The probem with work-life balance: it’s all life

Avoiding burnout.

The topic is as important as ever, and there’s a lot of advice out there on things we need to do in order to stay healthy and productive.

We need to exercise more, sleep more, eat better and all those other things we all know is part of a “healthier, happier life”. Yeah that’s true.

We need to manage our stress levels. Yeah that’s true too. Mindfulness, yoga, meditation, a bazillion things are out there screaming for your attention that if you do this you will feel better.

We are chasing the elusive work-life balance.

The problem is, this expression does not make sense to a lot of us. At least it doesn’t apply to my situation, and perhaps not to your situation either.

When work and life are one and the same

For anyone working in the digital field, the line between “work” and “life” is often blurry. Maybe you started out doing it as a hobby, and now it has become your day job but you still spend your nights and weekends learning stuff on the internet. Maybe you have several side projects that keeps you by the computer screen in your free time. Your collegues have also become your personal friends, and many interactions happen online which further increases your screen time.

If you are a business owner you know that with a business, you can never turn off the job. Evenings, nights and weekends, you think about your business. There’s never an “at work” and consequently not really an “off work” either.

We love what we do and it has become an ingrained part of our lives. And when we love what we do it’s natural that we want to work a lot – or to quote Noel Coward: “Work is much more fun than fun”.

So what do we do when things start to become too much, too overwhelming? What do we do in order to avoid burnout?

I want to invite you to stop thinking about work-life balance, and instead think in terms of input and output.

Wax on wax off

To be clear, I am not talking about input as in gathering of information and facts, and output as in deliverables and outcomes. I am talking about input and output of energy, where energy is both mental energy and physical energy. One is easer to measure than the other, but both are equally important for your well-being.

Perspiration – inspiration. Active – passive. Action – relaxation. The balance between things that give or restore energy and things that demand energy from you.

It’s like breathing. You need to breathe in, in order to breathe out. You cannot breathe out indefinitely, at some point you need to breathe in again. When we burn out, it is as if we have ignored the need to breathe in and kept pushing air out of our lungs until the body simply breaks down.

The body needs to rest after it has worked

If you have done any kind of physical exercise, then you know that in order to get stronger you need to recover from the training. A bodybuilder or athlete who wants to gain as much muscle as possible has to calculate recovery days in between the heavy lifting. If you lift heavy every day of the week, you will not get stronger at all. You will break down the body.

This is true in any kind of sport. If you overtrain you will not get results. In fact, one of the first signs of overtraining is a stagnation in results and reaching a plateau in development. When that happens, the answer in reaching the next level is not more training – it is less.

The body needs to rest and it needs sleep. I’m sure I’m not alone in staying up working far too late too many nights in a row, only to come crashing down afterwards with sluggish mornings and a building caffeine addiction. One of the biggest things you can do for your well-being is getting enough sleep. There is a lot of science regarding sleep and how to improve sleep quality.

Listen to your body. It will tell you in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways that it needs to rest.

The mind works in the same way as the body

Managing mental energy requires us to be a bit more self-observing than managing physical energy. The signs are not always as obvious as the need to sleep. But the principles are the same. After you breathe out, you need to breathe in again.

Similar to overtraining, working more will not produce more results. Many people have given witness to the productivity gains in working six hours per day instead of eight. It’s the clarity of your mind and your focus that matters, not the amount of hours you put in.

After periods of concentration, the mind needs to take a break to rest and recover. Sure, sleep benefits the mind as well as the body. But resting the mind can also involve simply doing things that are less mentally taxing. Variation is key here. Anything done for long stretches at a time will become things you need to take a break from.

There has been a bunch of research on the ability to focus, and the optimal length of study time versus break times. Check out the pomodoro technique and related timeboxing time management techniques if you are curious and want somewhere to start.

Of course the ability to focus for long stretches of time can be trained. But the pomodoro technique is not only about the focus, it’s about reminding you to take a break. In the end – just as with everything else – it’s all individual and you have to experiment to find what works for you.

Two kinds of energy input – rest and inspiration

In strength training, the recovery period has two phases. The first is recovery, in which the body recovers the damage that the training has done. The second is buildup, in which the body responds by making the muscles stronger than they were before the damage of training was incurred.

