These days we hear a lot about the concept of “work-life balance”. Companies think it’s a magic wand they can wave over their burned out employees to suddenly make them more productive and stop taking extended periods of time off sick so they can have therapy to deal with their stress. This is really common in big German companies – I’ve seen it happen many a time. People work themselves into the ground until they can’t stand it a minute longer, then they have what’s called a “burnout” and take six months off work to recover and have intensive stress management therapy before returning to work part-time in a less stressful role.
The key idea of the work-life balance concept is that if people have enough time to focus on their “life”, they’ll be more relaxed and more focussed during the time they’re at “work”. Sounds logical. Sounds great. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. The problem is that there’s not just one kind of “life”. Think about it. According to the “work-life balance” idea, “life” is everything that’s not “work”. Most people assume it’s only about your social life and having fun outside of work. But it’s so much more. If “life” is everything that’s not “work”, it includes not only all your hobbies and interpersonal relationships but also important things like health and fitness, exciting things like creative, community and personal development projects, and all that mundane routine stuff like housework, food shopping, dealing with the mail and sleeping.
I visualise things not as a set of scales with “work” on one side and “life” on the other that need to balance out for you to be happy. Instead, “life” to me is made up of many, many different component parts. Not all are equally important, but the key is to work out a balance between them all so that you do just enough of each to feel a sense of personal fulfilment and happiness.
One day I sat down and wrote out a list of all the areas in my “life”. This is what I wrote, in rough order of importance:
- Friends and family
- Health (including sleep!)
- Paid work (freelance only!)
- General admin and housekeeping stuff
- Language learning (I’m a language nerd)
Some of these things are obviously more important than others. For example, “Travel” will have to wait a while until the kids are old enough to appreciate it. Writing this blog is a big priority at the moment – I have so much to say and so many ideas, I want to get them all down at least in draft form so I don’t feel stressed about where my next post is going to come from. I’ve seen it on a couple of other blogs. It’s obvious that the blogger has run out of things to say and that writing the blog has become a chore for them. They keep going but their heart’s not in it any more. The articles become mundane and boring, and eventually I unsubscribe. I don’t want this blog to ever become a chore! It’s so closely connected with every aspect of my life and I have so much passion to put into these posts. Writing them helps me examine each aspect of my life critically and focus my thoughts. In the evenings I talk to Mr W about things I’ve been thinking about while writing. We have much more meaningful discussions about a whole range of things. While blogging could easily start to take over my life, it’s so closely connected with my life that the two are interwoven and a lot of the things I do in my life are things I then reflect on and write about.
The point is that all these things play a role in my life and I want to engage as best I can with each of them. It’s also important to understand that it’s not possible to completely separate everything into distinct categories. Everything is interconnected (for example, finding creative ways to pursue minimalism, cooking with the kids and having a conversation in Romanian with a friend would each fall into at least two categories).
The next step was to work out what I wanted to achieve in each of these areas. That’s easier for some areas than others. “Be a good mum” in the “Parenting” section is a lot more difficult to quantify and achieve than “learn conversational Romanian” under “Language learning”. But the aim here wasn’t to reduce my entire life to a set of measurable goals and targets. It was more about reflecting on each area and its role in my life. For most of the areas, I brainstormed a whole host of things I want to learn about or change or achieve. Simply reflecting on the direction I want things to take was an important step. It meant I was taking control of my own life rather than just trundling along on autopilot assuming I’d get some things done some day.
The thing I’m trying to work on now is getting the balance between all of these areas. Because if I spend a week focussing on one area only, I may feel great about that area but I’m very conscious of having neglected other important aspects of my life. My aim is to work out a system that allows me to give each area of my life the attention it deserves while not neglecting any area and not stressing myself out. I’m not sure how realistic that is but if I don’t try I’ll never know.
So at the moment I’m playing around with my schedule, trying to work out which areas of my life need what level of attention and when I can best focus on each. I’ve found that if I have a rough idea of when I’m going to make time for each type of thing, I can focus much better.
For example, at the moment I have a tonne of general admin stuff to do – answering e-mails, dealing with the mail and so on. None of it is really urgent. I’ve decided in my head that Thursdays are going to be my admin days. Today is Wednesday. Wednesday is a blogging day, so today I’ve been focussing on writing without stressing about all the admin stuff I have to do. Because I know exactly what needs doing and I’ve allocated time for it. Obviously if there were an admin thing that really needed my attention now, I would do it, but since there isn’t I’ve had the whole day to focus on writing. I feel productive. I feel relaxed. I feel in control. And when I go to pick up the kids, mentally I’ll be fully present with them because I have all my stuff under control.
The trip home from the childminder’s and the nursery are important transition points in the kids’ days. They’re happy to see me again. I’m happy to see them again. Miss W wants to tell me all about her day. I want to hear about her day. I enjoy being in the moment. Concentrating on what’s happening around me gives me a more intense interaction with my environment. Instead of staring off into the distance thinking about all the stuff I didn’t get done today or all the stuff I have to do tomorrow, I pull faces for Little W to make him laugh. I sing songs with Miss W. When someone helps me manoeuvre the buggy off the tram I look them in the eyes, smile and say thank you rather than just rushing on by looking stressed.
I used to really begrudge the time I had to spend on things like housework and cooking because I had a million other more useful, more interesting things I wanted to do. I’ve managed to turn that round by limiting my housework like I talked about above and about changing the way I see cooking. I used to just power through the recipes trying to get everything done as quickly as possible. But now I’ve decided I really want to learn how to cook, not just follow recipes. So I use the time when I’m cooking to learn about the ingredients, how to prepare them and combine them to create great flavours. Suddenly I enjoy cooking and it feels therapeutic. I’m learning new skills, slowly winding my brain down at the end of the day, and Mr W’s stomach is happy.
Ok, so I’m still not perfect. I’m aware that I look at the clock a lot because I’m very aware that my time is always limited. I also have to stop taking showers, doing housework and cooking while I’m supposed to be looking after the kids. It’s not fair on the kids, who get cheated out of spending proper time with me playing, reading books and singing songs. It’s not fair on Mr W who has to look after both the kids while I rush about doing things I could and should have done while the kids were out. That’s why I’ve started trying to prepare all meals in advance so that I can always have them on the table ready to eat with a maximum of 10 minutes’ preparation. I shower in the mornings once I get home from the gym or in the evenings once the kids are sleeping. I’ve stopped doing housework at the weekends and catch up with it on Mondays instead. We still have to work on our weekends. With two kids to entertain all day, there are always times when one or all of us gets grumpy. The trick is to identify the critical times and situations and have coping strategies ready. It’s a work in progress but I love it!
What are your thoughts on the dreaded “work-life balance”? How do you organise your time? Where is there still room for improvement?