Almost none of us are living the life best suited for us. We are being held back by our belief that work and life are separate, that they are two sides of a seesaw. That the ups of life balance out the downs of work. But that belief is wrong. Work is not separate from life; it is part of it. To our bodies and minds, there is no distinction.
A better way of thinking about work and life
I find the metaphor of a plate-spinning circus artist more accurate. We’re holding multiple plates (i.e. the parts of our lives) on sticks and need to apply energy to each stick to keep the plate spinning. If one plate spins too slowly and falls, it shocks us. That may lead to dropping more plates.
We should devote energy throughout our day to each plate, to maximise the success of the whole system that we call life. If we spin the career plate only, the relationships and health plates will slow down. They may even drop. That would negatively impact the career plate we were so focused on.
While working from home in the era of COVID-19, we are waking up to the reality of work-life integration. Kids, cats, and spouses are making (often embarrassing) appearances in our meetings. Many people, particularly parents, are struggling to keep up all aspects of their lives in this new professional world. However, this integration has always been the case. The effects are just more pronounced now. When we worked from offices, we still had stressors from home that we took into the building each morning. We still answered emails outside working hours.
We were struggling before – but now the challenge is even greater. What can we do? I like to use what I call the principle of bounded flexibility: building in flexibility for a couple of elements that support our well-being while maintaining some boundaries.
First steps to integration
You ought to liberate yourself from the belief that “I need to work 9 to 5” (or longer, if you’re a full-on corporate slave 😉 ). Instead, you can spread out your work and have many moments for recharging in between. This will emotionally and intellectually rejuvenate you, enhancing your productivity, while still working 8-10-hour days. Since working full-time for myself in January, making work a regular part of my life has felt incredibly liberating.
Try getting some fresh air and moving your body (assuming social distancing after lockdown is over). Your biology wants you to be in nature, not sit behind a desk for eight hours. I take all my calls while walking along a stretch of park, bringing a notebook if I need to. As I discussed more thoroughly in a blog last year, we must stand up for our health.
Use your freedom to decide what work-related activities you want to do when. I am most productive right after I wake up, so I choose to do my deep, focused work then. I schedule easier, more administrative tasks for right after lunch, to coincide with my after-lunch dip. Or, alternatively, I take a walking call then to re-energise myself.
The need for inflexibility
Too much freedom can be overwhelming. We are creatures of habit and need some routine. Building boundaries into this flexibility is vital to work effectively.
Most importantly, when you’re working, you’re working, doing nothing else. Multi-tasking is largely a myth. You can walk and talk, but you can’t write an email while listening to a loved one (as my girlfriend has discovered). I turn off all email and phone notifications and listen to the “Indie Folk for Focus” Spotify playlist to minimise external distractions.
Define how much work is enough. What is a productive, successful week for you? I answer this by setting an input goal that I can control: my hours. At the end of the week, I can look back and see all the hard work I’ve put in. This avoids feeling like “I could have done more” and prevents work from taking over my life.
When working in your home, if possible, work from the same spot. Only use it for work-related activities. This creates an environmental anchor that conditions you to work when you're there.
Now, let’s get to work. Write down three flexible elements and three boundaries that you will build-in.
Communicate your boundaries to your colleagues and those you live with. At the start of each day, my girlfriend and I exchange schedules, so we can plan when to have lunch together and when the other needs some quiet time. With your colleagues, plan daily check-ins and normalise this new way of working. By knowing each other’s needs, you can better accommodate each other, creating more effective teams and more harmonious households.
We don’t know when this will be all over, or if we will even go back to normal. I’ve spoken to organisations planning to halve their office capacity, having seen that staff are actually happier and more effective.
Remember, work and life have always been integrated. By adopting the principle of bounded flexibility, you can more effectively make work a meaningful part of your life. Get off the seesaw – and start spinning your plates like an artist.