6 Strategies for Achieving a Better Work-Life Balance
The time has come to write. I feel this on an almost cellular level. Why? Because I'm sitting in my writing chair, wearing my writing glasses, chewing my writing gum. Now, I could sit in this chair, wear these glasses, and chew this gum while knitting tea cozies, juggling jelly beans, and husking corn (just not at the same time). But I wouldn't. See, I write at home, and I've learned the hard way that unless I strictly divide my writing time from everything else, my work bleeds into my home life. Then I can never relax, because, just like an ax murderer in a horror movie, my work is always lurking.
These days almost all of us work at home to some extent. Maybe you spend evenings brooding over spreadsheets from the office. Maybe you're in the house all day doing the hardest work imaginable: caring for the young, the old, or the ill. Or maybe, like me, you have a job—sort of—but no official physical workplace. All of which is to say that when I talk about "home" versus "work," I mean the activities that replenish your energy versus the ones that drain it. In an age when bleed-through is the new normal, it's more crucial than ever to separate the two. Here are some strategies that help me.
1. Establish a replenishing inner "state of home."
Some people spend years in an office cubicle without ever feeling the energetic involvement of real work; others do brilliant, inspired work without ever leaving their bed. This is because both work and home are first and foremost states of mind. So to begin separating your work life and home life, we'll concentrate on creating a mental "state of home" inside your head.
To do this, focus on memories that feel relaxing, nourishing, replenishing—in a word, homey. Remember baking with your grandmother, or talking with your sister, or snuggling in bed with a loved one (fabulous sex is an excellent way to feel at home, as is cuddling with your beloved collie—just not at the same time).
If you don't have many homey memories, your mental state of home may feel tepid at first. Persist! Remember the most comforting times and places you can: the branches of the tall tree where bullies couldn't reach you, Uncle Joe's bomb shelter, the warmest corner of the prison yard. (Ideally, you're looking for a sense of joyful replenishment, but happy relaxation is nearly as good, pleasant neutrality will do, familiar boredom is better than nothing, and defensible concealment—well, you get the idea.)
Once you come up with three memories that qualify, hold in mind the feelings they bring, while silently repeating, "Home. Home. Home."
2. Establish a productive inner "state of work."
If you're lucky, you do the kind of work that sparks your creativity and makes you want to meet its challenges. For me that work is writing: Although I find it hellishly hard, it's the first thing I turn to when I need to express myself or understand the world. I love its very difficulty.
Most of my clients, however, are work Nazis. They think they should force themselves to do things they loathe. If this is your mental "state of work," it's also the way you'll feel about your job, and it will follow you home—likely in the form of depression or rage. You absolutely must create a mental work state more like what psychologists call flow, the total absorption that comes from doing something that interests you at the upper edge of your ability level.
Even if your current job feels more like imprisonment than flow, you can still create a productive mental work state. Start by remembering any kind of effort that absorbed you enough to make time disappear. If after racking your brain nothing comes to mind, periods of interested problem solving will do nearly as well, and moments of productive effort will suffice in a pinch. Tedious repetition is as low as you want to go here (if your job is so awful that it doesn't yield even an hour of tolerable slog, it's time to hire a life coach). Now focus on the three best work activities you can remember, smoosh them together in your head, and silently repeat, "Work. Work. Work."
3. Use your mental states to create physical spaces.
The next step in keeping your work and home lives healthy and pristine is creating physical environments that support each side. Let's start with your homespace. Find the spot in your current domicile that best matches the feeling of your mental home state—a room, a corner, the box your refrigerator came in. Bring into this space any objects or beings that make it feel even homier. These may include your kids, your parakeet, your softest quilt, and your dog-eared copy of Fifty Shades of Grey (just not at the same time).
Next, use the same strategy to create a workspace, whether you're a full-time parent or a merchant marine. Find a space that—no pun intended—works for you, and bring in the people and things that make you feel productive: a fresh notebook, a team of coworkers, a mule. I myself am motivated by high-quality tools (anything from a fancy-schmancy computer to a hammer), absolute solitude, and of course my writing chair, writing glasses, and writing gum—the combination makes me itch to work. Whatever places, people, and things support your internal work state, gather them!
4. Separate your homespace from your workspace.
Once you've assembled a bunch of homey things in your homiest possible place, and a bunch of worky things in your workiest possible place, separate them like a Puritan chaperone dividing teenagers. Even if your office is 90 miles away from your house, some worky things will inevitably infiltrate your home—your job is to keep them out of your designated homespace. If you work in your house or apartment, you'll need to be extra vigilant. When you're not working, put all work-related things out of sight. Cover them with a sheet, if necessary.
By the same token, don't bring a lot of homey things into your workspace. Doing so will distract and confuse you. There's a reason service dogs mustn't be petted or played with when they're wearing their work vests: They need to be clear that they're on the job. But when the vests come off, service-dog owners must play with their animals in order to keep them from becoming exhausted and depressed. You're the same way: Having clear boundaries will help you work enthusiastically, then truly rest.
5. Actually use your homespace and workspace.
Only one thing now remains: time in the saddle. The more time you spend doing only homey things in your homespace and only worky things in your workspace, the more you'll develop the state-dependent memory that will trigger the associations you want in either place. When you enter your homespace, you'll automatically relax, effortlessly dropping effort and negative office juju. (If the urge to think or talk about work arises, note it, then picture it evaporating like steam.) And when it's time to work, the genuine R&R you've enjoyed will help everything you do feel more like flow.
6. Watch the Zen master in you emerge.
If you don't find this exercise helpful, you're certainly free to keep day-trading while nursing your twins, or stacking paperwork on every surface in your home, including the oven racks. But I think if you experiment with the methods I've described, you'll come to appreciate them. One definition of Zen is simply "doing one thing at a time"—which goes a long way toward explaining why Zen masters look so calm and live so long. I want you to love going to work, and to love being home. Just not at the same time.
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