What is Work-Life Balance, Anyway?

Aurelia on the Cloud Swing
Credit: flickr / terriseesthings

Women, especially, seem to talk about work-life-balance – and it’s synonym, work-life-integration (a la IBM) a lot. But what does it mean?

The cop out, d’uh, answer is, different things to everyone.

I’ve come to think that what it means is that the pieces that make up your life (work, family, friends, exercise, hobbies, etc etc)  have an arrangement, and a quantity, such that if this is how your life is going to look like for the next 3 months – 6 months – a year – that would be okay. You wouldn’t feel that something large was missing, nor would you feel like curling up into a ball and crying at the prospect.

Of course, it isn’t static. Life changes, and there will be spikes – good and bad – any change is a spike. At some point, you’d seek out new challenge, and that would be a spike. A change in circumstances would be a spike. A holiday would be a spike, or three spikes, as you try to get stuff finished up before leaving, take a break, and come back to a pile of work. Hopefully the spike in the middle would be a pleasurable one.

But my point is, balance is not happening when you’re at capacity and you think, yes, I can do the next three months as long as nothing goes wrong. When has that ever happened? Mostly you make it work, but at what cost? You look back and think “I missed out on X” – and that’s a loss. Even if X is just spending an afternoon in a coffee shop with a book, or a couple of movie nights with your partner or best friend – because living like this long-term leads to greater losses, of creativity, of peace of mind, of relationships. Spikes are okay, expected – but they should be spikes, not normal.

I’m currently reading The Power of Now – rather fuzzy and spiritual for my taste, however the focus on being present is making me think. In a balanced life, by which I mean, a sustainable life, we are not thinking “I just need to survive X and things will be OK, I’ll be calmer and happier and have more time for Y then”.

It’s a conclusion that screams out to me, because I’m pretty sure I’ve been thinking “I just need to survive this month” since at least July. I feel like I missed out so much in grad school – because of time, money, commitments, that I created a project (Post Grad Rehab) to help redress that. January is, thankfully, the last month I need to “survive”. Hopefully in February I will go back to living. But, without spending some time thinking how I’ve spent 6 months straight feeling like I’m on the edge of what I can cope with, will I just end up repeating this again and again?

It’s been helpful to make three lists. The first – what needs to change? Second, what’s working? Third, what do I need to figure out?

The first list comprises the things that I just feel I cannot carry on with. I think this is the most important, because these are the big huge spikes that are just derailing and draining me completely. The second list is about taking stock of what is helping – it’s a reminder to keep at these things, and maybe I can find patterns and discover more ways to live more sustainably. The third list are things that may be drowned out by the big things in the first list, but may become big things themselves if left unchecked.

The dancer
Credit: flickr / Rohan Reid

What Needs To Change?

  1. Travel. I have been jittering about like Tigger on speed. Since April, I’ve made 5 trips to the US, 3 to Kitchener (from Ottawa), one to Winnipeg, and I’ll make my third trip to Europe at the end of this week. And I moved! First, I’m fed up of living out of suitcases. Second, it’s made it difficult to have a routine. Third, I’m an ambivert and travel uses up my extraversion and leaves me unsociable – not great when I’ve just moved to a new place and need to meet people! I just can’t continue living like this, it’s not fun anymore. It’s not – “ooh, new place”. It’s “another plane and another timezone change? Shoot me now”.
  2. Rehab. This is actually my focus for February, fittingly as it will be a year since I injured my shoulder. I have been dosed up on codeine and/or in pain for a year because of lack of health-care, not taking time to heal, and taking (did I mention?) too many planes.

What’s Working?

  1. Work Stays at Work. At the end of the day, I close my laptop and leave it at the office. I have my work calendar – (my only calendar, now) but not work-email on my iPhone. I love my job, but this distinction – shut the laptop, leave it there, is helpful for drawing a line and doing other things.
  2. Gym in the Morning. When I don’t work out in the morning, I seem to have better hair, but my mood is not better, and I have less energy. 6am is a bit early for spinning (7am would be ideal) but going in the evening when I’m tired and hungry and have experienced the cold is actually much harder! I need to keep working at this – hopefully once I’m done travelling for a bit I will be able to get up at 530am for spinning – and not go to bed at 8pm.

