How to get everything in-synch.
Work knocks our lives out of balance more than almost any other factor (caring responsibilities notwithstanding). So how can you find balance so that work doesn’t take over and have a detrimental effect on other important parts of your life? This post is about the myths about work-life balance, and about how to restore balance.
Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life. Find the kind of job that chimes with your passions and your dreams and it will be a pleasure to work, and balance won’t be an issue.
This is a common platitude. But pragmatically speaking not all aspects of work are worthy of love, and many parts of the way you work are determined by someone else. So you have no control over those. Above all, the chances of finding a job that you enjoy at all times are slim at best. Sometimes the jobs that we think we will love turn out to not be the one. Just like in relationships. Sometimes the jobs we love get out of kilter. Also as with relationships. There is no guarantee that you'll love your job. And it's not a personal failing if you don't.
The saying should be “love work and you’ll never work a day in your life”. The focus here is on loving working. And that way, if you identify pleasure with the very act of working, then work will not feel like work. But it still is work. And work uses up a lot of your time. Time that could be spent on other worthy pursuits like your relationships, caring for others, your health and well-being, contributing to charitable endeavours. You can’t do this stuff simultaneously with working.
The loving your work thing might work for some people (though I’m unconvinced). But it doesn’t have much to do with balance. Because what happens to your friends and family while you’re off loving work, or when your brain is preoccupied with your to do list or the client meeting you are preparing for or the colleague that is causing you problems? What happens to your health when you get so engrossed that you skip lunch and eat dinner in front of your computer screen? Sometimes it is necessary to focus on other things that matter.
I’ve been on both sides of this – I have been the one that can think of nothing but work; and I have been in a relationship where work felt like it was a huge wedge that disconnected us.
I’ve eaten supermarket sandwiches driving from one meeting to the next, five days a week for months on end. I’ve neglected my relationships with family. I didn’t look after my mental or physical health. I’ve sat with my lap top open waiting for e-mails at 10pm, and responding until midnight.
I’ve also had many holidays disrupted by my partner’s conference calls, or gone into the theatre on my own when his flight was late, or been told on Friday that all weekend plans were cancelled because “I have lots of work to do”.
However much I, or he, loved or didn’t love our jobs is irrelevant. Because the upshot of this kind of working is anxiety, discord, exhaustion, lack of fulfilment, loneliness, sadness, and really pissing other people off.
Being single-minded can be helpful and necessary at times, but it places too many demands on our health, psyche and social and familial connections especially if it becomes an ingrained habit.
Perhaps as a remedy there’s that other great homily “live to work, don’t work to live”. But this also misses the point: most people that work spend a massive proportion of their time on their jobs. So if you view your job merely as a means to a financial end, then you’ll be spending a lot of hours not enjoying something. Sadly, some people have little choice in this. I recognise that I write this from a privileged position. Being someone that can choose work not only as a way to subsist, but also as a route to self-actualisation.
If you too are lucky, and do have a choice about the kind of work that you do, then there is a balance to be struck. Work can’t solely exist to facilitate other areas of your life. But equally making work the sole focus of your life is a slippery slope to burn out.
Wheel of Life Balance
A traditional coaching model is to draw a wheel of life (like the one above) and figure out where the deficits in your life are. This tool is meant to help you to determine how balanced or fulfilled your life is. The wheel can be useful for providing direction and motivation. It will give you an overview of where you are now, and will help you to see any progress in future.
It’s very attractive to think that you can get to the root of imbalance quickly. But like everything else life-coaching, imbalance has developed slowly over time and become a part of your rituals and habits. Understanding it requires more that visualising a perfect future and taking action to move towards that. It requires that you change your rituals and habits incrementally to make them stick. It requires looking back to some extent, to identify patterns that you repeat over time.
Perhaps by completing a wheel of life you see which areas outside of work are suffering. But that’s about where the usefulness ends. Because the wheel of life would have me strive to change and improve the other areas of my wheel by trying to move toward some future vision of perfection, it invariably means adding things in, not taking things out. And taking things out, or switching habits is key.
Using the wheel you may recognise a pattern that has built up over years and became an habitual way of working. Whether driven by perfectionism, a constant quest for self-improvement, low-self-esteem, ambition… who knows… but you see you need to break some the habits.
Here’s a personal example. After years of working for myself, or at least in jobs with high levels of personal autonomy, I have a habit of working long into the evening. Not switching my computer off until bed time. Noodling away at a piece of work, or responding to the e-mails of fellow late-night noodlers. Reading thought-provoking articles before bed.
My personal justification for this is that I have a lot to do, and the longer I work the more i'll achieve. I’m getting a reward out of it because I feel productive. I often enjoy what I’m doing and derive satisfaction from it. But I also feel more tired, and I don’t sleep as well because I don’t give myself sufficient time to switch off. This knocks on to my physical health because I spend long periods of time sitting and staring at a screen. I don’t have time to properly plan or think about meals, so I’m more likely to eat junk. My partner gets frustrated because I am so focused on one thing and only answer in mono-syllables, if at all. I ignore phone calls from family and friends because I am busy. I’m not doing anything fun for myself so my whole identity becomes tied up with work; and the place is a mess because who has time to hoover or load the dishwasher?
A wheel of life would show me the imbalance. But to be honest, I don’t need it. And I would imagine, you don't either. At this stage in my life and career I have some awareness of unhealthy working patterns (even if they can be hard to break). If you do think you would benefit you can find lots of guides online.
What I’m currently working on, is not improving any one area on the wheel, but on changing numerous small habits to restore an overall sense of balance. Two tiny habits I've changed are always eating at the dining table (rather than in front of my screen), and switching off work stuff by 5pm. The first habit has its own reward because in sitting quietly and eating, my brain feels clearer and more rested. The second one is trickier because I don’t get a productivity reward, so I do something else that makes me feel productive instead, and which helps with other areas of the life wheel – like keeping the house tidy or eating healthily. So I’ll do the washing up, or start cooking.
This is where the wheel becomes useful because the wheel of life is especially handy for tracking progress. You can use it to look back at where you started and see how the small changes you make can change your satisfaction patterns overall. It also helps to keep you motivated, since positive progress can initially seem undramatic – the wheel will tell you otherwise.
How to identify the changes you need to make & then make them
1. Go with your intuition You will know instinctively. Listen to the cues from your body and your brain. If you are tired all the time: you need to find ways to slow down. If you are driving your family insane by always being on duty: create some boundaries around work. If you are staying late at the office but not getting much done: commit to an earlier leaving time every day. If work occupies your every waking thought: take up a hobby where you can’t think about work (competitive sports are excellent for this).
2. Be brutally honest with yourself Don’t let yourself off the hook by making excuses for why you have to do something. Don’t kid yourself, there’s a hefty dose of choice in there too. Plenty of productive people set boundaries around their work. If your job actually requires you to work while on a family holiday or give up half of your weekend, perhaps you need to look for a new job.
3. Assess your behaviours Do you have to schedule everything to make time for it? Do you rarely just stare into space or have nothing on? If so experiment with cutting some stuff out. Chances are nobody will mind and only good will come of it. Keep track by periodically updating your wheel of life and comparing older and newer versions.
4. Consider whether what you do fits your values If what you are doing doesn’t fit with your values you’ll know because you will feel emotionally out of sorts. Identify the specifics of what is jarring with your values and start to make incremental change.