Photo by mahdis mousavi on Unsplash
It’s Monday morning and I’m startled from bed with the shrill of my alarm clock. I look at the time and it says 6am. Hold on, I’m not commuting to London anymore, I don’t have to get up at 6. I start to drift back off. Just a few minutes later I sit bolt upright remembering that my alarm isn’t for me — it is for dragging my 14 year old son out of bed (almost) kicking and screaming to get him into the shower as he will be getting picked up for school at 7 and likes a long shower. (So do I!)
Still Monday morning. I’ve made a packed lunch for my 6 year old daughter and breakfast for both of us. She has been complaining a lot lately that she doesn’t get to see me anymore (even though she saw me a lot less when I was commuting to London — having had me at home for the last 6 months this has naturally been forgotten.) I walk her to school every day and I had thought, perhaps if we have breakfast together too, it will help achieve a bit more balance — not for me, but for her.
I’d recently signed up for a marathon and, because I’m an all-or-nothing type of person, I pushed too hard, too quickly. 1 month to train is not long enough. Naturally, I injured my knee and with just 3 weeks to go before the marathon I couldn’t walk. So… I was needing to do a lot of rehabilitation. To fit that into my day, I was starting work earlier and finishing later. Between both kids there are also ‘taxi runs’ to/ from school, karate, rugby, ballet, hockey, more rugby, swimming and even more rugby.
Honestly, who has time for family and their needs, work and its needs and yourself and your needs — all. at. the. same. time?
Back to my Monday morning… Whilst Rosie and I ate breakfast “together” on this Monday, I also had my laptop out and was trying to get through some emails.
Rosie: “Mummy, you’re working.”
Me: “Yes darling, I need to work so I can buy you toys and feed you.” (The usual working mother guilt trip comment that is both true and not true!)
Rosie: “Oh, if you can do both then, let’s play ‘I spy’.” (An obvious test to which naturally I can’t say no, otherwise she will see through my pretense of being able to perfectly balance life and work.)
When it is my go, I ‘spy’ the most difficult thing I can think of to keep her busily guessing and I just say no, no, no, no. When it is her turn to spy, I ask for a clue and then say ‘I give up’ before I even have a guess in order to make it all go faster. Worst game of I spy ever. She knew it and I knew it.
My balancing act resulted in me bombing at it all. AND my porridge and coffee had both gone cold.
FAIL. Worst ‘working mum trying to balance work-and-mumming.’
Work — life balance…. What a concept! And who the fuck told us that both were at opposite ends of a spectrum?! And who the fuck else told us that to feel great both had to always be balanced?!
Up until COVID (that is the world now… pre-covid + post-covid), I didn’t actually believe that this mythical concept existed. Not in the negative sense like “you can’t balance work and life” but in the sense of “work is a part of life so there is no balance to be had” type of belief. I believed things “ebbed and flowed”… I believed that balance itself was a load of rubbish.
Then COVID hit. Lockdown began. And a few months later I was just about at burn out.
My opinion hasn’t changed — aiming for balance between life and work is only going to result in feeling like you’ve failed at both. But over the past few months, I’ve learned that I desperately need balance — and redefined what that means for me. I invite you to keep reading. There is an important nuance here.
Whether you like your job or not. Whether your job is paid, or unpaid. And, if you’re lucky to be privileged enough to love what you do, have fun with a great team and learn loads along the way, it still doesn’t mean you can keep going forever.
This is my tough lesson to learn. I’m 42 and it took me until the week before my 42nd birthday in early June 2020 to learn it.
I’m a founder of a healthy, fast growing business. As a result I have both the privilege and the immense responsibility — that I don’t take lightly — of being the ‘boss’ (by comparison I deliberately say that word very lightly) of an absolutely incredible team who I learn with, and learn from daily (I’m very lucky!)
I’m a mum of two healthy, growing children (I’m very lucky!)
I live in a generally fit and healthy, but aging body with marks of both the wonderful and difficult experiences I’ve had (I’m very lucky!)
I have a few — not many — wonderful friends (I’m very lucky!)
I have an inquisitive and curious mind that is desperate to be flooded with more knowledge (I’m very lucky!)
The list could go on… but what I’m trying to highlight is that if you separate work and life it looks a little something like this (in no particular order)…
Work versus Children, Motherhood, Self — physical exercise and nutrition, Self — mental health, Books + learning, Friends, Sleep
Your list of ‘life’ stuff might look different to mine, and it might be even longer! How in the world is it possible to balance work with that list of ‘life’ stuff on the right?
How in the world do we even balance all the stuff on the right that is considered ‘life’ with itself?
And how is it possible to even feel like you have balance when we spend so much of our waking time working but work is (in this example) only 1/8th of the list?
It is NOT possible to balance work and life when you try and carve out time for all of these things, all the time.
That’s why, when I tried to work, parent, and look after myself, all at the same time, on that Monday morning — I failed at each of them.
I felt guilty. Which means I felt like shit.
When you go for balance every minute, every hour, every day, even every week you are setting yourself up for significant failure, remorse, regret, injury, mental ill-health + guilt (and boy, is that guilt unrelenting — particularly when you have kids who tell you you’re not stepping up to the plate as a mother. It’s crap because firstly, they’re just telling you what you know and secondly, when it’s said out loud, the knife turns just a bit more).
Take my near burnout… Being a founder and a CEO was a growth journey that I’d been on for a couple of years. There was so much “newness”. It was super interesting and I loved it. But everything was a learning experience. I was learning what worked well and what didn’t. I was in a constant growth mode. Business development, invoices, payroll, pension admin, accounting, marketing… all new. And fun.
