Magazines are filled with articles about work-life balance — yet in the US, people work longer hours than ever before.
We’re constantly “on”, staying connected to work even during off hours. Families are frequently juggling, finding ways to sandwich quality time between work and the kids’ activities.
How our culture defines success
It’s no wonder so many of us feel overwhelmed and unsatisfied. We’re working harder than ever, but unsure of what we even have to show for it.
“We live in a culture that really defines success by how much money or power we have,” explains Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, PhD, UW Health psychologist. “And if we work hard, we can often earn that success, but the price we can pay is the connection to our own selves.”
Mirgain says that the concept of “work-life balance” is somewhat misleading. It suggests that there is equal time for work and for a personal life – family, friends, etc. The reality, though, is that it is more of an ebb and flow.
“The demands on our time and energies are different every day. If we take the word ‘balance’ out of the discussion, so many more possibilities open up. You find a way to make your life more open and whole,” says Mirgain.
She is careful to point out that there is no single formula for everyone. It’s different every day for every individual. The challenge is to develop creative solutions to enhance the connection with yourself and find the flow between the multiple roles you play.
“The problem is that when we don’t find that flow – when we become overwhelmed – it can contribute to a decline in our physical and emotional health,” she notes.
So, how do you find that flow?
Define your own priorities
Women in particular are vulnerable to perfectionism. They maintain high standards that can be unrealistic. Work 45 or more hours a week, shuttle kids between sports and lessons — and still expect to have a locally-grown, entirely-from-scratch meal on the table every night for family dinner? Maybe, if that’s meaningful for you.
But to define priorities you have to decide what your core values really are and how you want to spend the limited time you have. Get creative with how you structure things so you can spend your time on what matters most.
Where can you make compromises that help you be a better spouse, better parent, even better employee? Let your spouse do the dishes even though he may not fill the dishwasher exactly the same way you would. Buy cupcakes rather than make and frost homemade ones for your child’s class. Whatever compromises you make – make them in support of what you love doing and what’s most meaningful to you.
Accept what you can’t change, and maximize what you can
Do you really have to stay connected to work 24 hours a day, or can you turn off email after 5:30pm? Are you really too busy to take the vacation time you’re granted during a calendar year? Too busy to leave your desk for lunch, or can you take even just 15 minutes?
The reality is, numerous studies show that down time – whether it’s taking vacation or even frequent mental breaks during the day – will leave you refreshed and more productive than if you attempt to power through all the time. You can also take the opportunity to combine efforts. Struggle to find time to work out? Take that lunch break, go for a power walk, return to your desk more productive and improve your health while you’re at it.
“We often feel guilty if the dishes or laundry isn’t done, but we have to recognize that’s okay. Move beyond the feeling that you’re the only one who can or has to do something. If you need help, ask for it. If you need a break, take it,” says Mirgain.
Go with the flow
Life has a way of constantly yelling at us – demanding our time and attention be directed in several ways at once. It can be exhausting. You may find yourself having to realign your priorities frequently. A sick child, even just for a day or two, can cause you to have to miss work, maybe even an important meeting. An important meeting may cause you to miss a child’s soccer game. It’s a constant dance but just the way life works sometimes.
Be conscientious about the time you have
“When we really stop to look at our day, there’s often time we have that we can be more mindful about,” says Mirgain. For example, rather than reaching for the phone to check email first thing in the morning, have a cup of coffee or tea and read the news. “Be intentional about how you’re starting the day and what you want to focus on rather than going immediately into a reactionary mindset,” she adds.
If you commute to work, use the quiet time to transition from home to the office and vice versa. Listen to music. Sit in the driveway or parking space and take a few deep breaths before getting out of the car.
“Create an intention before walking through the door about how you want to show up and be present for whatever awaits you,” she says.
Avoid situations that drain you
“There are numerous situations that drain our energy instead of replenish it,” says Mirgain. Whether that’s spending too much time on Pinterest or Facebook, or listening to the latest work gossip, it’s important to be aware of whether an activity – or even person – is helping you feel uplifted or drained. And, while it can be difficult, try to eliminate or at least minimize the time spent in those situations.
“In many ways, we’re actually trying to redefine what success looks like,” explains Mirgain. “We need to move beyond how much money we did – or didn’t – make or how our children turned out. We have to also look at how well we cared for ourselves throughout our lives.”