The CRAP Factor: An Easy Formula for Work-Life Balance

Ever wondered how to measure your work-life balance? Introducing the CRAP Factor: a simple formula to assess your work-life balance (or imbalance) – and then do something about it.

Imagine you’ve just ordered a full English breakfast. Sausages, eggs, bacon, baked beans, toast, mushrooms – the works. You’re ravenous, ready to conquer an exquisite morning feast.

But when your breakfast arrives, something strange has happened. It isn’t what you expected. Instead of your feast, the waiter has placed a small plate of sausages in front of you, served with a sinister-looking smoothie.

Horrified, you ask the waiter where the rest is.

“The rest!” he exclaims. “This is the rest!” he says, holding the smoothie triumphantly aloft.

“I – I don’t understand…” you say, given no other choice by this blogger’s narrative.

“It’s easy!” the waiter says. “We’ve found the perfect sausage-breakfast balance.” He points to the sausages and then to the smoothie: “Sausage. Breakfast. Sausage. Breakfast. Get it?”

He repeats it slowly to help you understand: “Saaaaaussssaaaage. Breeeeaaaakfaaaastttttt.”

Life is a full English breakfast

I’ve always thought of ‘work-life balance’ as one of the more curious terms to emerge from the 21st century. Why do we encourage people to compartmentalise their time into two buckets? And why do we insist on treating work and life as different entities?

Work is part of life, and life is a full English breakfast (or perhaps a buffet – should the breakfast metaphor not be to your taste). The sausages (work) are only one part of the dish. There are all sorts of other delights on the plate to dig into. It follows that the rest of life should not be given the indignity of being liquidised into a sinister smoothie and served by a condescending waiter.

But it’s easy to see why the term has caught on. First, it’s a question of simplification. Life isn’t an ordinary full English breakfast. In fact, in life’s breakfast the plate is typically half full of sausages. It makes sense that we call that out.

Second, when we eat too many sausages, the results aren’t good. When work-life ‘balance’ becomes a clear imbalance, it can have devastating effects on our lives – and on our performance in the workplace.

Introducing the CRAP Factor

As part of this work-life bartering, we trade our time for money. Fair enough.

The thing is, it’s not usually a straightforward trade.

The deal comes with a catch. When we trade our time for money, we incur time transaction costs. We absorb time commuting. We spend time preparing for work. Sometimes – even often – we work extra time for no extra pay at all.

In short, the sausages can contain a lot of crap. So to get a real view of work-life balance, we must account for the ‘all-in’ cost of trade.

I call the full extent of these costs the CRAP Factor, and it can be defined as follows:

Daily CRAP Factor = C + R + A + P

Where:

C = Commute Hours

R = Regular Paid Hours (including regular overtime)

A = Additional Unpaid Hours

P = Preparation Hours

Yes, this week I’m going to talk CRAP (sorry, couldn’t resist). But before we get to the implications of your calculated CRAP Factor, let’s first review the component parts.

The commute (C)

Definition: Total hours spent getting to and from your place of work in a normal work day. Typical examples include time spent sharing personal space with unpleasant smelling strangers on public transport, waiting for inevitably delayed trains, and weeping as you crawl 100 metres in 20 minutes of traffic.

What the research tells us:

The average daily commute time is 58.4 minutes in the UK and 52.5 minutes in the US, according to research, but that varies considerably by location.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that studies are consistent in highlighting the detrimental effects of longer commutes. One recent study found that longer commute times are associated with increased stress, higher blood pressure and BMI, and reduced time available for health-promoting activities like exercising and sleeping.

A recent partnership study of more than 34,000 workers in the UK found similar results. Those commuting for more than one hour each way were found to be 33% more likely to suffer from depression, 21% more likely to be obese, and a whopping 46% more likely to get less than 7 hours of sleep per night.

The research is clear: The C in the CRAP Factor can be a huge counterforce to finding the right work-life balance – and at longer levels, it can even seriously impact our health.

Regular paid hours (R)

Definition: Regular paid hours worked in a normal work day, including your normal contracted hours and any regular overtime.

What the research tells us:

The pattern of our working lives has changed considerably over the last century, mainly for the better, but we still dedicate ourselves to some hefty hours.

A Gallup report from 2014 estimated that the average US full-time worker works 47 hours a week, with 40% working at least 50 hours. That’s one of the highest figures in the world, and it’s much higher than rates seen across Western Europe.

According to Eurostat data, the UK works the longest hours in the European Union, at 42 hours per week, while the rest of the EU averages 40.3 hours. How the paid-unpaid composition of these hours looks in practice is an unknown, but typical corporate contracts run at around 37.5 hours per week.

The R in CRAP – the contracted portion, at least – is the least controllable part of the CRAP Factor in the short run.

Additional unpaid hours (A)

Definition: The total additional hours worked on a typical work day free of charge (usually not because you’re feeling generous). Typical examples of additional hours are starting work early and finishing late, working through lunch breaks, and checking emails at home.

What the research tells us:

The modern working world is always on. Our connectivity to our work, particularly via our mobile phones, means we’re working much more hours for free – and sadly that’s often the expectation.

A survey conducted for GFI Software found that 81% of US employees check their work emails on weekends and 59% check their work emails while on holiday. A YouGov survey found similar results for UK employees, despite the fact that 80% would rather completely switch off.

