The Elusive Work/Life Balance; Or, Knowing When To Turn Off Slack

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Full disclosure: It’s 10:28pm on a Tuesday. And I am sitting down to write about work/life balance. I see your irony, and I raise you one cup of tea and an album by The War On Drugs. We are doing this.

I decided to write about work/life balance a few weeks ago, in the midst of an episode of pretty substantial burnout. It wasn’t the first time, but I’m hoping it will be the last. Burnout isn’t fun, even though, as a culture, we love to romanticise ‘busy’ and smartphones and laptops have destroyed the concept of leaving work at work. But find me somebody who loves the feeling of getting up every morning dreading having to go to work and I’ll find you piece of decent dialogue in The Fast And The Furious franchise. (Read: nonexistent.)

Why do we find ourselves here?

Everything that I can say about mobile technology limiting peoples’ ability to unplug and having “their rhythms set by the very technology invented to make their lives easier and free up time” has already been said. So there’s that. And as a business focused on early adoption and in love with tech gadgets and the latest platforms, technology is anything but a negligible force for BizDojo staff and the ways in which we work.

Our company also tends to attract people who tend toward the highly engaged end of the spectrum, and our residents are predominantly self-employed. In other words, most of the people who populate BizDojo are online, conducting work-related activities at all hours, ostensibly out of choice. Our staff also work directly with the company’s owners, who are also - somewhat understandably - working nights and weekends. But “choice” gets complicated when you’re embedded in a work culture that celebrates the ‘above and beyond’. If you’re not careful, that same culture can slip into celebrating ‘overworked’. As Tony Schwartz wrote in the New York Times, ‘engagement’ often “refers to employees who get to work early, stay late and remain connected at night and on weekends. That’s a recipe for burnout, not enduring high performance.”

And here is a good time to address the ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ mantra, a wonderfully aspirational notion but unfortunately a very sharp double-edged sword. Not only is it a crazy privileged concept that ultimately lies outside the reach of the lower socioeconomic segments of the population, but it also ignores the reality that most of us need to make sideways, zig-zagging career steps to get to our dream job. Sometimes you have to play the long game and put in your time with a job or a workplace you don’t 100% love. That doesn’t make you a failure; you don’t need to feel guilty when strategising a way to mediate that fact. And even if your job is your life calling, you should still be mindful of balance.

Self-Care Takes Many Forms; Not All ‘Busy’ Is Bad.

‘Balance’ doesn’t mean counteracting your work life with just downtime. It means being mindful of your own self-care, which is any intentional action that you take to care for your mental, emotional, and physical health. Naturally, self-care looks different for everyone, and it doesn’t necessarily mean staying at home doing nothing - although most of us need a little bit of that from time to time. (The new season of Orange Is The New Black isn’t going to watch itself…)

For our BizDojo team of highly-driven, constantly active staff, one component of self-care often takes the form of extracurricular projects. Whether it’s a blog, a sports team, a podcast, a book club, a cabinet-making course, whatever… having something in your life that you do because you’re passionate about it is important for maintaining work-life balance.

Whatever you choose, make your self-care a priority, not something that happens by accident.

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries.

Increased flexibility with how, where, and when we work is great. Hell, that’s why coworking has taken off the way it has. But with that flexibility comes an increased responsibility to define the terms around the how, where and when… especially if you’re self-employed, a freelancer, or an entrepreneur.

Below are some tactics that a few of our team members use to maintain a healthy work-life balance for themselves.

Eva - Community & Activation Manager, GridAKL

Seeing our residents working their arses off to follow their dreams is pretty motivational and contagious. Our business is in the same situation  - we’ve got a small team with some huge goals to achieve. I now seem to be at my most productive in times of high stress, limited resources and tight deadlines too. This is my new normal, and I imagine I would get bored if it was any other way. It’s hard work, but bloody exciting. It’s no surprise to anyone that your work life balance will take a hit if you’re in a startup. It’s hard, tiring, overwhelming - but also innovative, disruptive and exciting. That’s why it’s so rewarding when you get it right.

  • Physical activity: Do it. Whether it’s football, netball, running or whatever - just commit to doing something active straight after work that requires your full attention on something ELSE. Anything else other than work. Getting a good sweat on is pretty stress relieving, and gets those endorphins pumping. It’s also great because I love snacking, especially when I’m stressed, so getting active helps balance that out.
  • Airplane mode. As soon as I go to bed, I turn my phone onto airplane mode. A couple of years ago my partner made me start doing this, and it’s actually really awesome. Hearing email alerts come through while you’re trying to sleep is kind of haunting and stressed me out. It’s like constant reminders you’ve got heaps to do right in your ear, just at the very moment you’re trying to relax the most. Just turn it off. Disconnect for a little bit.  
  • Lighten up. Work means you often have to have a serious responsible face on. So I like balancing this out with things that bring out my weird side. Luckily the BizDojo crew are all lovely weirdos too which makes this real easy, but I also have 4 hilarious nieces and nephews under 4 years old. These guys are cute and have the best (and strangest) imaginations. I like hanging out with them to remember that my work challenges aren’t the end of the world, and that laughing is much more awesome. These little dudes are bubbles of positivity and that’s pretty important to treasure.

Casey - Community & Comms Coordinator, GridAKL

If you are anything like I am (and pretty much everyone else that I work with) you find a certain satisfaction from staying busy. What I have come to find however, is there is a fine line between staying busy and getting stressed and overwhelmed. Heres some tips for staying sane from me to you.

  • There will always be more. The list is never finished and unless you learn to leave the list on the desk and switch off when you head home, your work will take over your life. The way out of a huge workload is not to work every weekend. One weekend to work through a major piece of work? Sure. But once it becomes a regular occurrence, swim away. There will always be more to do. You will never Be Done. Do not try.  
  • Home is for you. I try really hard to make sure that what I do when I get home is for me. I write poetry and short stories, I upcycle furniture, I spring clean…and sometimes I literally walk in the door, get into bed and watch Planet Earth. If I don’t make time for these things, I have realised that everything in my life suffers - productivity at work possibly the most. Which leads me to number 3…
  • Be present at work. We all want to love our jobs, and I believe that I really do. But anything can become daunting if it’s all you have on your mind all of the time. You need to have time away to really appreciate it. So be present when you are at work. When at home with your partner, dinner with a friend, playing with your kids…be present there too. Put your whole focus into what is directly in front of you and leave the rest until later. It will still be there.

Sarin - Community Manager, Auckland

  • Focus your time. Picking up from Casey’s last one… Often working nights and weekends is a way for us to justify the flexibility we have during the day: taking a longer lunch break, going to the gym, ducking out for appointments, leaving early for a long weekend. Problem is, it can be a dangerous feedback loop over time. You work from home late at night, you resent doing that, so you’re less productive during the day, leaving more unfinished work that you take home, and so on. Try limiting all your distractions while at work, cane through your work for the day, then go home without feeling bad about all the things you didn’t do.
  • And finally… Do what feels right for you. Sometimes you will want or need to work outside of the scope of your normal hours/expectations. That is ok. If you want to, do it. If you want to. You get to make the judgment call about which is more important: your mental health for the night, or getting a piece of work done before tomorrow. It’s your call. Just remember: the only person who is going to hold you to your benchmarks of mental and emotional health is you.

Sarin is the Community Manager for BizDojo Auckland. Follow her on Twitter