One of my pet peeves is people saying “work/life balance” when what they actually mean is “working a traditional 9-5”. Every time I see a team adopt a policy like “team working hours”, outside of which one should not send emails or chats, make Workplace posts, etc., I wince.

I wince because if receiving an ordinary email on Saturday night makes someone feel like they have to reply immediately, your team has a deeper problem that you’re not addressing. And I wince because synchronizing everyone to the same schedule doesn’t work. People in different time zones, new parents who have sporadic working hours, insomniacs, people waiting for Comcast to show up — all of them draw the short straw in this model. It’s not inclusive or even efficient.

The only system that really works for everyone is one where the recipient gets to set reasonable expectations on their own terms.

In case it needs to be said: the key word is “reasonable”. There is of course a pathological case where nobody overlaps at all, making meetings impossible, and not all work can be done async. So we do have to agree to some constraints for the common good. Shared no-meeting days are helpful. There does need to be a single time for the team meeting.

The point is that there is no singular concept of work/life balance. The ideal balance is different for each of us at any given moment in time.

Of course this is all easier said than done. If you are reading this, you are probably at least a little bit of a type-A overachiever. Each time I’ve dug into work/life balance issues, I find that 1) it’s bad and 2) people are largely doing it to themselves. Status anxiety and peer pressure and high expectations of self are tough to deal with. You just have to let your rational brain win the day by accepting one simple truth: you are the sole owner of your own time.

Nobody will force you to wait to reply to that email.

Nobody is going to decline a meeting for you.

If you want to spend more time with your family or pursue a hobby, you have to take ownership and set your own boundaries.

Teams that make it safe to assert that ownership are more resilient, more inclusive, and more likely to bring the best work out of people. Next time you are tempted to set shared working hours or ban weekend emails, dig in and ask the harder question: what would empower people to choose for themselves?