These additional hours can vary considerably by profession. Higher profile corporate roles typically demand regular email check-ins and out-of-hours meetings, while fast-paced industries, like finance, demand longer hours of staff at almost all levels.

The crux of the matter is that the A in CRAP can serve up a big portion of sausages. And they’re often not particularly palatable.

Preparation for work (P)

Definition: Total daily hours spent preparing for work on the same or next day. Typical preparation activities include ironing of clothes (perhaps the most pointless, productivity-draining social custom ever known to mankind) and advance mental preparation for the next work day.

What the research tells us:

Not much. But in the interests of consistency, it felt worthwhile including this section.

Though while we’re here, it’s worth noting that the P in CRAP may require a little more thought. It’s not likely to be immediately evident how much time you spend mentally preparing for a subsequent day (unless you allocate time to worrying, which let’s face it, would be quite worrying in itself). It might be worth keeping a diary for a week to get a better idea.

How to assess your CRAP Factor

So you’ve read the definitions and you’ve calculated your CRAP Factor. But what does it mean in practice?

The below is the CRAP Factor spectrum, from 0 to 24.

Let’s take a look at the implications of each section in a little more detail.

The green zone (CRAP Factor 0-7): You might be retired, part time, or perhaps you’ve achieved financial independence. Your core working hours are lighter than the typical 8 hours per work day, and you have ample time to reflect, rest, exercise and socialise. You have time to fully embrace the essence of deep work and deep play. Some in the green zone may even look to elevate their working hours, focusing on working on something they enjoy. The green zone provides flexibility.

The yellow zone (CRAP Factor 8-12): You’re in the majority. Your CRAP Factor is exacerbated by your commute and modest but regular extra unpaid hours. Depending on where you sit in the yellow zone, you may have the opportunity to makes things more comfortable by edging towards the green zone, or risk teetering on the edge of the burnout zone. The yellow zone is an opportunity and a risk.

The orange zone (CRAP Factor 13-16): You’re working too much or you’re commuting too much. If you’re not already feeling burnt out, you’re on the road to it. You need to seriously look at what is driving up your CRAP Factor and take action to address it. If your job means your commute and work hours (paid and unpaid) are inflexible, you should probably think about a job change. The orange zone requires sustainable changes for your well-being.

The red zone (CRAP Factor 17-24): You’re heading for a speedier death. It’s that simple. You’re not sleeping enough and you’re not getting enough free time to exercise, to rest, and to spend time with loved ones. This is a recipe for disaster. Aside from the obvious implications of not exercising, socialising or enjoying downtime, your sleep deprivation significantly elevates the risk of both physical and mental health problems. The red zone requires immediate action for your health.

How to reduce your CRAP Factor

So perhaps you’re not satisfied with your CRAP Factor; few will be. But there are two important questions to ask at this point:

  1. Is your CRAP Factor in the orange or red zone? If so, action should be non-negotiable.
  2. How much of your CRAP Factor is controllable? It’s this question which should drive the focus of your CRAP Factor Rescue Operation.

At this point, the focus areas for reducing your CRAP Factor should be self-explanatory.

In the short run, you might be able to:

  • Reduce your commute: Could you work from home more often? Could you work in a closer office? Can you make other arrangements within your business to reduce commute time, e.g. a role change? If the answers are no, and you’re sitting in the CRAP Factor danger zones of orange and red, it’s probably time to start thinking about different work options – for the sake of your long-term health.
  • Stop working so much for free: Work smarter and be more effective with your time. Cut out non-value adding meetings and block out time in your calendar for core working activities. Don’t get sucked into the corporate “stayathon” culture. Do what is required to recover your precious time.
  • Reduce your preparation: Here’s something revolutionary: do your mental preparation for work at work and then leave it at work. Too often we’re prisoners to our own worries about the day that’s gone or the day that’s coming. We must resist our urge to carry work home with us in our minds once the day is finished. As for other preparation, think about how you can be more efficient. Can you cook in bulk for your work lunches? Can you reduce your ironing or come up with a superhuman technique for doing it more quickly? (Side note: leave a comment below if you happen to strike gold with an ironing technique).

In the long run, you might be able to:

  • Achieve financial independence: Get your personal finances in order and establish a plan to save, earn and invest for an assured source of earlier passive income that covers living expenses. There is no more comprehensive CRAP Factor win than financial independence, but it won’t come overnight. Here are five simple steps to get started on the road to financial independence.

Some final thoughts

An overall CRAP Factor score provides a strong indication of whether you’re striking the right work-life balance, but composition matters too. If you have a CRAP Factor made up of 7 hours of commuting, 3 hours of core work and 1 hour of preparation, you may sit within the yellow zone, but there’s more to the story.

The CRAP Factor is a starting point, but its components are where we address the real problems. Take the below example of my own CRAP Factor composition. I’m within the yellow zone, but with a core work schedule of 8 hours, I’m killing 4 more hours spending additional time in the office, commuting and preparing. It’s obvious where the immediate action points sit.

But while immediate action points may be obvious, they are not always easy to execute. Job expectations, a lack of alternatives, corporate culture and our mindsets can stand in the way. What’s critical, however, is that we find a way past these obstacles if we’re sitting in the orange or red zone. These scores are simply unsustainable.

Sometimes there are simply too many sausages on the plate. Sometimes we need to refocus our minds, assess the damage, and take meaningful action.

So, tell me, what’s your CRAP Factor? And what are you going to do about it?

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