What is Work-Life Balance?

What is Work-Life Balance?

I have held many jobs in my past – mail deliverer, caddy, camp counselor, metal plating factory worker, to name a few – but nothing really compares to the journey I have recently embarked upon in New York. It is not because of the time commitment, or the increased pay, or the suit I wear Mondays through Thursdays, or the fancy office building and my own business cards. No, it is because all of my previous jobs were never my primary focus – (full disclosure: working at Camp Dudley has never really felt like a job to me, even though it certainly consumed almost all of my time for almost all of my summers) – whereas this one is. I spend the majority of my waking hours at my office, I expend the most mental energy trying to learn as much as I can to get up to speed, and I structure my days around my job.

And yet, even in a repetitive, Monday through Friday, 8:45 AM to 6:00-ish PM life, I feel a new kind of freedom. I may have fewer hours to spend under my own jurisdiction, but I also do not have the constant weight of homework or studying in the back of my mind at all times. I can tune out my job the minute I leave the office in the evening, and weekends feel like real breaks.

Granted, August in New York, especially in the financial world, is pretty slow. I am sure that there will be weeks this fall where work feels more consuming than just the hours I spend in the office. And life will get in the way sometimes, too. There will be weekends that feel more like catch up instead of relaxation, and perhaps I will choose to take on additional responsibilities that also fall under the blanket of “work.” But for now, I am enjoying the new prospect of structuring my non-working hours around activities that provide balance. Exercising, writing, blogging, spending time outdoors, and meeting up with friends have all served as a punctuation mark on a normal workday to elevate it from good to great. Even just researching the plethora of NYC food offerings or stopping at a fruit stand on the way home from work are exciting ways to spend my time.

As I think about the concept of work-life balance, I am first and foremost appreciative that I have a job that allows for freedom in the evenings and on the weekends. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a job that enables balance, and others make the choice to forego that balance for other reasons. However, I am hesitant to define “work” as what happens in my office and “life” as what happens outside of it. Putting boxes around those two spaces and separating them under an implied mental framework that one is has a negative effect on balance and the other a positive is inherently problematic; it can take any potential fun or joy out of work while putting pressure on what happens outside of work to always be fulfilling. I am not yet ready to define work-life balance for myself, nor do I want to be formulaic about how I set out to achieving it. But I do know that the process will take open-mindedness, a “yes-first” attitude, and continuous reflection.

I would now like to mention a concept that I have heard of in the past but never really considered closely, and that is “flow.” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the study of what he described as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

I have come across “flow” numerous times in books and academic discussions, but thinking deeper on the concept, it would seem that achieving flow each day is critical to overall happiness, wellness, and balance. I have known for a long time that physical activity is one of the easiest ways for me to slip into the state of flow, and that is why I take so much pleasure in waking up for 5:45 AM runs or going on long, hilly bike rides around Pawling on the weekends. It is why I have trail races lined up for this fall and hope to continue playing soccer, albeit at a less intense level than at Middlebury. Other activities that induce flow include writing, fishing, and putting a little extra effort into preparing a meal (especially when it is on the grill). I found this Spring that flow happened almost instantly when I spent time in the wood shop.

All of this is to say that I do not feel any issue finding flow outside of my job at the moment. Now, as I get more comfortable in my office and more accustomed to my responsibilities, I intend to be mindful of the tasks that induce flow and which ones seem to sap my energy or feel downright monotonous. Not every duty I perform at work will lead to flow, and I am perfectly fine knowing that. What is important is that I understand which tasks will help me find flow, because I think a little bit each day will go a long way towards enjoying my working experience. And, if I am truly happy at work most of the time, the line between work and play will not seem so rigid.

Blurring the work-life dichotomy seems to me the best way to achieve work-life balance. Perhaps that makes the big picture a little muddier or more complicated, but in a positive light, I can also view it as more nuanced. I am all for keeping things simple, but when I am using my brain as much as I will be, both at work and at play, I think that a little nuance is essential. This discussion is more circular than linear and will certainly lead to more questions than answers, but working towards contentedness in the present moment is the best way to be positive as I look towards the future, and that is why it is essential.

Central Park (East), August 2017

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