It is crucial to let both of these phases happen. To make sure that we are not breaking ourselves down, we need to have energy input that matches or exceeds the energy output.

The first input is rest

The recovery phase in training happens during rest. Resting is where you return to normal after exertion. Part of resting is of course physical rest, as in getting enough sleep and taking days off.

But rest can also involve doing something completely different. In sports, this means that a runner might incorporate weeks of lower intensity training involving swimming instead. He is not inactive, but it is a break from the usual routine. The body gets more time to buildup and recover, and the athlete stays in shape.

Mental rest involves taking your mind elsewhere for a while. When a problem is constantly in your thoughts it might not be a simple thing to do, but it is all the more important.

Maybe you had a rough interaction with a client. Maybe there is a business problem you need to solve. Maybe there is a bug that you cannot seem to track down or a deadline is looming over your head.

It’s important to find ways, times and places where those thoughts are put on hold. Engage your mind with something else. Let it off the hook for a while.

These are the typical places where meditation and mindfulness comes in. But you could just as well be spending time with family and friends. The important part is having mental time off from whatever is haunting you.

The second input is inspiration

The buildup phase in training happens automatically. The body takes care of it. You need to give it the right circumstances for it to happen, like eating enough nutrients and giving it enough resting time, but otherwise the body will handle it for you.

The mental equivalent to buildup is something I would call inspiration. Unlike the body, the inspiration of your mind needs a bit of conscious attention.

Find things that inspires you and do them. Often. Make time for them. Prioritize them.

It can sound so obvious yet somehow it’s so easy to overlook.

Getting mental rest and getting inspired are not necessarily two separate things. They often come together. But ideally you need more than just reach the level you came from. You need to gain energy and not merely recoup what you have lost.

Know thyself – how do you recharge

Identify your places of recharge. This is one of the fundamental differences between introverts and extroverts, something that is often misunderstood. An introvert can in fact be very social, but need to recharge the batteries through being alone. An extrovert also need time for reflection and solitude, but will go out with friends to recharge and get energy from being with others.

As an introvert, I need time for myself. My recharging happens when I’m alone in peace and quiet. At one time I had a job that made me spend time with a lot of people around me. At the same time, I had a small child at home that demanded a lot of my attention as soon as I stepped through the door.

During this period, I sometimes needed to take a pit stop at a coffee shop after work and spend some time by myself before heading home. Going from one loud and busy place to another loud and busy place was stressful for me. Taking a bit of alone time in between meant all the difference in the world.

I think finding the places and activities that inspires you is one of the most important things that you could do. Someone in the WordPress community tweeted the observation that as the work became more and more virtual/digital, that person’s hobbies and interests became more and more analog. I understand that very well.

(As a side note, I searched but couldn’t find the tweet. I don’t remember who said it. If you read this and happen to know who tweeted it, please comment and I can update the article with a link. Thanks!)

Art, music, sports, crafts, the list of possible things are endless. Spending time with family, friends, animals or in the nature are also high on most people’s list of things that inspire them.

Work can also give you energy

Here comes the lure of the digital worker. When our work is intermingled with the inspirational part, we don’t know when to stop.

We can enter a flow state, where time flies by as you sit by your screen. You are so absorbed by what you do and only look up at the clock to find hours have passed and you haven’t even eaten anything or moved an inch from your seat.

Or things just keep moving along, release following release, project following project. There’s always something exiting going on, there’s always someone left in your email inbox or something else in your pipeline. The momentum is always now. Why break a winning streak?

Because, if you do it for too long you will no longer get energy from it.

In order to keep being inspired by it, you need to stop doing it from time to time.

Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but this is how we work as humans. On the flip side, if your work is very inspiring to you, the only time off work you need is for the recovery part. The getting energy part is then covered by your work.

Prepare like an olympic athlete

Do you know what professional athletes do right before a big competition, like the olympics? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

One of the reasons I have used the exercise metaphor in this article is because I have met a professional athlete trainer at olympic level and talked with him at length about planning training for optimal performance. He explained to me that before a big competition, he and his trainees travel together to a resort where they can rest, lie on the beach and eat well and sleep well. For a full week.

