Ruminations on the work/life balance lie

Full disclosure: I hate the phrase “work/life balance.”

The phrase and associated societal conversations are too simplistic and set an unrealistic bar, especially for women, for whom the work/life balance includes a disproportionate share of the life work like household chores and child/family care. It is simply not possible to be in balance all of the time (perhaps, not even if you had all the money in the world and could afford to hire people to do the housework and cooking. More money, different problems I suppose).

And it’s too easy to frame work/life imbalance as a personal failure, rather than a structural problem. There’s always too much work to do, no matter how well you’re balancing things. And organizations regularly show us they do not care and will not help.

Balance is usually portrayed in terms of peaceful Zen meditation, when in practice, it can feel like riding a bike on a tight rope while juggling balls of fire over a cavern with jagged rocks and sharks at the bottom. Yes, rocks and sharks.

stack of coffee cups precariously balanced
My issue with conceptualizations of work/life balance? They usually neglect the effort required to maintain balance, especially managing the precarity. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
My issue with conceptualizations of work/life balance? They usually neglect the effort required to maintain balance, especially managing the precarity. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Instead, I prefer to frame work/life integration in terms of negotiation and seasons. Making work and life fit together is a constant negotiation. Sometimes, it’s much easier to manage boundaries, for instance. During “regular” work weeks and non-holiday times, routines can helpfully enable balance. Other times, work is more overwhelming, and personal concerns take the backseat for awhile. And some of us may actually prefer to focus more on work, because that’s a source of fulfillment and meaning. But the practice of negotiation is rarely easy.

It helps for me to think of work and life from a seasonal perspective. As a gardener, I know the time of year dictates a lot of what I do in the garden. The winter time is quieter and there’s a lot less work to be done. Spring is terribly busy with prep and planting. Summer is a lot of maintenance, before harvesting and clean up. Because I know that certain seasons are busier than others, I know I don’t have to dedicate the same amount of time and energy to that work all year long. It’s easier to relax during the quiet times and not feel guilty. Likewise, it’s helpful to know that the crazy busy times won’t last forever.

It’s the same for my job as a professor. Mid-January and late-August, and mid-December and mid-May are wretchedly busy. The first month of school? Usually pretty calm. From mid-terms on? A sprint to finals week usually. It would make ZERO sense to try and “balance” my time the same ways all semester long because the seasons of course prep, grading, and meetings are different throughout the term.

What is important is to figure out the personal boundaries that cannot be crossed. Like, I know that even during my busiest times in the semester, if I stop exercising, I will crash and burn from stress. I HAVE to carve out even just a few minutes to take a walk around the block or when on campus, stroll to the arboretum. Exercise is a firm boundary for me.

But unlike other folks I know, I don’t have a firm “no work on weekends” rule. It’s not at all realistic considering the demands of my job. I know that my Mondays are far less stressful if I’ve gotten some prep or grading done on Saturday, so I usually do it. Because I work on Saturday, I feel no guilt about taking random Tuesdays off. That’s the negotiation that works best for me.

Of course, I’m reflecting on these boundaries after the longest semester in history, where 10 days after wrapping up finals, I’m still the most exhausted I’ve ever been. Part of the exhaustion stems from our continued pandemic circumstances. Working from home for going on two years has meant almost no boundaries between work and personal life. Accomplishing work is more challenging remotely (on every. single. level.) and less meaningful. Personal pursuits are far less fulfilling or conspicuously absent.

The realities of a pandemic where thousands of people are dying every single day, new variants crop up to re-make the rules, many people don’t seem to care, and there’s no end in sight… whew. Exhausting. There’s no “balancing” that.

So I’m trying to think about the pandemic as a long, challenging season, requiring regular, intentional negotiation. This approach aligns with a Harvard Business Review article by Ioana Lupu and Mayra Ruiz-Castro, which discusses how to assess, reprioritize, and implement boundary changes, while keeping emotions in mind. A key factor? Communicating boundaries effectively.

As we head into the new year, I’m contemplating what work/life boundaries will serve me better in what will undoubtedly be another challenging season. I already know I’ll need to let go of (okay, TRY to let go of) my keen desire to make firm plans and goals. Because I’ve seen so much effort evaporate as COVID has walloped events, I know flexible goals and plans will work much better.

Likewise, I plan to practice being more realistic in my assessment of time. As in, understanding how much time it actually takes to accomplish a given task before adding more tasks, instead of being aspirational. Limiting the sheer amount of work I take on — especially when I know that remote work takes longer and requires more effort — should help prevent my current state of exhaustion and burnout from happening again. Hopefully, anyway.

What work/life boundaries will you renegotiate in the new year?

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