Another junior doctors’ strike, another blog post from me!

My theme, however, is one that is relevant to all professionals but particularly writers of all stripes. I am talking about the mythical work-life balance.

rock-balance What is work-life balance?

This term is most commonly used when talking about the proportion of life spent on employment compared to family, hobbies and rest. It is most often applied when talking about how jobs can be all-consuming and gradually take over your entire existence, like a life-sucking parasite. Ahem.

One of the reasons the junior doctors’ contract negotiation is so emotive is the discussion of Saturday working – is Saturday a normal working day or is it special? Retail jobs, for example, mainly consider Saturday a normal working day, as do the police. Professional jobs consider Saturday a non-office day in the main, but people may be working from home. Schools and childminders definitely consider Saturday a non-working day.

Writers do not enjoy such demarcation lines. Professional writers can write any time, any place – 3am on Sunday is the same as 10am on Tuesday. Meetings, studio commitments, and play rehearsals might occupy more conventional hours, but writing is 24/7.

For writers with day jobs, we are looking at the balance of work-life-workagain. Bank holiday weekend: three days dedicated to the family, or to the novel?

This is where a broader psychological framework may be helpful in understanding how balance can be achieved.

Mastery and Pleasure
When therapists look to rebuild a life ravaged by depression or another serious illness, they look to balance from the outset. If you are starting from a wide-open schedule with nothing in it but sleep and TV, filling your days can be daunting and anxiety-provoking.

The theory goes that what makes life fulfilling is not merely the pursuit of happiness, but the balance of mastery and pleasure. In plain English – we want to feel useful and we want to enjoy ourselves. You can’t have one without the other. Having a purpose for the day is equally important to having a good time.

Doing household chores is good for you. Taking a walk is good for you. Doing only one of those things without looking to the other isn’t going to lead to satisfaction and contentment. This is why many people get antsy at the end of a holiday.

The other problem is those lines between work and leisure time are increasingly blurred. When your smartphone can fetch your email at any time, and we rarely turn the things off, when are you not at work? Am I at dinner with my husband, or am I also answering my email, Whatsapping my friends, and checking the cricket score?

The current investment in mindfulness, both in healthcare and the wider public consciousness, is partly fuelled by our need to escape distractions. The idea is very simple: be completely in the moment. The execution is very difficult, however, unless you’re a practised yogi. Focussed on breathing and your immediate environment, acknowledging but not engaging with your worries and thoughts, is a powerful experience but not a template for life.

However, principles of mindfulness can carry over well to the everyday. How about this: concentrate on one thing at a time. For example, watch TV but don’t check your phone. Eat dinner, and don’t check your phone. Talk to your partner – and don’t check your phone.

(Aside – I am terrible at this. This blog post has taken me twice as long as it should because I CAN’T STOP CHECKING MY PHONE. Reminder to us all: the “Do Not Disturb” setting exists for a reason.)

Work-life balance in practice
So, how can you improve your work-life balance?

The answer is to look at your life and be honest about what parts are necessary features and what parts of it are bringing what benefits to you.

We have to sleep and we have to eat. We have to work to pay the bills, or have some other purposeful activity in our lives. We have to spend meaningful time relating to other people. We have to do things that we enjoy. These are the building blocks of life.

Here are some simple take-home tips:

Make an activity diary: Look at a week or two and see what you’re doing with your time. Are you spending two hours on Facebook because it’s bringing you joy or because there’s nothing else to do? Did you try to work on that screenplay but were distracted by that Tweet you sent three hours ago that’s had more favourites than you can shake a stick at? Prioritise the things you want and need most.

Recognise what you enjoy: I like going out to dinner, watching my favourite TV shows, practising yoga, reading books, and taking long hot baths. These activities are restorative. Your list probably looks completely different. Recognise these activities and use them to help yourself decompress.

Invest in relationships: You don’t have to spend all your time and energy on a person to have a good connection to them. Yet the time you do put into those relationships means you can rely on that support at more fallow times.

Turn off your phone: I’m not talking about a digital detox, because I think the idea is unsustainable and unrealistic. We need to adjust to having these always-on, always-connected devices in our lives. How important is it to be able to answer your email at any time? Can you afford to put your phone on silent for two hours?

The answer is probably yes. If it isn’t, maybe your work is actually a life-sucking parasite.

How do you strive towards a work-life balance? What strategies work best for you? Is the whole idea an impossible dream? Tell me in the comments!

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