They do this because of all the training they have done up until then. For an event like the olympics, the training begins at least a year in advance. For a summer olympics, the autumn before is the strength training period and winter and spring is the time for specific skill training and endurance. The recovery periods are well calulcated and spread throughout the year.

Right before the event – rest and gather energy. At the event – give it all you got. After the event – rest, recover and learn from things that happened.

Plan for the time off – because it will only happen if you plan it

What does this mean for you? Well the obvious thing is of course that the harder and longer you work the more you need to rest. That’s a no brainer.

The challenge is that the olympics is finite. You know when it happens and you know when it’s over. Our kind of work seems never-ending in comparison. There is never a good time to take time off.

The solution is to manually create your own pit stops throughout the year where you can ease the workload for a while.

The milestone was reached. The project was delivered. The release was shipped. The support ticket was resolved. Give yourself opportunity to gain energy in proportion to the energy spent.

Most of all this means that you need to be pro-active about planning your rest and recovery. Since working – or the output – is what tends to come naturally, we need to be mindful of the other side, the input.

The first thing Curtis McHale does each year is to plan his vacation. I think this is a wise approach and something to consider for yourself. If you don’t have natural slower periods during the year, then you need to create them manually.

It’s a balancing act

The balance between activity and recovery will constantly shift. Your needs will differ from time to time and not always be the same. It will probably never be 50/50. After all, you don’t sleep 12 hours at night and spend 12 hours awake.

Sometimes creative output will give you energy. Other times it will be draining. Sometimes spending time with the family is great fun and the motivator for all other things you do. Other times spending time with family or extended family, such as during holiday season, is something you might need to recover from.

An aquaintance of mine had a spouse that suffered an accident and ended up in hospital. During that time, going to work was actually giving her energy. Having work to do was a stability and support in her life that was otherwise unreliable and temporarily chaotic. She could leave her worries behind and focus on something else than what was going on at home. At that point, the activities that provided energy and drained energy were swapped around for her.

And if you have a mentally demanding home situation at the same time as extra pressure at work, then making time for adequate energy input is vital.

The body and mind are connected

I have talked as if the body and mind are separate things, but of course they’re not. They are very interconnected. And to confuse matters a bit, sometimes draining one type of energy will restore the other type.

For example, physical exercise – an output of physical energy – will often result in clarity and focus – an input of mental energy. How many times didn’t taking a walk or going for a run clear your mind and give you new ideas?

The most telling example I know regarding this is the world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen. Magnus Carlsen and many other top chess players maintain a high level of physical fitness. This is required in order to be able to concentrate for as many hours as these people do. A sharp mind needs a sharp body, they go hand in hand.

Life should be full of ups and downs

So in essence, the balance between “work” and “life” is not something you can measure in hours spent on one or the other side. They are not antagonists in an either/or relationship. It’s all life.

And life is full of ups and downs. Everything goes in waves. Light, sound, electromagnetic radiation (hello wifi), the beating of your heart, you name it. It’s a pulse.

Burnout happens when the ups and downs are removed. Life becomes a neverending stream of things to remember and stuff to do and there is never time to think about the future and you are just keeping your head above water and just like this sentence goes on and on without stops you also just keep going on and on even though somewhere in the back of your head there is this little voice that tells you that you probably should take a break soon but you keep going because that voice is actually pretty tiny and there is never really a good time to take time off anyway.

Stop. Pause. Breathe in, breathe out.

Observe yourself and adapt to your needs

Self observation is the first step to reaching an input/output balance. Self observation and self awareness.

I could write another full article on all the good and interesting things that happens in your mind when you take a break. But I will finish this one with a list of steps you can take to ensure you get enough input in your life:

  • Be mindful of your sleeping habits. Get enough sleep.
  • Take regular micro breaks from anything you do for long stretches at a time.
  • Find places or activities where your work thoughts are no longer with you.
  • Find things and activities that inspires you and gives you joy.
  • Plan these into your calendar, put them into your daily or weekly routine.
  • Plan times during the year when you are completely off, and times where the workload can be a little lighter.
  • Take time to celebrate your accomplishments, even the small ones. You reinforce to yourself that you are on the right track and pull yourself out of the treadmill for a while.

Breathe out as much as you want.

Just remember to always take a deep breath in again.

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