Saturday, 11 July 2015

Work/Life Balance

By woodleywonderworks on Flickr

As far as first world, middle class problems go, few are as prevalent and perennial as the problem of balancing one's career with the rest of one's life. The thing is, dividing the problem into two parts - work, and then everything else outside of work - is a tremendous oversimplification. I don't know anyone's life who can be divided so cleanly. Even if you take kids out of the equation (which I have), you still have friends and family, fitness, mental/physical health, cooking, keeping your home and garden under control and maybe even altering it in fairly major ways, hobbies you love, classes you take, travel, decompression time by yourself... the list could go on and on.

Work is not so easily segregated into a single category either when you add to the day-to-day activities things like committees, special projects, long-term goals, professional development, relationships and networking etc. There are certainly times when I feel incredibly motivated to join everything, participate in everything, take on everything, and there are others when I am perfectly content to not have any challenges greater than a trolley of books to be labeled and a stack of archives to reshelve. So how does one cultivate all these disparate facets without burning out?

I used to think that achieving work/life balance involved stumbling upon the magic ratio where one's time was divided up into all the various hobbies, interests, social engagements and professional development activities and that was it. Once you'd settled on The Timetable you were good to go and the reason I hadn't achieved a balance yet was because I needed how to figure out how to divide all the hours of the day. But life doesn't work like that. Plans fall through or crop up unexpectedly, and, more importantly, I don't work like that. I used to think that balance was something I would have to impose upon myself because I'm the sort of person who dives passionately into one thing to the exclusion of others for a while, only to reemerge with a new passion a few weeks or months later.

The revelation for me has been accepting that balance is not a fixed ratio but a point that is constantly shifting beneath me in response to external circumstances and where my own energy and passion is guiding me. 

Balance means keeping some things ticking over with minimal effort/energy expended while I pursue my latest passion, but also recognising that whatever it is, no matter how passionate I am about it at the moment, it isn't the be-all-and-end-all thing I'm going to dedicate the rest of my life to. It's taken me over 30 years to recognise that pattern and understand how to make it work in my favour rather than feeling like it's a fatal flaw that will stop me from ever achieving balance.

Lately I've been working on riding the ebbs and flows of energy and making them work for me. Here's a brief run-down of the different facets that make up work/life balance for me and how I'm learning to maintain them without letting them take over:

Making - Although I'm not very artistically talented in any specific way, creative expression has always been very important to me, whether it's writing, photography, drawing, crafting, dancing, singing or curating (this includes things like putting together Pinterest boards and Spotify playlists). Sometimes I have absolute bucket-loads of creative energy and all I want to do is make stuff. This makes me seek out creative projects at work and/or at home. It's worth knowing that I can happily ride the wave of this creative energy for a while and accomplish a lot in a short space of time but that it will burn out pretty quickly, so I should be careful that I don't start so many things that I can't finish any of them before I dry up. Luckily, this sort of mood comes along pretty regularly so I can pick things up again at a later date when my creative energy is bubbling over again.

Moving - It's taken me a very long time to realise that I derive a huge amount of energy and happiness from being fit and active. As the sort of kid who loathed P.E. and organised sports, it was surprising to get to university and realise that I LOVE working out, I LOVE a physical challenge and I LOVE having a lot of movement in my life. I can turn sloth-like very easily, however, so to keep balance it's important for me to have physical activity be part of a routine. Roller Derby was great for this because even if I didn't feel like going to practice I would still go because it was an obligation. Then I'd invariably have a good time and feel better for it. Without the structure of Roller Derby, I kind of lost motivation for about 6 months, but I now have a personal trainer and I'm getting back into a regular schedule of exercise and feeling a lot better for it. It's good to know how important that discipline and routine of exercise is to my overall well-being so now I will try to keep that in mind as something that should be a part of my life at all times.

Learning - This includes reading, practicing something new, problem-solving, doing something unexpected, basically just introducing something novel into my life. Like "making", this is something that I can do at work by attending classes, developing my skills or just trying to do something in a different way. Sometimes I have a lot of energy to do this, while other times I really don't feel like I can take any more on because I'm getting overwhelmed and can't focus on anything. Once again it's about using the energy while I have it but not taking on too much because I know it won't last indefinitely.

Friends/Family - This one doesn't need too much explanation. If I don't have time to see friends and family, I start to feel super guilty and overwhelmed. Everyone needs time for relationships outside of work and this tends to need to be the most flexible aspect because it depends on when other people are available or need you to be in their lives. In my mind time with friends and family is never time wasted. It's the priority, even if it's not a constant.

For me the most difficult part of trying to strike a balance is accepting that I will not always have the same level of energy for particular activities - that it's a moving, shifting quantity and that my balancing point will differ from week to week or even moment to moment. When I have a lot of energy for a particular activity I find it very difficult to accept that it will change. At the time it feels like I can take on anything and everything and I have almost unlimited enthusiasm for a particular thing. Often it feels like a "Eureka" moment and it seems like I've finally discovered my calling in life as I practically fall in love with whatever the latest thing is. But this has happened so often in my life that I know now to be prepared for the bubble to burst, for reality to set in, and for my enthusiasm to wane as quickly as it arrived. It's not that I have no interest in it anymore, but I just have less energy and passion for it. I've never stopped being interested in astronomy, for example, but I stopped wanting to be an astronaut when I was about 15.

I don't think these things have been a waste of time simply because I didn't go on to "do" anything with them. It's nice to be able to contribute to conversations about astronomy, say, or at least know enough to ask questions of people who know it better than I do. Same with music, history, art and any of the other things I've been passionate about in my life. It's the newness, the learning, the dwelling in beginner's mind that makes it worthwhile. If I'm shaking myself out of routine and getting excited about stuff, it doesn't matter what that stuff is or whether I "do" something with it. At least I've kept things fresh and exciting. Maybe I'll never be a master of any one trade, but at least I'll have had an interesting life and taken advantage of my natural magpie-like tendencies to find my own individual work/life balance.

While you're pursuing your passions it's important to learn how to budget your finite mental energy by making as many other things automatic as possible. That keeps all the facets of your life ticking over at a base rate so that you're not abandoning your friends to do your hobbies, for example, or letting your physical exercise collapse completely when you're diving into a big project at work. The video below is a really good explanation of this idea. I highly recommend it!

So that's what I'm working on at the moment. I can feel myself shifting out of a very work-focused period into a time when I have a lot of physical energy, so I might need to consolidate my projects at work, maybe delegate a few things to my co-workers to keep the momentum going and use this opportunity to reflect on what I've done in the last month or so and what I can do better next time the career energy ramps up again. It might seem a little chaotic from the outside but I'm learning that this really works for me, so I guess I'll run with it!

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