Does the fact that we're 24/7 digitally connected mean that work-life balance is over? Not if we set our own rules, say the Step Up Club's Alice and Phanella. No clue where to start? Read on....
In our digitally-dominated world do, many of us struggle to crack the work/life balance conundrum. Being able to inhabit the sweet spot between career satisfaction, social fulfilment, a relatively clean bill of health, some mental sanity, family time and perhaps even a hobby or two, often feels like a complete impossibility. Balance is one of the biggest challenges of our times, and it is an issue that affects everyone – certainly not just women, or even, as many think, only mothers.
Our 24/7 culture that means that work never stops. For many of us, work is part of how we define ourselves and that means that we talk shop on holiday, meet new business contacts at the school gates and end up best pals with our business partner. Gone are the days when we clock in at 9am and out again at 5. Since we launched The Step Up Club two years ago, our lives have become increasingly blended: we often hang out together on a Friday (an official non-work day in both of our books) for toddler playdates that include Step Up forward planning and Skype chats with new clients. Then there are the late night blogging sessions over glasses of wine, the 6am Whatsapp conversations. In April, we’ll be enjoying our first Step Up holiday – both families will be hitting the slopes together and we couldn’t be more excited.
Sure, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and certainly we need to be strict with ourselves that work doesn’t seep into every single part of our lives. But for us, things feel relatively well-adjusted. But that hasn’t just happened: there have been plenty of days – months even – when work has felt too intrusive, and we’ve both had to set parameters and respect that Step Up sometimes needs to stay firmly inside the work box, especially when we’re with our families.
It is important that all of us assess and protect how we spend our time and energy. Balance is important because when we are able to exert tangible control over our personal work schedules, we are happier, more productive beings. But happiness is a nebulous concept that doesn’t always win out over hours in the office – so here is something more concrete: a Mental Health Foundation survey recently found that more than 40 per cent of British employees were neglecting other aspects of their life because of work. This type of imbalance can lead to both mental and physical health issues.
On the positive side, we also know that for women in particular, successfully reaching that balance nirvana can increase our happiness and wellbeing.
So how do you reach this promised land of joy, work fulfilment and calm? A good place to start is with the terminology. The very word balance infers that everything in our lives needs to feel completely equal – and that is a stress in itself. As we say in our book Step Up: Confidence, success and your stellar career in 10 minutes a day “Balance is no longer the perfect metaphor… work and life have become so complicated that the scale would now constantly tip and dip in different directions, rendering the word ‘balance’, unbalanced. Others… have criticised the term ‘balance’, because it suggests that work is not integral to life. They have progressed to use the word ‘integration’, as the best expression of this already complicated subject. This, many feel, is a neater term for the pressured dance of careers and down time – of our jobs and our loved ones.
“But then, guess what? There’s another school of thought too. Those thinkers criticise ‘integration’, because it implies that the two spheres of work and life should be merged. This could, they say, lead to fears of a contamination of personal space by the demands of work.”
So, as you can see, even the very concept of balance is a fraught arena – we might even go so far to say that balance is the most emotive and individual area of our lives. If you’re taking balance to mean equality between the spheres of your life, then you need to start by reassessing your expectations. Better than aiming towards complete equilibrium, we suggest working out a division that feels right to you. Just as we encourage women to uncover and follow their own definition of success – it’s worth doing the same for balance too; one that allows you to flourish at work and attain happiness beyond the office too.
HOW TO FIND YOUR PERSONAL WORK/LIFE DIVISION
We say, finding balance is all about using the resources you already have, as effectively as you can. These resources are generally split into three: our time, our mental wellbeing and physical energy. If you can find ways to feel better, calmer and more present in each of these spheres, then you will be well on your way to feeling happier with your overall integration.
1. USE YOUR TIME
To combat feelings of overwhelm and reclaim control over your time, we say prioritise – and do it strictly. Determine what is important to you and (it might seem harsh but believe us it works) discard the rest. As you know, we’re all about the quick work hacks, so here is our speedy ten-minute trick to reclaiming control of your time is this.
List 1: Take three minutes to sit down and think about the three most important areas of focus/goals you want to achieve in your work over the next six months. Now do the same for your life. Write these down. These are your “rocks”.
List 2: Then spend three minutes thinking about the tasks you have to fit in that don’t fit into these “rocks”. The final four minutes is where the prioritisation happens. Go through your second list and for each task think about whether it could be delegated or discarded. Be brutal. What remains is the essential noise you need to fit in around your key goals.Set aside a few slots a day to take care of these tasks. Retain the rest of your time for your rocks and the use you make of your time will improve immediately.
2. DO A MENTAL WELLBEING SELF-CHECK
Mental wellbeing is a fundamental part of feeling integrated – and balanced. But often we don’t assess our levels of wellbeing until things get too much, when it’s too late. This workout is a useful self-checker.
Step 1: Create a grid; across sits negative v positive emotion, vertically sits your energy levels – high v low (see below).
Step 2: Within the grid begin to plot different emotions you might experience based on the amount of energy these take up. See the chart below that we’ve started filling out here:
Next, try to work out which quarter you spend most of your time in: it’s a revealing exercise. The bottom right quadrant is always your recovery zone – it’s where your mind
The bottom right quadrant is always your recovery zone – it’s where your mind reenergises and rebuilds itself. And what we know is that if we don’t spend enough time in there, then we aren’t feeling balanced and burnout is looming. Many of us live at such high intensity that we neglect this recovery time.
If this sounds familiar, find ways to bring yourself into recovery zone, even just briefly: perhaps for you, it’ll be more sleep, a daily slot of mindfulness or a post-work yoga class.
3. LOOK AFTER YOUR PHYSICAL ENERGY
If we aren’t physically well, then we can’t possibly feel balanced; sooner or later our energy, performance and happiness will suffer. We say, prioritise sleep and commit to doing some form physical activity every day. Even if it’s just a walk at lunchtime, a spurt of energy will raise your heart rate, provide you with some vital vitamin D and increase your creativity. If you start seeing physical wellbeing as an equally vital part of your integrated schedule, it’s that much easier to factor it into your day.
So there you are: don’t let balance and the attainment of it be another burden to your already jam-packed life. Instead, break the equation down into simple parts, and treat your time, your mental wellbeing and your physical energy with the care and attention that each require. You may not achieve the promised land of balance immediately, but just making positive steps is the perfect springboard for lasting calm and satisfaction.
Step Up – Confidence, Success and Your Stellar Career in 10 Minutes a Day (£12.99) by Phanella Mayall Fine and Alice Olins. To join the Step Up Club sign up here for free and get career advice in your inbox, first dibs on event tickets and exclusive brand partner offers.