5 Steps to a Balanced Life

I formed some terrible habits of mind over the course of many years. Luckily, there are some small changes I can share that have set me back on the path toward work-life balance.

Throughout my early professional years (but particularly while teaching in a public high school), no matter how hard I worked, I went to bed every day feeling like I had failed, then went to work every morning feeling like I was behind.

Every moment I wasn’t working, I felt inordinate guilt and pressure, so I never fully enjoyed nights or weekends or breaks. But I also felt this guilt and pressure every moment I was working because I was neglecting myself and my family.

In my effort to become indispensably employable, I learned to source my value in how hard and long I worked, and in the quality of the results I produced for my employer.

But in doing so, I had lost much of my personal identity — I wasted a lot of time.

The fundamental problem with allowing my life to be designed for me for so long is that I lost sight of how to spend my time in the world in a way that I find pleasing rather than imperative.

And this is the unfortunate constant that many of us have grown accustomed to — we behave as though our physical needs, our families, and our personal lives must revolve around whatever space our work allows.

What I have come to learn is that work-life balance does not mean making the most of whatever scraps of time your career throws down for you from the table.

Work-life balance is, instead, about making certain that you have a life — a full, healthy, interesting, and meaningful life — in addition to your career. The goal is that one does not constantly live in the shadow of the other, waiting for permission to grow.

The goal is to put more of ourselves back into our lives.

But these habits took years to form, and no calendar app or new morning routine can do the trick. (Trust me. I’ve tried.) But here are five small things that have worked:

1. Be the boss.

I read a lot of articles and watched a lot of videos, but in the end, no one else’s approach fit my needs. My idea of what balance looks like will probably be different than yours. Besides, when it comes to adding more of yourself into your life, that’s kind of the point.

I defined five categories of health that are important to me, then made a handy acronym out of them. Feel free to steal them. Or scrap them and make your own. Regardless, you must define what balance means to you.

  1. Social: Friends (real ones), and networking events that I don’t hate
  2. Physical: Medical care, adequate sleep, exercise, nutrition, and tidy physical space
  3. Intellectual: Reading a broad range of genres and topics, writing of my own, and engaging my curiosity
  4. Familial: Relationships and time with my husband, child, and extended family
  5. Emotional: Happy and peaceful home, fun, and creativity

So for healthy work-life balance, I must regularly feed my SPIFE.

2. Set a realistic timeframe to measure balance.

In his TED Talk, Nigel Marsh wisely said that we must “take a balanced approach to balance” and readjust the timeframe we use to measure it — a day is too short and Once I Retire is too long.

I’ve started off by taking balance by the month, which is to say that I’ve set some small goals for this month in each category of my health.

Like really small goals. Which brings me to number 3.

3. Commit (mostly) to things that take less than an hour. Or, that are part of what you have to do anyway.

I didn’t want to commit to joining a gym and drastically changing my lifestyle. (Although I might. Later.) For right now, that’s just too big for me, and it only feeds one part of my SPIFE. I need baby steps.

For example, here are my goals for May:

S — Go to a coffee date, but don’t talk about each other’s work.
P — Take the dog on 30-minute walks at least four times this month. Get rid of at least one box of things we no longer need or use.
I — Read a book while waiting for my daughter’s afternoon bus, instead of browsing through my phone.
F — See a matinee with my husband.
E — Do something with a friend that does not revolve around coffee or a meal.

Reclaim little havens of time for yourself by changing small habits.

Change how you spend the ten minutes in line at the grocery store. Next time someone invites you to coffee, suggest you meet elsewhere — anywhere you’ve been meaning to go.

4. Revise.

For example, the categories in my SPIFE often overlap, and I get that. In time, I may find that this isn’t the best approach. Or maybe measuring monthly won’t work for the long haul.

And I’m certain I will have failings along the way.

That’s okay — I’m new at this.

5. Do Stuff.

It’s so uncomfortable.

Sure, the tangible changes may be small at first. But even still, changing how we approach our time is a big shift. And unfortunately, no amount of planning, reflecting, or thinking about balance will be enough — change is behavioral.

You have to actually do new stuff.

So now, I am going to grab a snack and go for a walk. Because it’s lovely outside. And I have 15 minutes.

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