The work/life balance dilemma

Work is increasingly seeping beyond the office and factory walls and into other areas of our lives. The commute, the holiday you worked so hard to afford, dinner with your partner, bathrooms — no place is safe from becoming a place of work.

The advantages of this societal shift are endless — more autonomy over your time and income, for starters — and it has no doubt been a long time coming. But as many people are discovering, the blurring of boundaries between our personal and professional lives is not always sustainable and, if not managed, can have pretty major consequences on your mental health.

For many people, the end of the year is typically not a time of balance. But at least in the past you could drop work at the door and go home to guiltlessly indulge in wine and turkey. Now, while the Queen’s speech is on the tele, the turkey is in the oven, and the kids are tearing into their Nintendo Labo, you are replying to emails about end of year reports and new company data policies.

If you do spend some or most of your time in-house, you might have access to such luxuries as corporate wellbeing programs or mindfulness classes. But no matter how much sitting and watching the breath you do, if you still endure 80-hour weeks and lack a work/life balance, then it can be like trying to put a plaster over a broken bone.

When you ditch the office and have the ability to choose when and where you work, you get rid of a lot of stuff you don’t need. But at the same time, you also inherit a tonne of extra responsibility.

In this way, it becomes ever more important to see your mental and physical health objectively, not as some additional oversight as most companies do, but as fundamental to your productivity, wellbeing, and overall success.

Being optimally efficient comes at a cost

Unlike machines, we didn’t evolve to be maximally efficient at just one task. In fact, what makes us so different and unique from machines is our ability to learn, adapt, and expand to do a diverse range of things.

What’s more, the point of being human isn’t solely to optimise efficiency. And yet we strive and push ourselves to output results without rest and berate ourselves when we fall short of anything but perfection.

There will always be someone better than you at everything — unless you choose to commit your life to compete at the highest level. This seemingly depressing fact is turned around when we realise that achieving completely optimal performance in any given area means you have to focus all your energy on it and do so at the detriment to other areas of your life.

On top of this, like any relationship, no matter how much time and effort you put into one particular task, there are no guarantees as to how good the outcome will be. The flip side of this is that we would love to be able to do everything perfectly, which is, of course, just as impossible.

So what to do? Well, it all comes down to how you measure your life. Maximum efficiency and doing everything perfectly are out of the question, but that doesn’t mean we can’t achieve perfection in another way.

How to find optimum work/life balance

Not everything in life is worth your time and attention. And so we need to be able to achieve optimum balance to cut out all the crap and simplify our lives down as much as possible.

But finding optimum balance isn’t about reducing what you do: it’s about approaching what you do in a different way.

Everything in life that’s meaningful and worth your time and attention is going to cause an imbalance in your life. Whether it’s building a business, deciding to have kids, going back to uni, or writing a book, no one ever achieved anything worthwhile without making some type of compromise or sacrifice.

So finding optimum balance is not simply about either cutting down or even distributing your time more evenly between all areas of your life. It’s about accepting that in any meaningful life, there are going to be imbalances.

In fact, mistakes, failures, offending people, and messing stuff up is often a sign you’re doing something right. While chasing work/life balance to bring some order just becomes another tiring and guilt-ridden task to add to the to-do list.

Finding optimum work/life balance is, therefore, more a question of recognising where your values are and consciously acknowledging what you are willing to give up or sacrifice.

This may be deciding taking the kids to karate is more important than getting an extra hour of emails in each evening. Or that although hiring an office space is costly and not as comfortable as working in the kitchen with the cat, it will do wonders for your productivity and relationships.

Finding optimum balance often involves doing things that are uncomfortable and that we don’t want to do. But ultimately, they are the things that allow us to find some internal balance and be there for the people around us.

Joe Hunt is a freelance writer from the North of England. Find him on Medium exploring remote working, technology, meditation, and more.