“We are diluted in gigantic intangible collective projects, which leave us wondering what we did last year and, more profoundly, where we have gone and quite what we have amounted to….”
– Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
I seized on this book, the modern-day philosopher Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, during the time, almost ten years ago now, that I was working in the basement of a beautiful London landmark, editing what seemed like the same document, over and over again, day after day, week after week.
Outside, up in the air, everything was beautiful and majestic. The building was arranged like a hug around stunning fountains, where children played in the summer, and the River Thames sailed sweetly by outside the back doors. We got a free pass to events, and a discount at the cafe, which meant indulgent salads every lunchtime and enormous slabs of millionaire’s shortbread on a Friday.
It was perfect in it’s way. It was where I honed my writing skills and developed a taste for the finer points of grammar. Yet I was mostly miserable. Slaving at a red-hot computer in a tiny underground studio with bare walls slowly chiseled away at my soul. I was, at this time, still labouring under the impression that I was an introvert, and had almost accepted it as my lot in life to wither away in front of piles of documents in some office-cum-cell while above the world thronged with people who loved their jobs and shrieked over glasses of wine at lunchtime.
I just couldn’t puzzle it all out. How did people get these magic jobs full of fun? Was work really the rent you paid for life? And if so, why was my rent so goddamn high?
Quite honestly, I’m still puzzling out the pleasures and sorrows of work, in fact I suspect that learning how to do meaningful, well-paid work on my own terms may be a lifetime endeavour, allotted to me by some higher power. And I’m cool with that. More than cool, actually, as I now get paid to share the wisdom I’ve gleaned on this journey, and I’m going to share some of it with you now.
The concept of ‘work-life balance’ is over
We’re a bit behind ourselves in striving to juggle the demands of work and the job of actually living. I ask you, how in this age of celebrated connectivity and maximum productivity, could it even be possible to place ‘work’ and ‘life’ on one side of a scale and find, no less maintain, some remarkable kind of tipping point? We live in a world in which you can respond to email while nursing a newborn, check stock prices on the loo and in which it’s not at all unusual to take a meeting with the US team at 10pm, in your pyjamas. Balance, I tell you, is dead. And in it’s place? Integration.
Fact is, there is no ‘work’ and ‘life’ and never the twain shall meet. There is only life. Work is a part of life, just like family, fun, movement, creativity, spirituality, craft beers and knitting, or whatever individual and wondrous things you decide to invest your time and energy in. And as such, your relationship with work must be negotiated the same as everything else. And there’s the magic word: NEGOTIATE. Everything, as I’ve learned from my don’t-ask-don’t-get husband, is a negotiation. And it’s up to you to broker a deal you’re happy with.
This isn’t about jacking in your job in favour of a 20-hours a week, flexi-working affair (or maybe it is for you, who knows?). It’s more of an attitude shift, which brings me nicely onto…
It’s not about the work you do, it’s about
the way you do the work you do
Work has a way of slowly expanding to take up space allotted to it or, indeed, space not occupied by anything else. Watch the way it creeps into your first conscious moments of the day, into free evenings, into Sunday afternoons. Standing on a train platform, bored of scrolling FB and IG, you pop open your email and, just like that, you crash headlong into the day’s professional drama. Negotiating the presence of work in your life relative to the other things in your life demands wrestling it back within boundaries you’re comfortable with and guarding those boundaries like a tigress. As ever, this only need demand small actions: deleting apps, reinstating fiction on your commute, not taking your phone into the loo, activating your Do Not Disturb at 8pm – whatever works. But know this, until you get clear on your work boundaries, all further efforts are in vain.
Next you gotta address what you’re actually doing while officially doing work. Because, be honest now, how often do you do the easy things on the to-list first, leaving the heavy lifting until Friday afternoon…okay Sunday afternoon, okay Monday morning? How often does your attention get drawn into email by the little notification popping up in the corner of your screen like a incessant piece of toast? And how much time do you waste going down the great big rabbit hole in your internet browser? Productivity is a magical thing that can free up your time to redistribute somewhere fund. It rules.
But it’s not all about the work either
In the eternal and unrelenting quest for work-life balance, most of us forget one thing: the life part. It’s absolutely no use clawing back a load of time and energy from your email if you’ve got no idea what to use it for. It’ll just run right back in. Negotiations, by their very nature, are a two-sided affair. Work wants this; what does life want? Perhaps it wants to go to the gym at lunchtime. Perhaps it wants to write its novel. Perhaps it wants to read its kids a bedtime story every night, or have time to cook a proper meal. Perhaps it wants to learn Japanese, or ukulele, or train for the marathon. We all want different things – I LOVE that about humans – but you have to know what you love before you can invest resources in it. Get what I’m saying?
True work-life harmony requires stakes. Falling deeper in love with what you love is the surest way I know to effortlessly carve out time for it. Then it’s simply a question of scheduling it in, communicating that it’s happening and getting the hell out of the office. This is important. This is your life! And if you can, over time, negotiate the way work shows up in it, perhaps you can avoid, as Mr de Botton says, wondering where you have gone.
In this moment I realise that I am, once again, sitting at my laptop, writing, as the river flows sweetly by out the back door. Except this time the river is outside my house. It’s Tuesday evening and, at 6pm, my working day – a day that included a dog walk, a yoga practice, an acupuncture appointment and a homemade lunch – is just ending. So perhaps I have figured it out. Or I’m getting there at least, as are we all.
Be brave and ruthless in the quest for work-life harmony. You won’t regret it.
Like what you’ve read? I run a popular ‘Keys to work-life balance‘ workshop for companies. You can book a free demo of it for your team by getting in touch.