Balance in Life

One of the most overused and least understood phrases in the English language is work-life balance.  There is such conflicting thought and advice.  Blur the work/life boundary, don’t blur it, make your hobby your work and so on.   What is work and what is life and what is balance? Where does parenting or volunteering fit in?

One sure fact is that most of us feel we do not have “work/life balance”.  A survey I ran showed people on average reporting their work/ life ratio as 75/25 with a desired ratio of 55/45.  That is a big shift, the equivalent of more than a day per week moving from work to life.

Let’s assume most of us have 100 awake and alert hours per week.  This is roughly a 14-hour day, allowing for the all-important 8 hours for sleep and an hour either side of that to wake up and to wind down, wash and take on board some food.   Now grab a piece of paper and allocate your 90 hours based on an average of the last month between 3 buckets.

Work- your primary occupation, paid or unpaid
Self- time dedicated to you, selfish time if you like
Relationships- time dedicated to others, friends, family, for now let’s include parenting and caring in here

Now draw a circle and divide it up into three areas in proportion to what you have allocated above.  If you are in the main throes of your career it may look like the left hand circle, if you are a part time parent it may look like the right hand one.  This is the pie of life.

What do you notice?  Of course, in each case it is self that is squeezed.  This is the one that shouts quietest, the one that can be squeezed without letting others down, the one easiest to say “no’ to.  We all experience this, feeling tired, not taking as much exercise as we want to, meditation and yoga being a dream rather than reality.  Time to read our book or practice the piano or take a walk never quite materialising.  Sometimes we will even reduce sleep to try and allocate more time to self.

So what does “good” look like?  Well, the experts suggest that to have a balanced life, each of the three slices of the pie need to be equal as shown below.  33 1/3 hours on each slice per week.  33 hours on work and 33 hours on self!?   Well before you stop reading, France has a mandated working week of 35 hours interestingly, and on average in the UK people work 32.5 hours per week.  I am guessing though that a lot of you reading this are not near the UK average.

Remember, this is an ideal not a command so be kind to yourself.   Let’s also remember that most of us are in the busiest period of our lives, where work, career and earning are competing for our time with parenting, partnering and ageing parents; let alone our friends or even ourselves.

Now we can return to our definitions, what are work, relationships and self?  How about if we are a primary carer for children of others? Then we define this as our main occupation and move it into work?  This evens things up immediately.  Now how about looking at the crucial aspect of any “work’ which is building and maintaining our network of relationships.  Let’s move this into relationships.  So now the balance between these two may be a little more even but my guess is self is still extremely squeezed.   How do we start to build up towards 33 hours of self per week?

First of all, let’s look at why self is so important. We are often programmed against being selfish, but if we do not look out for ourselves, we have nothing left to give others; the ratty parent, the half-asleep manager.  The irony is by spending more time on self, not only do we have a more enjoyable life, we are able to give more in the other areas; to achieve more in less time.  So knowing now that it is the most important of the three buckets, that it enables us to be at our best in the other areas, how then do we grow this slice of the pie?

It turns out owning a dog is a good start.   It is well documented that dog owners are happier and live longer.  Even if they are walking their dog for 3-4 hours per week that is immediately a big boost into the self bucket.  Taking exercise is another crucial part of self.  Following the guidelines of at least three hours of exercise per week fills the self slice further.  What other areas are there in self?  Relaxation, learning, spirituality, leisure, hobbies, eating are a few possibilities.   And then of course there is the lost art of doing nothing.   Essential for the body and brain to regenerate, brilliant for creativity, the act of being awake and doing nothing (essentially daydreaming) is definitely part of the self bucket.

As an aside research shows that watching TV or spending time on your smart phone is not relaxing, and I would exclude this from self if it is more than a few hours per week.   Instead what about activities that fill two or even three buckets?  Cooking for friends, running with mates, taking a class in film appreciation?

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