Even though I don’t have kids, September always arrives with that sparkly back-to-school feeling. As my relaxed summer schedule of less teaching and fewer contracts winds down, I wonder about the new work year ahead. What will I learn? What cool projects will come my way? Will I inch any closer to the holy grail of work-life balance?
That last question is top of mind for me this September. Somehow, over the past couple of years, I managed to forget everything I’d learned about burnout in my thirties, when I once toiled for 36 days without a day off—and thought it was a good thing. My workdays brim with tasks. My to-do list is an amoeba, spawning multiple lists. I’m spending more time on uninspiring (not to mention unpaid) admin work, including email. I finish too many days feeling wrung out, unproductive, and cranky.
This summer, I decided something had to change. I took three weeks off—a brilliant start, and one I highly recommend—and spent some time reading and thinking about busyness, priorities, happiness, and balance. The result? Five resolutions for the new work year.
- Be a time realist. The source of my stress, I’ve realized, is that I’m a time optimist. Every day I set myself a ridiculous number of tasks. At the end of the day, if I haven’t done them all, I beat myself up. Guess what? I beat myself up all the time. It’s time to accept what I can realistically do in a given day, do it, then say “good for you” instead of dwelling on what I didn’t tackle.
- Work like a Dane. Brigid Schulte, in her book Overwhelmed, and Helen Russell, in The Year of Living Danishly, both gush about work-life balance in Denmark, a country renowned for its happy citizens. The average Dane works 34–37 hours a week, which frees up a lot of time for family, friends, hobbies, and self-care. How do they do it? When the Danes work, they work. The goal is to get the job done, the sooner the better. Logging extra hours doesn’t earn you kudos in Denmark—it gets you chided for poor time management skills. How’s that for upending North American ideals of work?
- Schedule every day. Publication coach Daphne Gray-Grant says the best way to accomplish lots without feeling stressed is to divide the workday into timed segments and slot tasks into each. For example, today I scheduled 8:30–9:30 a.m. for email and related follow-up, including reviewing a long contract and finalizing meeting arrangements. Then I went to the gym. I have from 11:00 a.m. to noon to write a rough draft of this blog post and do another email check. The afternoon is carved into similar time slots, each filled with a realistic number of tasks. This approach, which I’ve tried for a few weeks now, is extremely effective. It’s also hard. My favourite part of being my own boss is doing what I want, when I want. But indulging my preferences, I’ve realized, comes at a price: the less appealing tasks linger forever. Gray-Grant recommends scheduling your most demanding jobs first. Get them out of the way and move on.
- Make time for fun. This one should be a no-brainer, right? Wrong. I can be so ruled by my to-do list that I go for weeks (if not months) without doing some of the things I most enjoy, like going to the movies, taking a solo hike, or listening to new music. Meanwhile, I spend too much time on activities that others find fun but I don’t (Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project opened my eyes to the distinction). Delaying gratification has its benefits—it helps you achieve goals and basically get stuff done—but as a perpetual practice, it sucks the juice out of life. Every day, I’ve decided, needs some element of fun. My last scheduled item today is “swim in the ocean.”
- Stay in charge. Other WCEA partners have written thoughtful posts about removing “too busy” from your vocabulary and getting off the busyness train. I need to heed them and remind myself that I am in charge of my time. If I’m “too busy” to go kayaking or work on my novel or buy new underwear, it’s not because the time isn’t there. It’s because I’ve chosen not to spend time on those things.
This last resolution, I’m pretty sure, is the key to keeping the first four. Back in my twenties, I became my own boss for a reason. I like being in charge of my time, being the author of my days. In true author style, I’ll start this new work year with a rewrite. This will be the year of life-work balance. It’s time to put life first.