strict time allocations for work-life balance. However, despite so much search for balance throughout history, it is common that today we find ourselves spending long hours at work without a proportional increase in productivity. Why is that?

What is lacking in those theories is an explanation of the actual circular forces that regulate harmony. A harmonious life is important to reach the maximum potential: individually, as a human being, as a professional. Harmony in business management or personal life is achieved through the correct balance of its three main forces or pillars: competence, resources, and logistics. Harmony is not the absence of disruptions. Instead, it is the even distribution of forces that creates a state of equilibrium. Interrupting that balance can be done on purpose or not. Knowing oneself determines the level of tolerance and even one’s own definition or acceptance of harmony.


The first question about competence, knowledge, and wisdom is: Am I competent enough to do what is required? In many cases, it's not about being smart enough, but whether you know enough to do what is asked of you. For a new challenge, the learning curve is often very steep: there is a lot to learn in a short time. This is what causes a person to spend long hours initially to absorb the knowledge required for the job. Over time, that person learns to perform the required tasks to the point of mastering them, what we generally refer to as "experience" or "wisdom." In some other cases, it is a matter of intelligence and understanding of one's limitations. If a person constantly spends too much time learning the day-to-day just to stay afloat, perhaps the required knowledge is beyond that person and will always try to "catch up." If you are good with words, but not so with math, do not try life as an astrophysicist, you will not achieve harmony.


Having the necessary resources to complete tasks in the allotted time is so evident that it sometimes goes unnoticed. Traditional business management science tends to define tasks in work hours, or the amount of time it takes to complete the task. Sometimes, despite the strength of available resources, we may extend their use to the breaking point.

For example, a hotelier who wants to know how many housekeepers to schedule for a given day begins by determining the number of rooms to be cleaned on that day. That hotelier, if she is a good manager, understands how long it takes for a housekeeper to clean and prepare a room (30 minutes is generally the industry standard). In that example, a typical housekeeper can clean 16 rooms during each 8-hour shift, considering that she has all the equipment and materials needed to clean. Not giving her enough cleaning supplies, not having clean linens on hand or any other shortage of resources will prevent her from adequately reaching the goal of 16 rooms in 8 hours. If there are 24 rooms to clean in one day, one person works 8 hours and cleans 16 rooms, while another person works 4 hours to clean 8 more rooms.

On the other hand, consider an independent cleaning contractor whose compensation is based on the number of rooms cleaned. If she manages to clean the 24 rooms without help, despite having worked more than 8 hours, she receives a greater pay that day. That independent contractor artificially limited her resources (having one more person work part-time with her) to receive a greater reward. Examples of this artificial resource limitation are common in small businesses, startups, investment banking, where limitations on certain resources result in greater rewards for stakeholders. For them, the rewards outweigh the desire for harmonious balance.


A final competitive force towards harmony is logistics. Some glorious goals that look good on paper are unrealistic once they are put into practice. Although time is also a resource and this element could be classified in the previous section, it is separated due to the need to properly plan what is required for the proper logistical execution of any strategy, particularly in business. For example, real estate valuations and appraisals require the physical evaluation of the asset in question. The appraiser is required to visit the property and visually inspect it. For a portfolio that includes 17 buildings in 8 different cities with at least 3 hours of distance, either by car or plane, to be evaluated in 5 days, that appraiser will probably spend more than 40 hours just to complete the visits. The goal of a person evaluating the portfolio within a 40-hour work week is not feasible due to the logistics of the task. Something has to give: either have more than one appraiser assigned, reduce the number of buildings, or have a more realistic deadline than 40 work hours.

Finally, the goal of work-life harmony over the long run should look more like a trend rather than an infallible straight line. We will all encounter moments where harmony is disrupted, and being able to restore that state of equilibrium requires us to understand what forces are out of balance, and for us to decide whether we can correct them, or readjust ourselves to that new point of equilibrium.

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