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A lot of talk goes on surrounding work-life balance, but, in this article, we plan to explore what we really mean by this and what we can do to help maintain an equilibrium.
To help you determine if this article is relevant to you, we have posed a series of questions for you to consider. Do you:
- Find yourself checking your emails late at night or on weekends?
- Struggle with sleep or wake in the night worrying over work?
- Feel overwhelmed by trying to fit everything into your week?
- Find it hard to relax and enjoy yourself when you do have time off?
- Regret giving up activities you used to enjoy?
If you have found yourself answering yes to one or more of these questions, it could indicate you are struggling to achieve balance in your life. However, before we address this issue, it is important to consider what we mean by work-life balance and consider if, in fact, the term is oversimplified and misleading.
What does the term ‘work-life balance’ actually mean?
The first challenge with the concept is the word “balance” itself. This implies something static and poised between two roles of work (what you do for income generation) and life (all your other roles and activities). The reality of our lives, however, is that they are in a constant dynamic state of flux.
Our careers, the stages our children are at or the things we want to be doing outside work are constantly evolving and, even within one 24-hour period alone, we often shift between various different life roles.
For some, the term can cause pressure to feel that if we ever find this elusive “work-life balance”, things will be cupcakes, rainbows and unicorns at all times if we’re doing it right. The reality, of course, is that highs and lows to every day, week, month, year and decade exist, even when you are in balance.
The first useful re-frame is to lose the word “work” and talk about “life balance” instead. It means to be really happy with the amount of time you spend in – and enjoy all – the different roles you have in your life, even if that time is not an equal amount in each role.
An even more useful shift in how we think and feel about it is to ditch “balance” completely, and use the term “flow” instead. Flow is inherently dynamic and it is a better representation of what is needed.
How good are you at being able to flow between work mode and home mode, or parenting to self-care within the space of a day or week?
Do you expect or wish things were great all the time and feel discouraged when they aren’t, or are you adept at continuing to move forward and past the low points, flowing with them rather than getting locked in resistance and struggle?
A couple of fundamental things are going on here. For some people, the way their lives are currently set up means achieving flow between life roles is virtually impossible. This could be due to the career choices they’ve made or the type of practice they work in, or what extra projects they have taken on.
If this is you right now, this realisation can feel scary and overwhelming initially, but it’s also empowering as you can take back control by making new and different choices at any point.
However, if you are going to make changes to set up your life to give you a fighting chance of a good life flow, this also brings into focus our own ability to set effective boundaries.
This means starting the mindset work of letting go of what you feel you “should” be doing, which requires working towards letting go of perfectionism and the burden of managing other people’s perceptions of you.
We’re afraid to set boundaries that go against what we see our colleagues or the workaholics doing because we worry about how we’ll be perceived or how we will perceive ourselves. For example, being the only person in the practice to insist you stop for 30 minutes to eat your lunch when no one else stops.
Learning how to set effective boundaries is one of the most self-compassionate things we can do, and an essential part of being able to become the best, happiest and most successful version of yourself, from which all those around you benefit.
Imagine a guitar, with each string representing a different role we play in our lives. If you have way too many strings, playing a good harmony would be hard as how do you choose the strings to play at any one time?
Or perhaps you only have two functional strings, such as work and sleep; from lack of time to care foror the other strings, they are likely to go out of tune or snap, resulting in discord, too.
The secret to creating beautiful music is to get the right number of “strings” for you – no more than eight life roles generally works well.
How do I achieve this?
So, now we understand the ideal balance or flow is unique to us as an individual, how do we now identify what will work for us?
To start, it can be useful to reflect on the activities we do in our daily lives and consider whether they are nourishing or depleting. Nourishing activities include things we do that lift our mood and increase our energy levels; for example, exercise or spending time with friends. They can also include tasks that give us a sense of accomplishment, such as achieving success with a challenging case at work. Depleting activities will often lower our mood, drain our energy and increase our stress levels; for example, repetitive unproductive elements of our job, responding to emails or monotonous household jobs.
- Make a list of all the activities you would do in an average week (write down everything you can think of, including mundane everyday tasks, such as housework or driving).
- Mark each activity with an N or a D according to whether you consider them to be nourishing or depleting. You might find some activities can be both, depending on the circumstances; make a note of what needs to happen for them to be nourishing.
- Now look at the list of depleting activities and consider whether any of these activities could either by stopped, reduced or altered to reduce the negative impact they are having on your life.
- Then look at the nourishing activities – is there a possibility of spending more time doing these or doing them more often?
- For the activities that can be both – what did you identify that you could do to help these activities boost your energy and self-esteem, rather than deplete it?
- Finally, it can be useful to make a list of nourishing activities that you find beneficial, but no longer do on a regular basis. Is there a way of incorporating one or more of these activities into your schedule?
While this is good in theory and we all recognise the positive impact of doing things for ourselves, sometimes it can just seem there are just not enough hours in the day. It is very normal in our busy world, where we are pulled in so many different directions, to naturally prioritise areas that help other people – for example, work, housework and so on – and neglect the activities that solely benefit us. The result can leave us feeling stressed and depleted, and impact on our productivity, sleep and happiness.
When considering how we fit these things in our already very full life, the following story can be helpful to put things in perspective:
A professor of philosophy stood in front of his class and filled a glass jar with rocks. He asked the class if the jar was full and they all agreed it was. Then he poured some pebbles into the jar, and agitated it so they fell between the rocks and filled the spaces. The professor then asked the students again if the jar was full – they all agreed it was. He then picked up a jug filled with sand and poured it into the jar – this filled in the remaining gaps in the jar. On another table he had a second jar, which he filled with sand – he demonstrated to the class that by filling the jar with sand first, there was no room for the rocks and pebbles, but the converse wasn’t true.
Then he explained the point of the story. The rocks signify the important things in your life – for example, time spent with your family and doing activities that you enjoy – the pebbles indicate projects that may need to be done to help your life run more efficiently, and the sand represents work and day-to-day household chores.
The everyday workload will always fill the space it has available, so if you start with this, there will never seem to be any time available to fit in other important things in your life.
Rate your flow
So, how would you rate your level of “life flow” right now?
Can you clearly articulate what your rocks and pebbles are, or do you need to take some reflective time with your journal and write them out?
What do you need to stop saying yes to, to make space for your rocks and pebbles?
Areas to focus on here are building your skills and knowledge of boundary setting, mindfulness, resilience and letting go of perfectionism.
Your reward for putting in this vital personal development work is markedly improved energy levels, mood and flow, leaving you motivated and efficient at work, with more time and energy to spend on nourishing activities, and being with the people you love.