Walking the Tightrope of Work/Life Balance
One of the posts requested for this month’s “How to Adult” theme was how to balance school or work with home life. While I don’t claim to be an expert on balance I have a few thoughts I want to share on the subject.
Your Career and Work/Life Balance
Let’s talk about jobs. What’s your idea of high demanding? For me, being an English major was synonymous with pre-law for some, the same way being tall in the state of Indiana was synonymous with playing basketball.
Spoiler alert: I had interest in neither.
Law never appealed to either of us. Ries might have the mind for it, but neither of us wanted the commitment of consistently working eighty hour weeks. I know that might not be a norm, but it’s a real possibility with law.
Both of us have changed careers due to the required commitment of the position--Ries left the Marine Corps, and I left hotel management.
Being an active duty service is probably up there with the most demanding jobs, meaning there’s a lot more work, and a lot less life. Your duty is to your country before yourself or your family. The commitment was easier to swallow as a single dude—Ries didn’t have much attachment to his time or where he lived (whether on a base in the U.S. or abroad,) but after we got married that changed. I was an attachment, and while we are both grateful for the time we had as a Marine and military spouse, we decided it wasn’t something that was sustainable long term.
With hospitality, I was told an unrealistic number of hours I would be working, and reality was a much higher number. I’ve likely said this before, but there was a time when I was leaving the house before Ries and Gus were awake, and twelve to fourteen hours later, when I got home, Gus was asleep again. A whole day of his life, gone. That wasn’t acceptable to me, so I started pursuing other options.
Everyone has a different threshold for what is tolerable. How passionate or motivated you are about your job also plays into how many hours you are willing to put into your “work” a day. But the biggest factor is the actual time commitment required by your job. If that time commitment isn’t tolerable for you, I have news: You’re not working the right job.
The Reality of Balance: You Can’t Do It All
Even if you are the most detached single person working forty hours a week and no additional commitments, balance isn’t something that you figure out once. It’s something you constantly have to work toward. Sometimes you do better than others.
Think of balancing like standing on a tightrope--keeping yourself upright is work in itself-- then when you add in responsibilities (things you have to do) and priorities (things you want to do)--you’re juggling a ball for each of them. If you have one or two balls, you could hold one in each hand and focus on standing upright. But the more balls you have, the easier it becomes to drop a ball or fall off the tightrope.
As you gain more attachments in life, adding a significant other, friends, adult relationships with your family, and have kids (if that’s something you want for yourself), your responsibilities increase. As you gain responsibility, you inherently have less time. So when it comes to balancing school or work and life, you have to be really picky about how you spend your time.
1) Figure Out Your Identifiers
When determining how you spend your time, the foundation is figuring out who you are.
I worked in the service industry from age sixteen to 27. One day last year, I was commuting to work and listened to this podcast that discusses seven universal archetypes, and helps identify which archetype you might be. While listening, I realized that I am not a server. (a person who derives enjoyment from taking care of others--teachers, nurses, hospitality workers, etc.) I am a warrior who was working in server roles.
Something really clicked for me then, and that realization is one of the factors that fed into my decision to leave the service industry and pursue a certification in web development. Maybe you’re not into personality tests, archetypes, etc. That’s okay. But how we identify ourselves really matters, especially when determining how we spend our time.
I’m a mom. I’m a wife. I’m a writer. I’m a competitive person who likes mental stimulation and doing things that are difficult for most people. That’s why I was attracted to web development. I also identify as an athlete--maybe athlete isn't the right word. Once when I was in an acting workshop, the instructor referred to me as "the dancer." I haven't taken dance lessons since the third grade, so that might not be accurate either. But my relationship with my body and movement are important to me. I also identify as a musician, despite not taking piano lessons since the sixth grade. Music is something with which I feel intrinsically linked, and I am very excited for the day we have an instrument in our home again.
These facets of my identity feed into my responsibilities and priorities. But in order to stay balanced on that tightrope I was talking about, I also have to take care of myself.
2) Figure out your responsibilities
Ries is in a graduate program with a lot of students who are fresh out of undergrad. I’m not picking on these younger folks, but especially with younger people (I include my younger self in this as well) I hear a lot of, “I have to do (insert something optional here.)”
Let’s change that thinking, because 1) If you are categorizing optional activities with responsibilities, they have to compete with each other, 2) If you tell yourself you have to do optional activities, you’re making them chores. That’s no fun.
I have to do my laundry.
I want to call my grandma.
When it comes to responsibilities, it’s pretty simple: Can you stop doing it for a month without any severe consequences?
Can I stop being a mom to a toddler for a month? No.
