This blog was originally published to Erik’s Medium blog.
“Happiness depends on ourselves” — Aristotle, who I assume had stellar work-life balance.
Everyone talks about finding a better work-life balance. You’ve likely complained about it to friends you haven’t seen in months, wishing you had more time to play music or paint. Meanwhile, your Mom keeps telling you she’s worried about how hard you’ve been working.
You might have gone something like, “I love my job — But — I need to find a better work-life balance,” feeling your internal dread about actually figuring out how to do it.
Balancing your work life and personal life is never easy. If you’re a millennial like me, you know that we have to work harder than any other recent generation to get ahead. The competition is fierce and the market is demanding to begin with. That’s why the data shows we’re the hardest working generation yet.
That often means being the one that’s pushing off personal engagements, working insane hours, and almost never taking vacation. These sacrifices have become a habit, and sooner or later you realize your personal life is being neglected and you’re drinking more frequently than you did in university (That’s probably a bad thing in your mid-to-late 20s).
That workout you were planning for when you got home? Too tired. How about the side project you’ve been thinking about? Maybe tomorrow. That paint night your friend invited you to? HA!
You might think to yourself, “I’m just going to put on an episode of 30 Rock and pass out on the couch instead.” You think it with less and less shame each night the ritual repeats. You just don’t have the energy to do everything.
My work-dominant lifestyle
At my last job I followed this exact pattern of behaviour over and over again. It was only partially broken when I would go on infrequent vacations to “recharge my batteries” before throwing myself back in the deep end. I would soon be struggling to keep my head above water once again. I tried to love the burnout instead of actually fixing it.
That is to say I took my work — which was both necessary and truly enjoyable in a lot of ways — and used it to define myself. I justified a lot of poor behaviour and personal choices because I was only focused on the parts of my job that I loved.
In hindsight, it’s obvious how unsustainable all this was. Although I’m certain I did some great work and I’m incredibly proud of the impact I made, I shouldn’t have done that to myself. I regret the excuses I made to justify hurting myself.
Make no mistake about it — You’re hurting yourself with this behaviour. No amount of work experience or career advancement is worth sacrificing your mental and physical health like so many of us do.
Before diving in I should mention that the bulk of my experience figuring this out happened after leaving my last job. This has given me 100% control over how I spend my time. While my focus is primarily on finding a new job, I’ve taken this opportunity to reorient my life and started to find that mysterious work-life balance everyone is always struggling with.
. . .
Let’s start by pointing out the most important fact you’ll need to embrace for this to work: Your job isn’t giving you the same level of personal development you could be giving yourself. No matter how hard you work on challenging problems at your job, these instances of professional growth are not remotely as rewarding as the personal development you could be getting.
The promotion you’re hoping to get isn’t worth your personal health. The raise you’re supposed to get for finishing that project ahead of schedule isn’t worth your personal health. The praise your boss or colleagues might give you isn’t worth your personal health. And at the very least, remember that you’re probably not getting paid well enough to justify your burnout.
If you disagree, I commend you for your work ethic. But don’t kid yourself — being a work-martyr isn’t substantially improving the quality of your life. It’s doing the exact opposite. Once you come to grips with that fact you’ll be able to shift your focus inwards and become substantially happier.
Once I embraced this idea, I was able to give myself permission to focus on the things that could help me with my sense of self. This came in the form of “Me Time.”
Not to be confused with “Alone Time,” I’m instead referring to the time you spend working on your self — Your passions, your desires, your dreams. This can often mean spending time alone with yourself, but it requires an investment in your self more than any Netflix binge-session can give you. This isn’t about finding more time to “relax” after a long day so much as it’s about doing the things that will enrich your soul.
There are a myriad of ways you can do this, but here are some of the “Me Time” things that worked for me:
I started jogging
Physical activity is the most obvious form of self improvement for a reason — It has the biggest impact. Since I started jogging regularly I’ve seen my strength and stamina increase and I’m totally addicted to the progress. I’ve even noticed that I get hugely motivated and euphoric immediately following a good workout. I find that days when I am physically active I’m actually more energetic. Plus, by the time I go to bed I’m exhausted enough that I sleep like a baby.
Prior to this I hadn’t been working out regularly in years. I would instead go on sporadic workouts and quickly became too tired to will myself to the gym early in the mornings or evenings. I was also so anxious that I relied on over-the-counter aids to help me sleep.
When I set out to change this I thought back to why I had failed to make changes in the past. I recognized that I had set lofty, almost unobtainable goals. I simply couldn’t go from zero to 60 all at once.
What ended up working for me was setting small goals that I could easily reach and (hopefully) exceed. I nearly coughed up a lung on my first run, but I achieved my goal of simply working out. I convinced myself to try and jog or workout at the gym two times in a week. Then I set the goal of running for 15 minutes without stopping. Once I reached that time I didn’t stop — I ended up running non-stop for a full 25 minutes on that run!
