During a recent annual check-up, my doctor asked how my “work-life balance” was coming along. “Just fine!” I answered chirpily, not wanting to get into the gnarly details of working in my home office until midnight (so I can be with my kids after school), of editing manuscripts while lying in bed with sick children, or of struggling to keep up with the constant demands of extracurricular activities, pet care, homework, laundry, and ever-breeding dust bunnies.
But as I drove home, I started thinking about this concept of “work-life balance.” Introduced in the mid-1980s, the phrase has been used to describe the extent to which workers are able to tend to personal and family needs, in addition to their professional responsibilities. In general, researchers have found, American workers are spending more and more time on work, and less and less time on “life” — to an understandably detrimental effect.
While the trend seems clear to me, the term doesn’t seem accurate. Work, after all, involves personal factors, including self esteem, commitment, self-efficacy, and our ability to relate in healthy ways to others. And “life” includes a lot of work factors, including the very real physical and mental labor of keeping house, organizing finances, and — for many — raising children. Managing all of this, in my mind, isn’t just a matter of balancing “work” and “life.” The third leg of successful work-life balance has to be self care, because no mere mortal can continue to expend energy on work and family without taking care of the very organism that’s expending the energy. Use whatever metaphor works — filling the gas tank, re-charging the batteries, replenishing the soil, re-stocking the shelves — the point is, our professional and personal health depends on having a solid base from which to operate.
Figure out the foundation: In order to be inspired and productive in my work life, as well as clear and kind with my family, I need good exercise, deep sleep, and time for reflection. Other people might need massages, time with friends, six meals a day, protein drinks, regular knitting sessions, weekly poker games, or afternoon naps. What do you need to feel balanced, energized and productive?
Fine-tune the details: On some days I can’t get off first base without hearing Bill Withers’ version of Use Me. (Not a healthy emotional theme, I know, but the rhythm moves me.) Other days I can’t hit my stride unless I spend a few minutes outside, watching the clouds and listening to the hens. And there’s many a day when I can’t gather my thoughts without a cup of very strong, very hot coffee—in a the grey earthenware mug that was made by a potter in my hometown. The point? Identify what you need in the moment and try to provide it for yourself.
Go for what you need: I know some of you are reading this and thinking, “I have no time.” I have no time either — unless I understand that taking care of myself (that’s my body, my mind, and my spirit, by the way) allows me to work better, live better, and feel better. In other words, self care doesn’t take away from our work and life; it enhances it.