Can I ignore the needs of my partner for a month? He doesn’t have many needs, except the occasional conversation, but no.
Could I stop going to work for a month (if I had a job)? No.
Can I stop eating for a month? No.
Can I stop cleaning my car for a month? Yes.
Can I stop doing the laundry for a month? No.
Can I cancel my weekly coffee dates with a friend? Yes.
You get it.
3) Figure out your priorities
A not-so-brief story:
When I was in fourth grade, my teacher Mrs. Kirtley had us play a game of “Oregon Trail” that had been converted into a long term, table top game for several weeks. We were allowed to select items--furniture, family keepsakes, food, animals, etc.--starting out that added up to a certain amount of weight. As the game went on, you drew cards and the cards had different scenarios that brought prosperity or tragedy: you had a baby (but needed more food for your family), your wagon broke, your ox died, you found food, etc.
I started the game with a piano. It was the heaviest item you could carry on your wagon, and my classmates mocked me for it endlessly. I drew a card one day: my wagon axle broke and I had to get rid of the weight of the piano. I’m a stubborn Norwegian, and maybe if I hadn’t been teased about the piano, it would have been an easy decision. But I chose to get rid of almost everything else, just to keep that piano.
Getting to Oregon with my piano was my priority. And at the end of the game, I still had that piano, proving my classmates wrong.
When it comes to priorities, they are things you chose to spend your time on. The identifiers I talked about earlier are what I prioritize.
Mom: Being a mom comes pretty easy to me. Before I had Gus, I fussed over Nugget, and before I had Nugget, I fussed over Ries, and before that I probably fussed over my friends. But because Gus is essentially a third wheel along for the ride with his parents, I try to do one thing with him a week that is specifically for him as a toddler.
Wife: Ries and I don’t often get time together alone. Most of our conversations are interrupted by Gus (and/or Whimsy) getting into something. So even if it’s only for an hour once a week, we try to do something together just the two of us. Usually involving food.
Writer: While I haven’t been working on creative writing as much, I’m still sending poetry to publications, and flexing my writing muscle writing for the blog.
Competitor: Most of my “work” time goes into working on my web development course—usually twenty to thirty hours on a good week.
Athlete: This is something I had been trying to put on the back burner for the past several months, as I was worried about biting off more than I could chew. But last week I hit a wall with my stress levels, so I purchased a yoga pass and went to five classes last week. Despite losing an hour of work time or family time, I made more progress on my class last week and have been a more zen mama and wife.
Musician: We don’t have any musical instruments in our house right now, nor the time to practice them, but something I enjoy doing is making a playlist each month for the blog.
For the most part, if something is not a responsibility or one of these priorities, it’s not something I spend time on. There are only so many hours in the day. You have to be selective with how you spend your time. If you commit to things outside your responsibilities and priorities, you’re adding one more ball to the mix, and you’re more likely to drop a ball that actually matters.
Once you have these three things figured out, be protective of your time. Just because you don’t have a time blocked off on your calendar doesn’t mean you’re available.
Another quick story: I picked up a waitressing job when we were living in Georgia. One of the first questions I was asked by my managers after I was hired was, “Are you a student or do you work another job?” I happily said no, thinking that made me a better employee. The restaurant was almost always understaffed, so on my off days, my managers would call and ask if I could come in. They knew I didn’t have obligations outside of that job, so I (and one other co-worker) constantly picked up the extra slack. I felt uncomfortable saying no when my managers asked for help, and I felt badly about turning down such good tip money. I ended up working every day for three weeks (from 4pm-midnight, or 1am…or 2am) before I learned my lesson and started setting boundaries. Just because you are available doesn’t mean you are available for work, meetings, etc.
Set healthy boundaries for yourself or you will suffer burnout.
With school, Ries and I set certain parameters: Outside of his class schedule (he has two classes that go past 8:00pm), he’s on campus or available for meetings Monday-Friday from 10-5. I work on class Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Sundays, Ries occasionally has to meet with groups. Outside of those hours, we’re not available. We rarely make plans on the weekends, because we have essentially one day to recharge and spend together as a family. Do I expect us to have more free time once we are working and not pursuing a degree / certificate? Absolutely. But for now our time, especially together is rare and precious.
Other things that help:
Have a set schedule.
Put your phone on Do Not Disturb when you’re working.
Work on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is terrible for productivity.
Do your best to learn from your mistakes and course correct.
If you have kids, do your best to be present and give them your undivided attention. (When you’re home, be home, and if you have to work or study at home, do your best to do it when they are asleep.) There is nothing wrong with having two working parents, as long as your child isn’t in constant competition for your attention.
These are all things that have helped me, and I hope they can help you too!