I kept setting incrementally bigger goals that I knew I could achieve. I was super proud of myself each and every time I finished an activity, and it fuelled my efforts. Before I knew it I had established a new habit. It’s even bordering on a daily routine now. My next goal is to run 20km!
Finally, it’s helped me during the times when I’m most upset. Whether coping with the prospect of President Trump or just feeling lonely, going for a workout immediately makes me feel better on my worst days.
There’s even research that indicates regular physical activity helps prevent and reduce depression/anxiety in most individuals. So make this your #1 “me time” priority.
I picked up my guitar for the first time in ages
I used to have a lot more music in my life, but the past several years haven’t been kind to this hobby. I went from performing in musicals and playing guitar most days to almost nothing within only a few years. In that time I didn’t notice how much I missed performing and feeling creative in a medium that wasn’t “work”. Instead of flicking through Netflix to find something new, I’ll often pick up my guitar now.
I’m not suggesting you need to learn how to play guitar so much as you need to find a creative outlet that has nothing to do with your work. I also happen to paint water colours and doodle. Dust off your old hobby and give it new life. You’ll instantly remember why you enjoyed it so much in the first place.
I explored the city and spent more time with family & friends
Next month will mark the beginning of my fifth year in Toronto. That’s about half of my adult life! My reasons for coming here were greater career options and a better lifestyle. But the more invested I became in my job, the less I was able (or maybe just willing) to visit events around the city.
Over the past 8 months I finally made the time to explore my city. In that time I’ve had more meaningful experiences than I’ve had in the past 10 years of my life. I’ve gotten to look back into ancient history at the Royal Ontario Museum, walked the streets of Kensington Market during this past summer’s Pedestrian Sundays, seen modern works of art at the AGO, sang with the Choir! Choir! Choir! crew, and more. I’ve felt incredibly enriched all the while, learning about my place in the universe and interacting with others experiencing the same existential feelings has been ultra enjoyable.
Spending time with friends was easy once I had carved out the time to visit places around the city. You’d be amazed how many people also don’t go to events. 90% of the time I could find someone to go with me.
I think getting out of the apartment was also generally helpful. Living and working in the city can feel claustrophobic at times. Exploring different parts of the city and experiencing new things made the city feel more alive and welcoming than when I was taking the same boring commute between work and home every day.
I spoke with a therapist
Talking about mental health is still considered too much of a taboo in my opinion. Bell Let’s Talk is great, but the conversation still hasn’t shifted to the importance of proactive mental health efforts over reactive ones. I wasn’t desperate to speak with someone, but I knew I had stressful things on the horizon (like leaving my job) and wanted to prepare myself mentally.
Only after a few months did I realize the various ways that speaking with a therapist was helping me. Beyond the reasons that I had started the sessions, I uncovered other ways I was benefiting that I never would have thought of. I believe everyone will find benefits to speaking with a therapist even if they think they’re fine without one.
Most benefits packages have therapy available, so take a look at your options and see if you can fit something in. I doubt you’ll regret giving this one a try.
After reading all those points you’re probably thinking, “But I don’t have the time or energy to do all those things!”
You do, but it’s going to require that you start saying “No” to the unimportant things you are already doing. You need to seriously reflect on the choices you’re making at work and decide when your time can be better spent on yourself. Remember that your job probably isn’t paying dividends as much as investing in your self will. Furthermore, I believe that by investing in your self you’re actually becoming more valuable to your company. Happiness is palpable and being happy at work will have positive ripples throughout your career.
I didn’t just magically start doing all these things at once. I’ve been building momentum every month, adding more and more goals to improve my sense of self. I started by focusing on what I wanted to do. That “me time” was necessary to start feeling better about myself and to remind me what I was capable of.
So when you inevitably begin wrestling with yourself over these work-life choices, remember:
– You are no less dedicated to your company or your job
– Your colleagues will not instantly think you’re replaceable
– You should not feel guilty using the vacation time that you’ve earned
– You will not lose consideration for a raise or promotion
– Your boss isn’t going to care nearly as much as you’re imagining
At the end of the day it’s your life, so live it however you want. Just don’t make any excuses for your lack-of-happiness because it’s one of the biggest things you have control over.
I’m hoping that a lot of the new habits I’ve established will carry over into life with my next job, but it’ll definitely be difficult. But now I know how much “me time” affects my overall well-being and it’s no longer something I plan on neglecting again. You shouldn’t either.
About the Guest Author:
Erik Dohnberg has helped over 600 people change their careers while managing sales and customer success at Bitmaker (acquired by General Assembly August 2016). He can often be found working on his goggle tan as a ski instructor in the winter and biking to various Toronto patios in the summer. He’s currently planning on getting a dog that will ride in a backpack with him while skiing next year and loathes discussing himself in the third person.
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