Breathing Life Back Into Balance

It’s an irony of our modern lives that while technology is continually invented to save us time, we use that time to do more and more things resulting in our lives being more fast-paced and hectic than ever.

In school, we’re encouraged to join as many clubs as possible to make the most of our educational experience. Homework starts early and ramps up to ridiculous levels before we know it. At work, it’s expected that we’ll be uber productive and take on more and more responsibility. Even at home we have never ending to-do lists that grow by the day. And despite this chaos we go on living as if there’s nothing wrong. As if the natural progression of humankind is to constantly do and never just be.

With stress, anxiety and burnout becoming commonplace it’s obvious there are outcomes to our life choices and these outcomes are most certainly shortening and devaluing our lives. The question is how do we slow down in an age where:

…we burn with frustration if a website doesn’t load instantly
…we think a short nap is a sign of laziness
…we check our email and social media accounts hundreds of times a day
…we eat instant oatmeal for breakfast, take away for lunch, and ready-meals for dinner

…and we sacrifice sleep over upcoming deadlines.

Breaking these habits can be difficult. But why is that? What happened to balance and why have we given up perusing it?

Work life balance is dead, work life balance is a myth, it’s not work life balance its more about integration. We see these headlines all the time but who started them and do we really buy into this?

The argument can seem rational - the modern way of working means that work and life can integrate and there’s always the unexpected. Best not to have high expectations and set yourself up for failure, you’ll only be disappointed. Plus if you find a job you love you wont mind if work dominates.

Work life balance, work life integration, work life harmony call it what you like just don’t use smoke and mirrors to disguise the fact that work is dominating. Achieving a healthy work life balance has never really been about figuring out how to get more work into the equation and yet a lot of so called solutions do just this. Is a flexible working policy really designed to give me more time for life or is it a clever way of ensuring work doesn’t have to give back?

Doesn’t the word Balance imply work and life to fall into equal compartments? Surely this is unrealistic.

Of course exact equality between work and life are never going to happen, however assuming people take this word literally is insulting our intelligence. People are not looking for an exact science they just want what’s reasonable and work totally dominating is not reasonable in anyone’s book.

So what can we do to breathe life back into balance?

Seeking Balance is a healthy thing to do as long as we remain realistic about what this means and how it’s going to look. There's no perfect one-size fits all balance you should be striving for and there will be some wish list items you have that are simply out of the question. A healthy work-life balance is different for each of us because we all have different priorities and different lives.

So what can we do?

First lets have an honest debate: most workplace policies and initiatives only serve to mask the core issue which is some jobs are fundamentally incompatible with having any semblance of work life balance. So it is important to acknowledge the situation you’re in.

Does this sound familiar?

You work super long hours to earn enough money so you can book your kids into every available after school activity you can find. This helps mask the guilt you feel about working so much – your providing them with amazing opportunities you never had. You have a dog that has to be walked at every moment you can find because it’s on its own all day. Still the kids love having a dog – at least that’s what you thought when you decided to get it.

You are constantly consuming and buying stuff you don’t need to treat yourself for the hard week you’ve just endured. You’re an Uber Eats superuser and any spare time you have after 5pm often involves a few glasses of wine. You have to have at least one overseas holiday every year and the planning nearly kills you. Your kids want for nothing, they have no real value of things because they have so much and probably just want you to play a game at the park but you don’t have time for that. Your exhausted most of the time and have no idea where to even start with balance.

If even parts of this sound familiar you’ll understand that a flexible working policy isn’t really going to get to the heart of the issue.

The workplace isn’t going to totally solve this for us

It will be up to you to take control and responsibility for the type of life you want to lead. If you let work dictate what balance means you might find yourself with a very distorted view. Plus when you really analyse things most of your life is filled with choices – your choices. So work out what makes you happy and align your choices with your these values.

Set and enforce the boundaries you want in life in realistic way

You can design your perfect day and of course the unexpected will always happen - your kid gets sick and you have to pick them up and work from home (always on a day you have lots on), train delays, forgot the shopping, your computer had a meltdown, there was a fire drill, you spilt coffee on your shirt and have to iron a fresh one - the list goes on. Then there’s the stuff you're just being unrealistic about, e.g. 8 hours sleep every night when you're a new parent, a massage and facial every Friday afternoon, an hour at the gym everyday, no sugar on weekdays, 30 minutes of mindfulness every morning, intimacy with your partner every night or never commuting during peak hour – you need to get real people!

What about time out?

Holidays according to definition should be “an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in travelling”. Note the words leisure and recreation, two things that can definitley help with Balance. 

With this in mind see if you relate to this story

We recently went on an overseas holiday to Vanuatu. With such a busy lifestyle the co-ordination required to organise this nearly put me into an early grave. Somehow I got most of it done – I just had to trade sleep for work which seemed like no big deal given I’m heading on holidays.

So we get up a 4am, head to the airport, check the bags in, get through customs and we grab some breakfast. Our flight ends up being delayed by three hours so now instead of arriving in four hours time it will be now be seven. After doing our best to entertain the kids this whole time we get to the other end and have the whole customs, bags and car hire to navigate. As a person on the verge of falling down with exhaustion I could hardly think straight. We get to the car hire counter and they have no record of our booking. At this point I completely lose it with my partner – “Why is it always up to me to book everything?”. I’m crying as he finds the booking email. We’re at the wrong car hire.  

After 9 gruelling hours we finally arrive at our accommodation. The kids are really hot, hungry and tired and as much as I like to be a positive person at this point I wasn’t feeling great either. Heading to bed was the most appealing thing I could think of.

The first week of the holiday was pretty much a blur, I was extremely fatigued and ended up having to take a couple of calls from work and finish a report I’d left thinking it would be easier to do while I was away than trying to squeeze it in before I left.

The kids just wanted my attention and my partner was getting fed up. The second week would be better I told myself. When I got my energy back I started planning. We packed the week with all the activities you could do - there were walks up to waterfalls, blue lagoons, kayaking, swimming and more. By the end of the holiday the kids seemed a bit out of sorts which I suspected was the heat.

Finally arrived home after another long day of travelling to deal a pile of washing, no food in the cupboards and an unpaid electricity bill we had forgotten to pay before we left.

The next day we got unpacked, powered through the washing, did a big shop, got a few work things organised for the kids school and decided we’d better get the kids out of the house as they were going a bit stir crazy so headed to the park. 

The kids were having fun and it was nice to be out of the house. Later that evening I asked them – “what was the best part of your holiday?” in unison they said “Going to the park – that was so much fun, can we go again tomorrow?” Whattt!!! The park was their favourite thing. I wanted to believe they said this because it was the last thing we did but I knew in my heart it really was the truth.

I sat that night and took stock. We had planned this big overseas holiday which required getting the kids passports, booking flights, co-ordinating hire car and accommodation and it was really expensive. It was lovely in parts but we could have taken a couple of days to wind down at home, driven a short distance down the coast and had a week by the seaside with another few days the other end at home.  This version as opposed to what we actually did could certainly be describe as leisure and recreation time.

The point of this story brings me to our final piece of advice:

Change your definition of happiness

It’s the little things that matter most – connections, love, laughing, relaxing...

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