How to Make Work-Life Balance Work

Today’s TED Thursday features an awesomely eloquent and honest talk by Nigel Marsh on work-life balance. Most of the self-help / motivational / bullshit literature on work-life balance give you useless platitudes: “Go to the gym in the morning! Skip lunch so you can meet friends for dinner! Wear jeans to work! (Seriously, wtf) Sleep with your boss!” These simply don’t work because they don’t attack the absolute core of the problem: that most people are “working long hours in jobs they hate, to buy things they don’t need, in order to impress people they don’t like.” Nigel lays out four things to think about when you’re trying to deal with this problem:

1. Acknowledge the reality of the situation: If your career choice is fundamentally incompatible with you having any sort of life outside of the office, then it’s time to rethink your priorities.

2. Governments and corporations are not going to solve this problem for you. You, and you alone, have to be responsible for setting and enforcing the boundaries between your work and the rest of your life.

3. Be careful of the timeframe by which you judge your work-life balance. Realistically, you’re not going to accomplish 10 things on your to-do list and end work at 5.30pm every single day. Occasionally, it’s fine to stay a little late, as long as you’re happy with your overall work-life balance as you look back over the past quarter or year.

4. Approach work-life balance in a balanced way. Don’t aim for major, radical changes that require a lot of effort. Instead, aim for small, incremental changes – you’ll be surprised at how transformative they are.

I remember that just a month ago, I was a soulless, lifeless, depressed, most stressed son-of-a-bitch in the office. (Yeah, the fact that it was Christmas season didn’t help either). I had way too much work on my plate, snapped at my colleagues, couldn’t focus on getting my s**t together, and hated my life. Sound familiar? Most websites offering you advice will never admit that they’ve had low points in their lives, but that’s cause they’re either 1) lying or 2) unemployed. Let’s be honest, you’re going to have some low moments, no matter how much you love your job.

When you’re in that state of mind, it’s important not to generalize that particular phase of your working life to your entire job. Do I actually hate my job? Nope. I definitely hated the feeling of being stuck in a rut, but I also knew that it wouldn’t be permanent.

How I dealt with it is a whole series of posts by itself, but in a nutshell:

1. I enforced boundaries. I told myself I would leave work at 6.30pm no matter how much crap I had left. It was pointless staying later than that anyway – I didn’t get much work done, and it sucks to be wolfing down McDonald’s at 10pm for dinner cause that’s the only thing that’s open. I also took a couple of days off to let some non-urgent problems miraculously solve by themselves. (Try it – it actually works).

2. I made a couple of small changes – enforcing the 90-minute sprint rule, picking just one important thing to accomplish that day, and realizing that my job wasn’t to impress anybody by accomplishing 10,000 things, my job is to pick the most important things and do them a helluva well.

That’s pretty much it. It’s amazing what a couple of days off and a re-evaluation can do for your soul, and your work. Give it a try.

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