Remember the ‘who’s busier?’ competitions in the office kitchen?
‘I’m so busy’
‘No, I’m busier’ etc.
Several friends have recently resolved to stop being so ‘busy’ and commit to a better work/life balance when they get back to the office after lockdown. Interestingly, through their career, they have frequently struggled with being ‘time poor’ but recently, Covid restrictions have made their work/life imbalance worse than ever.
Their 3 big complaints are:
· Unrealistic expectations of their role (output and productivity)
· Back-to-back meetings (requirement to be available 24/7)
· No time to spend doing things they enjoy (no ‘me time’)
After much thought, I’ve concluded that ‘work/life balance’ is an unhelpful paradigm that distracts us from exploring the real issues and concerns. This narrow perspective encourages us to look at time as a scarce commodity, to be distributed fairly and equally between work and life. Worse, it can exacerbate difficult emotions such as guilt (when stuff gets in the way or you get distracted), frustration (when life interferes with work or vice versa) resentment (when work or family make unreasonable requests) and fatigue (when expectations change).
So, if ‘time’ isn’t the cause of this complex emotional flux, what is?
What if the cause of this dissatisfaction was more to do with energy than time? Almost everyone who complains about being time scarce, also talks about the resulting exhaustion, fatigue and in some cases burnout.
Here are 7 suggestions that may help on your quest for a more balanced life.
When working with my coaching clients, we spend most of the first session clarifying the real problem and the impact it’s having on their physical and mental health.
They don’t know what they want, but they know that they are fatigued and want a better future for themselves and their family.
One client talked about their big problem ‘getting to sleep’ and pointed to ‘work pressure’ as the problem. Through our conversations, it became clear that the problem was ‘burnout’ which resulted in excessive worry and fatigue during the day. My client initially thought sleeping pills would help but subsequently mapping out a pathway to recovery that began with self-care and identifying her stressors.
When you next reach for an external explanation for your malaise e.g. work is being unreasonable, ask yourself…
· What is triggering me?
· How am I reacting?
· How are my feelings showing up in my behaviour?
· How is that affecting others around me?
· What will I do differently next time?
These days, I rarely talk with my clients about work/life balance. Where they get the most value is when we talk about the impact of reduced energy and increased stress on their lives. It is rewarding to notice how much perspective and clarity they gain when they better manage their energy and stress levels. Unfortunately, managing energy is rarely as simple as meditating or going for a run in the morning so it’s worth taking time to re-evaluate your current reality before setting goals or creating an action plan. I’ve found it’s helpful to ask yourselves two questions:
· What are my stressors?
It takes extraordinary self-control to regulate your emotional response when you’re hungry, the kids are screaming, the internet connection is unstable and the Finance Director has just sent an email requesting the budget forecast that you haven’t started.
If you’re aware of your stressors, you can plan around them and set up mechanisms to minimize them. The best way to raise awareness is to notice when you are feeling stressed then make a note of the trigger (what caused it). After a short time, you will notice a theme and can anticipate, then eventually change, your reactions.
· What are my priorities?
If you’re struggling with work/life balance, it’s possible that you’re seeing them in conflict with one another. The reason I invest so much effort and time at work is because there are activities that I value and give me energy, like facilitating workshops. In contrast, there are many areas outside of work that I don’t enjoy and drain me of energy – especially housework. I find it helpful to do an annual review of the areas of my life that I’m going to prioritise that year. I can then set some goals around ‘in work’ and ‘out of work’ activities that I value and give me energy. This simple activity helps me identify the tasks I need to:
· Prioritise (make time for)
· Outsource (where I need to ask/pay for help)
· Manage expectations (what I will say no/yes to)
These areas include People (relationships, family, community, friendships), Work (productivity, wealth, career, performance), Personal (Health, fitness, wellbeing, interests) and Purpose (spiritual, environment, mission, charity).
Pre-Covid, the daily commute, walk to meeting room, coffee-run and lunch stop gave us an opportunity to put any residual thinking aside and transition to the new state. If, like most of us, your home office space is shared with other family members and there is just enough time to go to the bathroom before getting back to it, then finding time to restore before jumping into the next meeting or activity can be challenging. Under these conditions, try scheduling 5 mins deliberate ‘transition time’:
– Physically move away from your work area
– Reflect on where you have come from and let go of any unhelpful thoughts/feelings
– Take a breath
– Notice where you are in the present moment and what is happening around you
– Take a breath
– Think about what you are about to do next and the mindset you’ll have throughout
– Take a breath
One of the many reasons we’re feeling so out of balance is the uncertainty and lack of choice. The activities we used to do to relax and recharge, may not be an option e.g. going to the gym and the task we don’t enjoy seem endless (I am so grateful for my cleaner). While it’s unclear when we’ll be able to go on holiday or hug our friends again, it’s important to identify a few daily activities that will help de-stress and manage your energy levels throughout the day.
Helpful questions to get you thinking:
· What am I doing when I’m in ‘the zone’?
· What are my strengths?
· What small things do I like to do for others?
· What do I enjoy learning about?
· What helps me recharge my batteries?
Suggestions for a mini-charge:
· Eat lunch in the sun
· Daily walk in nature
· Hugs with people in your bubble (20 seconds minimum – trust me on this)
· Read a chapter of a good book
· Play with the pet
· Healthy nutritional diet
· No screens after 9pm
· Consistent wind-down and sleep routine
· Daily outdoor exercise for 20 minutes before sunset
· Technology free days
· Charity events (over a month e.g. Steptember, The Great Cycle Challenge etc.)
We live in a world where we are encouraged to aspire to happiness and to avoid ‘negative’ thoughts and feelings. While this is very helpful for the big consumer machine that insists that you can’t be happy without …(insert name of product here), it’s not helpful for a balanced, healthy life.
Acceptance is much easier to say than do however if we can learn to accept who we are (warts and all) and adjust our expectations, we are more likely to make healthy choices that are consistent with the balanced life we aspire to. This will involve noticing (not controlling or changing) the dark side as well as celebrating the light side.
If you are someone who has high expectations and entitlement, it’s likely you will experience disappointment and resentment when you need to give something up. Noticing when you’re being critical of yourself or others, will help you find more compassion and humility. In turn, this frees you up to choose a less stressful, peaceful approach, where you are not drained of energy.
I can’t recommend Eric Winter’s book enough ‘Swipe Right on Your Best Self’ Swipe Right on Your Best Self, Simple steps to a bolder life with fewer regrets by Eric Winters | 9781925921960 | Booktopia. If you prefer listening to reading, I had a great 2-part conversation with Eric about this stuff on the Reset Hub podcast – check it out Podcast | Reset Hub.
Whose support do you need for you to feel in balance?
Even the most self-sufficient people can’t aspire to a more balanced life without the help and support of others. Look around, who are the people in your life that are invested in helping you live your best life? These are people who can go with you on your walk, hold you accountable for the choices you make and encourage you when the pressure is on. In the same way, you’d be willing to support others on their quest for a more balanced life, your family, colleagues and friends will want to reciprocate. This may involve taking a gulp of courage, talking about your worries and asking for help. I appreciate this is not easy when you’re out of practice so start with your closest ally first.
If you hear yourself complaining about being time poor and not having work/life balance, perhaps it’s time for a rethink. When you turn your attention to the things that you value and give you energy, you’re more likely to see opportunities to adjust. Start small – it may be some time until we are back enjoying the freedoms of international travel or full-body massages – one day.