Before 2020, I’d periodically see articles and conversations about work-life balance. The idea being that you need to find the right set point where you didn’t work too much but you also got the work done that needed to be done. Then a pandemic came and a lot of people found themselves working remote. Now it was possible to start work earlier and work longer because there were no commutes. Work could find you later in the evening because your workstation was no longer miles away at an office. The line between work and non-work time became blurry because you were still in the same place.
People who worked remote before 2020 knew all about these aspects of working from home. Now the rest of us are catching up and we need to understand that ‘balance’ is the wrong metaphor. It’s not either-or, it’s both-and. We must figure out what a healthy work-life integration looks like lest we find ourselves courting burnout. Here are some things to consider.
The human body is designed to move, lift things, and stay active. Working from home means it might be harder to get to a gym (if you even want to go to the gym under present circumstances). Even so, we have to make time to exercise. Don’t let the time you save on the commute slip away into sleeping in and being distracted. Go for a run. Do some push-ups, pull-ups, or other bodyweight exercises. If you can, get some kettlebells, dumbbells, or bands to work out with. Your body needs this. You need this, especially now.
Time is Flexible
There are only so many hours in the day, but what we fill them with is largely up to us. If you need a break and there’s an opening in your schedule, step away. Sometimes there are errands to run, maybe you need to watch the kids for a bit or take the dog to a vet appointment. Perhaps in a pandemic there are fewer places you need to go, but working remotely at least allows the flexibility to do so. This isn’t an excuse to let work slip, but we can move things around more easily than we were once able to.
Space and Routines
It’s easy when we’re working from home to let routines slip. Going to a physical office establishes a critical underlying structure to our day that we build our time around. In the absence of that, we have to create our own. Get up early and get some things done before work starts. Establish a time that you will be online and ready to work. Have a physical space devoted to nothing but work, even if it’s just one end of the kitchen table.
The easiest way to let the day get away from you is to spend it unfocused and reactive. You will need control systems to counter the ad-hoc, stimulus-response driven busyness most of us default to. Have a plan. Block out time for the important focused work. Be specific about what you want to get done and what the next steps are. Capture your open loops and commitments every day. Keep them organized and well-defined rather than amorphous. Know your limits and have honest conversations about what you can and can’t do.
Take a Walk
Step away from the computer periodically. Schedule a walk or two in your day. Get outside if possible. In addition to extra physical activity, a walk is a chance to mentally disconnect and recharge. You might be tempted to listen to music, or a podcast, or an audiobook. This might be okay, but we should also consider that we need time with our own thoughts. Listen to yourself instead of other humans for a bit.
Focus on What Matters
For many hours of the day, this will be the work. We still have to communicate with our colleagues and get results. But there are many things that matter beyond the work. We need to put effort into our relationships, mental health, sleep, and nutrition. It’s tempting to give in to distraction no matter what hour of what day it is. Whether it’s binge-watching Netflix, playing video games, or diving into YouTube, be mindful of how you are spending your free time and make sure the distractions don’t take away from what is important.
Establish some rules with your team about how you will work. Try having days or mornings where meetings aren’t allowed. Keep office hours rather than an expectation of being reachable at a moment’s notice. Be respectful of other people’s time and don’t expect them to keep the exact same hours as you. It’s surprising how important video is to a remote meeting. It’s equally surprising how exhausting it can be.
The idea of work-life balance is that these things are separate and you have to manage them as separate things that offset each other. This pandemic has demonstrated that this is an illusion. They aren’t separate but interconnected. The work benefits from other things in life. Life benefits from what work enables and provides. Work is one of the many things you have to do with your limited time here. If you’re fortunate, you can find deep meaning in it. If nothing else, it’s the opportunity to be good at something. There will be times when you work more than others. Our days and seasons are organic unfoldings that shift and flow as things change. But it should never be all about work for too long. How this integration works is up to each person and how they want all the pieces to be interwoven.