Then Covid and lockdown hit. Like a sucker punch to the nose. Given our roles as People people working in early stage startups and scaleups, we found ourselves supporting founders and leadership teams trying to navigate what Covid meant for their business and their team (whilst also trying to understand what it meant for Unleashed).
And then there was supporting my team and their personal needs as they related to lockdown…
And then there was the school that I am a Governor of…
And there was the business I’m a NED at…
And then there were my kids… who could no longer go to school or see their friends. Who had to learn a new way to learn, with a new ‘teacher’ and an increasingly impacted mental wellbeing.
Working in a state of reactive emergency at double my typical hours AND needing to care for and homeschool my kids in what was a very new and unknown world for them … I eventually reached what I recognised would soon be burnout. It was the week before my 42nd birthday and I decided that I’d take my birthday week off. Not to celebrate — but for some emergency respite.
It has taken me a long time and a near miss with burnout to recognise that the ‘ebb and flow’ of life and work I was previously kidding myself about was simply not true; that the idea that “work is a part of life and if you love your work, then there is no need to balance it” is a load of fucking bollocks!
Neuroscience tells us that our brains are hardwired to fulfil one purpose — the perpetuation of the species. In order to fulfil this purpose they need to 1) protect us from threat and 2) seek reward. To feel well, engaged with your work, to have the capacity to embrace change and, dare I say it — to feel balanced -, each person needs to experience the right mix of threat and reward. That point of equilibrium, by the way, is different for everyone. In the modern world, we tend to have less physical threats, but a plethora of different stressors, be it a deadline, nagging kids or something else entirely. Reward also comes in many forms — exercise, praise for your work, or getting to do something creative. Exactly what constitutes a threat and a reward is different for everyone, as is the balance, BUT for each of us, in order to be motivated and happy we need to find that equilibrium. Not just because we should (or we are told to), but because we end up with chemical imbalances in our brain that over time can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, burnout, physical illness… and who knows what else. (If you are interested in how this happens, please do watch this video on Neuroscience, balance in chemicals and its application to Agile.)
Sarah Weiler is the creator of the Quitting Quadrant. This is one of the most universally useful frameworks that actually works that I have ever come across. It looks like this:
The concept is simple ….
On the Y axis (along the side) you have your level of interest in something; on the X (along the bottom) you have your level of discomfort.
The healthy states are the ones in the white triangles: flow, growth, grit + restore. We will all have different perceptions of which one (or more!) of these states we feel we should be in at any given time and where we naturally feel most comfortable. That is fine.
The unhealthy states are the ones in the purple corners. And here’s the crucial bit! Quite simply, you enter an unhealthy state after you have been in its corresponding healthy one for too long! Hopefully you can see that accuracy applied to the personal example I’ve shared… When I was entering BURNOUT, I had been in GROWTH for far too long!
In order to avoid burnout, when you are in growth mode, you need to do enough of something that is in the opposite triangle. If I am always in growth, I need to do something restorative. If I’m finding myself gritting through admin and paperwork (which are definitely VERY GRITTY for me personally) for too long and heading towards resentment, perhaps my next task (or a regular one if I have more than a small amount of regular admin to do) should be something in which I can flow — low discomfort, high interest (for me these are usually creative activities — and they can sit in a work category or a non-work one).
What is important here is not trying to balance life and work and failing and feeling guilty. Instead, the intention is to work on various tasks that balance us between healthy states so we are not in one place for too long.
Thinking back to my truly manic Monday, gritting my way through a game of ‘I spy’ whilst trying to grit my way through emails did not balance anything… it toppled me over into resentment. Resentment of both work and family.
When I was heading for burnout, I was so far gone that my laptop was my enemy. I needed to get out of that state and restore. Restoration had nothing to do with spending more time with the kids that week. And therefore trying to balance work with ‘life’ (ie. kids) would not have worked. Flow and Grit (my usual states with the kids) is not where I needed to be. Instead, I added in ‘restoration tasks’ such as sleeping, swimming, walking, listening to music, reading trash as much as I could. This then allowed me to sit in other healthy states when playing with the kids, doing stuff around the house, learning and reflecting, and a whole host of other things without being in resentment, burnout, apathy or even plateau.
I achieved balance through focussing on what I was doing and which state those tasks lived in (for me) rather than focusing on an output of ‘achieving balance’ and just trying to throw more ‘life’ to balance ‘work’. In this instance that meant making the active, conscious decision not to spend time with the kids, which would not have been restorative for me at that point. What could have (and maybe in my pre-Covid perspective, would have) felt like parental guilt, didn’t.
There is no balancing work against life as mutually exclusive terms. There is only balancing life — balancing the various tasks that come into it by how they make you feel and by what you need. What for? Because it is how our brains function in order to keep us alive.
Now, I use Sarah’s Quitting Quadrant religiously to plot what I am doing. This helps me to know where I need to add more into varying healthy states. Do I need to learn something new? Do I need to do something restorative? Do I need to get into flow by being creative, and so on? It is working. It isn’t easy. I still bite off a lot but I’m more varied in my intention and with what I do. It is better. And I’m better for it — in all aspects of my life.
I really hope that this helps anyone who is trying to, with all good intentions, balance work against life. Stop trying to do something that isn’t possible. Make your work part of your life or work will always ‘take over’. Then over time, craft your intention to have more balance in your tasks. This will enable you to truly feel more balanced as you won’t be heading into unhealthy states.
The below is an example of where I am this week. Looking at this, it is quite clear to me that my intention over the next couple of weeks is to add more into ‘restore’ but generally, I have activities / tasks in each of the 4 quadrants which is keeping me healthy and my brain happy :) A top tip as a next step is to look at what 5 or 6 things are taking up the most of your time. Even with things in each box, you may not be doing enough of something.
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