Work/life/school ‘balance’: An imperfect juggling act
This month, my assigned blog topic is “work-life balance.” I’ll confess up front that I cringe every time I hear that term. Balance is an elusive concept that is undefined and therefore impossible to achieve. Balance looks completely different depending on each individual’s personality, stage of life and career ambitions. Some people work a nine to five job, then spend the rest of their time as they please. Other people work 12-hour days, traveling to their client site 80 percent of every week. There is no right or wrong and there is no perfect recipe for work-life balance. Each individual has to find the rhythm that works for him or herself.
I’m the kind of person who loves being busy. I’m most energized when I have a full calendar and lengthy to-do list. At the same time, I’m constantly seeking perfection, so when I don’t succeed at a project, I tend to stress and experience burnout. Recognizing these attributes in myself, I try to be intentional about not running myself ragged. Even though I want to be successful, I also want to be healthy and joyful and a caring, compassionate person. Below are some of the practices that help me regain some degree of stability in these efforts (I can’t claim to have found balance yet).
Prioritize mental, physical and emotional health
When my life is out of whack, my body always knows before my mind. If I’m overworked and not getting enough sleep I start getting crazy headaches and feel fatigued (despite trying to self-medicate with copious amounts of caffeine). If I’m stressed out, I feel my blood race through my veins or — in bad cases — I start to develop stomach ulcers. In these situations, I try to stop and listen to these bodily responses as a wake-up call that it’s time to focus on my health.
If you find yourself feeling physical manifestations of work-life imbalance, I’d urge you to stop and pay attention to it. Restore healthy sleep habits and healthy eating habits. When you feel stressful situations arise at work or school, try to calm yourself down with a walk or a deep breath. If you’re finding that stress is ongoing, then try to schedule downtime as a reminder to take a break. Or better yet — take a vacation or personal day. In some cases, none of these approaches are enough and it’s time to seek professional intervention in the form of a doctor’s visit or a visit to a counselor.
Find a noncompetitive hobby
When you’re already struggling to balance school, work and life, it might seem counterintuitive to add another activity to your calendar. However, I’ve found that one of the most effective ways that I stay “in balance” is by maintaining a noncompetitive hobby. For me, that hobby is exercising. I run, practice yoga, and go to group fitness classes as a stress release. Some of my classmates are involved as board members of nonprofits, or season ticket holders of Atlanta United, or as avid concert-goers. Whatever hobby you choose, try to find something where you are so engaged in the activity that you don’t even think about work or school — something where you aren’t tempted to check email or worry about upcoming deadlines.
Maintain a support system
When I’m feeling overwhelmed with work and school, I tend to deprioritize relationships. I avoid water cooler conversations or lunch with colleagues so that I have more productive work hours. I neglect social time with friends and family so that I have more hours in the day to study. Ultimately, I’ve learned that neglecting these relationships inevitably leads to subpar performance at both work and school. Rather than outright neglecting these relationships, I try to be selective about the commitments that I make and I try not to let work or school supersede those commitments. Whether that means leaving my work laptop at home during vacations or giving up a few hours of studying so that I can be present to a friend going through a hard time, I try to make sure that my career ambitions don’t get in the way of my ambitions to be a supportive friend, daughter and sister.
In summary, I’d encourage you to give up the impossible task of achieving work-life balance. Instead, decide a few qualities you want to embody (healthy? caring? “successful”?) and figure out a plan for how to align your work, school and personal schedule so that you can embody those characteristics in all realms of life.