What Do I Need to Figure Out?

  1. Email. Don’t laugh – I’m actually working on mobile gMail. Between that and managing my work email, my personal email is a desolate wasteland of dashed expectations. I have emails starred as important from more than 6 months ago that I haven’t got to. I have emails deemed important by priority inbox from over a month ago that I haven’t even read. This is not okay, especially since I’m getting almost no emails from annoying people lately and so these are all from people that I like and think deserve a prompt response. So first – I’m sorry, email me again if it’s important until I respond, (perhaps with a subject line like “CATE YOU ARE A TERRIBLE HUMAN BEING”). I think if I could get on top of it it would be OK, but I’ve thought that before. Mind you, that was some time ago…
  2. Food. Because it’s a smaller office we don’t get dinner here. Yes, I realize, there are #firstworldproblems and there are #googlersproblems. But it is hard to get up and work out at 6am when I didn’t have dinner because there was nothing in the fridge and I decided it was too cold to pick up food. Maybe I could make some soup.
  3. Social Life. This is really “hang out with people outside of work and make more friends”.
  4. Projects. I’m transitioning out of my role with Awesome Ottawa because it’s hard to do remotely and it’s not as much fun when you’re not part of the debate over what to fund. I’ll miss it, but everything says – time to move on and the group is working out ways to organize so I’m optimistic about that. We’ve been lacking submissions on CompSci Woman and I think it’s because Maggie and I are not very good at chasing people to write for us (or getting hold of each other to talk about a new theme!) I need to talk to her to work out what to do about that. Then there are projects in KW that I want to take on, but it is a question of what I have capacity for. What do I spend time on? What do I opt out of?
  5. Creating. I’m really lucky in that I get to work on software that people use every day and even with my dysfunctional relationship with email I do think it is genuinely something that is helpful to people (who haven’t discovered Twitter – I’m kidding. Mostly). That’s awesome. Create something useful, absolutely what I want to do. But I don’t want to stop creating things just because they are interesting, or fun, and I don’t want to stop writing here, either.

4 thoughts on “What is Work-Life Balance, Anyway?

  1. Hmmm…that was an interesting conclusion you made at the beginning, about coping for 6 months. You say work-life balance is when your current system is sustainable, and you give the rough timeline of 6 months from now, still being happy with your situation. So these are the premises on which I make my conclusion- you weren’t really “coping” for the past 6 months. It seems like everything that’s happened as actually been entirely within your abilities, and you not only got through it, you got through it with grace and dignity. Gurrrrll, that ain’t just coping, and flying by on the seat of your pants! That’s you being a boss lady and taking life by the reins! Yaaaayyy!! I would totally put your name in the snap cup if we had one. (oooo- new idea!) Anywho, that’s all I had to say. You’re awesome, keep being such!

    1. Thanks AY, but the point I was trying to make is that back in July if I’d known this is how things would have been for the 6 months I would not have been able to cope with it. It’s been very month to month. Now it’s over, I look at the 6 months ahead and look for things to add to it (although not, it has to be said, immediately). It’s less about coping at the time (pretty much, I always “cope”) and more about whether or not I feel like I can cope – which lately, has been no.

  2. I have a hard day tomorrow. The details aren’t important, but it is a hard day. I had an excellent weekend, which helps me to face the hard day tomorrow, but it doesn’t make the feelings go away.

    Tonight I felt the obligation to sit down and write my own blog, as it is Sunday and I haven’t done my weekly post. But I am struggling to think about anything but the hard day that I have and it isn’t something that I feel good about writing in my blog, at least not just yet.

    So I came to your blog, presuming that you were emersed in the space of your new world and this next adventure of your life, and I saw this blog, and it has meant so much to me.

    You are still very much present. The very act of continuing to participate in this act of tapping back into yourself and sharing is that very thing.

    I thank you so very much and now I am off to write my own weekly blog that might not be of the best quality, but it will at least be an act of being present.

    Meggin

    1. Thanks Meggin 🙂 I really appreciate you reading and all your great comments. I hope your hard day went as well as it could!

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