In 2020 the world at large had their lives unexpectedly shaken up and while this was different for everyone, my own particular snow globe moment was instrumental in me addressing my work life balance and becoming a virtual assistant.
To be honest, the whole traditional working thing was beginning to lose its lustre some time before 2020 — waiting for buses that didn’t show up, leaving for work in the dark and returning home in the dark, sitting in traffic jams, looking out the office window at a beautiful day (if the office actually had a window that is) and not being able to make the most of it, office politics and other silliness.
Then there was my health. In 1998 I was diagnosed along with my father, with a rare neuromuscular condition called centronuclear myopathy and while I am considered to be mildly affected in the world of centronuclear myopathies, it is a slowly progressive condition. Standing and using stairs is painful and I suffer with muscle fatigue, meaning I tire easily. I have learned that military precision planning is key to me being able to manage and have developed coping mechanisms for dealing with my condition, such as using tables, doors and filing cabinets to support me when standing but when these things are not easily within reach and there is nothing around to lean on, the effort that goes into trying to hide my condition from the world is huge and can be incredibly stressful. I was tired of the masquerade, it was exhausting and I wanted to find a way to live my life on my own terms.
I have always known my condition would likely mean I would need to retire early or reduce my hours, which brings with it worries about pensions and future planning. However if I could change my work life balance, it opened up the possibility of being able to work more hours than I thought I could, work into later life and to work, as they say ‘smarter not harder’. And one of the best things about working at home is I don’t have to explain myself to people as much, for instance why I am getting a taxi to and from work, why I am using the lift instead of the stairs, why I speak so quietly (the voice is a muscle and people with muscle conditions are often quietly spoken.) At home, I can just work and not be judged on anything other than the work I do.
So, the remote working lifestyle has many benefits, however, it isn’t perfect. Spending all day working from home can take its toll. There is a lot of time spent within the same four walls, you can go days without speaking to anyone in person and it can be difficult to draw boundaries between work and home. So below are some things I have learned to help address this. Maybe they will help you too.
First things first – what do you want to change?
If your work life balance doesn’t feel right, start by thinking about what you don’t like about it.
- What would you like to have more time for.
- What do you feel you are missing out on.
- How do you want things to change.
- How do you think you might go about changing things.
There are only so many hours in a day and I am trying to teach myself that if a job doesn’t get done on a planned day, it is okay to move it to the next day, week or month. A task takes as long as it takes. I am trying to train myself not to beat myself up about how long it takes to do things and also to un-do my belief that I need to do everything the minute it lands on my desk or in my inbox. I also recognise there are days when it feels as if there is an invisible force that doesn’t want me to do things and I am learning that on those days, it is fine to down tools, take some time out and return to the task another day, when I will most likely do it in significantly less time than had I tried to push on through with it the first time I tried. Finally, I am making a real effort to make time for me, rather than leaving me until last or not considering my needs at all.
Leave work at work
This one is so much easier said than done but when you are not working, don’t work. It is fine not to work in the evening and over the weekend. If you need to be contactable or feel you must check your email outside of your working hours then set some boundaries so you are not available 24 hours a day. Replying outside of working hours will set a precedent and if you do this at the start of a work relationship it will always be expected that you will do this and you will always feel obliged to do this. Think Harry Burns in ‘When Harry Met Sally’ and you will get the idea.
Harry Burns: You take someone to the airport, its clearly the beginning of the relationship. That’s why I have never taken anyone to the airport at the beginning of a relationship.
Sally Albright: Why?
Harry Burns: Because eventually things move on and you don’t take someone to the airport and I never wanted anyone to say to me, ‘how come you never take me to the airport anymore?’
Sally Albright: It’s amazing. You look like a normal person but actually you are the angel of death.
So, if needed, set an out of office or add a line to your email signature explaining when you are contactable and when you are not. If work still plays on your mind after you have logged off, I have found a useful technique is to use the last few minutes of my day to write a ‘to do’ list for the next day, this gets work out of my head and down on to paper and enables me to switch off easier.
When you work from home, try to work in a different area of your home to where you relax, this also helps to keep things separate. And when you get dressed in the morning, make sure you look presentable even if you don’t need to see anyone that day — it will help you feel more focused on work and again wearing work clothes for work will provide a distinction between your work and home life. At the end of your working day, do something completely different so your brain knows that work has ended — this might be going for a walk or listening to music. In my case I head out into my garden to clear my head, to dead head things and pot things up, which makes both me and the garden happy.
Working long hours does not make you more productive. Research has shown our brains can only focus for so long before our concentration begins to wane, so regular breaks actually help you get more done. Breaking for lunch is also important. Whether at home or in the office, it can be useful time to catch up on chores, keep in touch with family and friends or simply have some time to relax or process what you have done during the day so far.
Learn to say no
Saying yes to everything is a sure fire way to burnout. Practice saying ‘I am sorry, I would love to help but I have got too much on at the moment’ or ‘I can do that for you but I will have to drop ….’ In the past I have been guilty of taking on too much work, causing me to feel overwhelmed and it doesn’t help anyone.
Ask for help
No one likes asking for help because they do not want to bother others or are fearful it will look like they cannot cope but it is important to let people know if you are struggling. If you are employed try letting your manager know if you feel your work life balance is not right. They may not be aware of everything you have on your to do list, or your commitments outside of work and people also have different stress levels, so they won’t necessarily realise that things have become an issue for you unless you tell them.
And The Eisenhower Principle is a useful technique you can use to help yourself. The principle suggests splitting tasks into two.
- Important tasks that have an outcome that will lead you to achieving your goals.
- Urgent activities that demand immediate attention but usually lead to achieving someone else’s goals.
Figuring out which activities are important and which are urgent, will help you overcome the tendency to focus on the urgent activities, make time to do what is essential to achieve your own goals and move away from the feeling that you are constantly firefighting.
Be kind to yourself
Investing in yourself by eating well, not skipping meals, getting enough sleep, maintaining relationships with friends and family, exercising and pursuing your hobbies is as important as work and will help you re-charge, which in turn will enable you to get more done and cope better in the long run. What would you add to this list? Your work life balance will never be perfect and as your circumstances change, so will your work life balance but be kind to yourself always and keep trying the strategies above to find what works best for you.
Further information and sources
- BBC Future: Why it’s wrong to look at work-life balance as an achievement
- GQ: ‘Quiet quitting’ is TikTok’s answer to grind culture, but it’s not what you think
- Mental Health Foundation: Work-life balance
- MindTools: Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle
- The Conversation: Work-life balance – what really makes us happy might surprise you
- Working Families: National Work Life Week
- Action For Happiness
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