Many of my conversations with friends and work colleagues over the past few months have revolved around the seemingly out-of-reach concept of work-life balance. This has become ever more so important during the pandemic, with people in some jobs working more than they normally would and with boundaries between our work and personal environments becoming almost non-existent.
I have a tendency to feel personally offended when I find people close to me overloaded with work to the point of burn out. Do line managers not realize that an employee on the edge of burn out will be significantly less productive? Where is the business sense in overloading people to that extent? Also, how much of burn out is down to the employer and how much of it is down to the employee themself? Am I overloading myself with too much work because I feel that’s the only way I can prove myself? Is it a personality thing? Is it an ambition thing? Or is it a cultural thing? I’m convinced that part of it is that we now live in an era where we’re told we need to be super successful; we have to be extra unique. Normal or average is no longer acceptable. We have to fulfil our full potentials. And so we think we have a duty to push ourselves more and more and more.
I’ve been working hard for many years to make sure I balance the work and personal aspects of my life. I think I’m successful most of the time. So I thought I’d share some of my experience with this.
I’ve been self-employed and working from home now for about seven years. This comes with its own set of obvious challenges. To address these, I set up a home office as soon as I could that is in a separate room and that I only use for work, with the exception that it’s also the laundry room and where I do my bike turbo training sessions. I never use the office in the evenings or on weekends unless it’s to throw the laundry into the washing machine. This has meant that the rest of the house is still a place of comfort and escape for me.
I’m also very structured with my work. I have set work hours. I never work beyond 5pm with the rarest of exceptions. I have learned that work is never done. So whatever has not been finished by 5pm will simply have to wait till the following day. I never work on weekends either. Weekends are sacred. They are for anything other than work.
I make sure that I exercise almost every day. Sometimes, this has meant a really early morning workout. Sometimes, I’ll do my workout during my lunch break. And other times it gets done after work. But regular exercise is sacred.
I prioritize sleep over all else. No matter what is happening in life, whether it’s travel, work or fun, I will make sure I sleep early enough to wake up refreshed in the morning. I sleep well enough that I almost never need to set an alarm for the morning. I’m an early waker. My body clock wakes me sometime between 5:30 and 6am. This means I’m usually in bed by 10pm every night. I also don’t hyper-caffeinate. If I feel sleepy during the day, I’d much rather take a short nap instead of drinking a cup of tea (never ever coffee).
By spring this year, I had started feeling the beginnings of burn out. The lockdowns had exhausted me. My instinct was that I really needed about three months off of work in order to be able to fully recuperate. But that was not an option. I need the income. As a self-employed freelance journalist, I don’t get paid holidays or sick leave. If I’m off, I’m paying for it out of my savings. I came up with an ingenious alternative: I was going to try out a three day weekend while also starting work extra early every day and ending at 1pm. It was heaven and it worked. I enjoyed my new system so much, and felt I was just as productive, that I’m hoping to hold onto something similar for longer. Currently, I’m back to working five full work days weekly due to an extra project I’ve taken on. But as soon as this project is done, I’ll probably go back to my lovely three day weekend.
For a few years in the beginning of my self-employment, I worked through almost every holiday I went on. I was worried that my clients wouldn’t come back to me if I said I wasn’t able to write this or edit that. But now that I have what feels like strong, established relationships with my clients, I make sure to take off all national holidays and to allow myself at least a couple of nice holidays a year.
Regarding connectivity, my clients can only really reach me by e-mail. I’ve made it clear to everyone I work with that I don’t use Whatsapp unless it’s with my children. I avoid giving my phone number to most people. I also avoid the dreaded Zoom meetings unless they are absolutely unavoidable. I hardly ever check e-mail after work hours or on the weekend. I don’t have an e-mail app on my phone to make it more difficult for me to do that. I also do something that most people I know would regard as a career no-no. I don’t use social media for work. I don’t publicize my work. I don’t market my work persona. I don’t even talk much about work with my friends. My professional life is kept almost completely separate from my social and social media life. It is placed in a cozy and well-constructed safe box. Once I come out of that box I expand into all the exciting other things that life has to offer. And I make sure that I experience as much of that as I can. I have LOTS of hobbies and interests.
All this doesn’t mean that things are perfect. Perfection does not exist. I have no idea how I’ll ever retire. I don’t have the security that a full-time job offers. I’m fully responsible for managing all my finances and taxes, something I find daunting and that I don’t think I’m very good at. And, as I said, I don’t get paid sick or holiday leave. On the other hand, I do have the flexibility to work while travelling, something I know many people would love to have. I’d probably be getting paid significantly more if I was working full time. But the kinds of jobs that would pay me better in my line of work aren’t the kinds of jobs that I actually enjoy. My freelance work might pay me less and I’ll never be a rich woman, and might never be able to retire, but I love the work I’m doing. I also don’t need to deal with office politics. The awkward and difficult conversations are mainly between me and myself. No backstabbing. No idiocy. No time wasted because Eileen is bored and wants to complain about her husband and kids. So, for the time being, the sacrifices that come with self-employment feel like they are worth making. And I feel generally successful in making sure that I work in order to live, not live in order to work.
Of course I’m in a later stage of my career now. I’ve been through the stages where I have felt I need to achieve and succeed. I’ve done quite a lot in my career. Sometimes I think I could have done more. If I wanted do, I could do that now. But I don’t have the energy to keep getting out there to achieve and get even more recognition and success. I don’t see the point. I’m in a happy place right now and would like to keep things going steadily so that I have enough money to live contentedly.