No one else can tell you how to live your life or navigate the choices. I have learnt the hard way, by causing myself chronic pain and burn out, that work-life balance is a unique and ever-changing perception on the appropriate compromise.  In an always-on work culture,  we are responsible for deciding when to stop work, spilling over into life and when to fully embrace its challenges; knowing when to integrate the two and when to compartmentalize them. The balance continues when I recognize this is a constant practice about how to weigh out all of the competing demands on my time and learning from my mistakes in the past.

Reaching my limits of chronic pain and burn out

When I started my career change business, I worked 12 hours plus, six or seven days a week because I enjoyed what I did, was helping other people with something I cared about deeply and needed to be successful in the eyes of others. With all these motivators and when everything was going well, I got a huge energy boost and juggled multiple deadlines just fine. After a successful day at work, I felt great and was ready to do it the next day. There was no compromise as I built something I really cared about that helped other people.

The problems came when things got tough and the challenges mounted on the business. On top of this, a niggling neck pain developed into a chronic problem driving me to distraction. Slowly I got more tired, made more mistakes, and lost confidence in my decision making. It took me longer and longer to get things done.  I was having far more lows than highs as negative automatic thoughtsstarting taking over. As soon as the next project ended, I took a week off that turned into a month-long recovery.

The trade-offs we make between work and life

I had the arrogance to think that I would be in that small percentage of people whocan deal with a lack of sleep and excessive stress levels.

Balanceis not about working less hard or making compromises but about maintaining my energy. I’ve now realised that when I’m energized I’m able to work really hard. I also know the importance of recovery and respite when under stress. At a deeper level,  I've committed to the fact that my health is more important than my work, and to build the routines to make that a daily reality.

Yet it’s not an either-or - it’s a balance to be struck constantly. We underestimate the importance of taking time out so that we can keep pushing for what we've already decided we want. We're always trying to weigh up what really matters which often creates major dilemmas. Do the following sound familiar ? I’m continuing to live all of these trade-offs:

  • Money versus your life(especially for long-hour, stressful jobs)
  • "Work should be hard and challenging" versus "work should be fun"
  • Work-life compartmentalisation versus work-life integration
  • Helping those in most need versus helping my bank balance
  • Pure challenge versus lifestyle career

Happy and Meaningful Experiences

Like most people, sometimes I spend more time in experiences where I feel happy ((as in immediate pleasure, not long-term satisfaction) , and at another time in experiences where I feel that I’m doing something meaningful - that is, worthwhile, fulfilling and purpose-driven.

At the most basic level, the meaning of work is to support the richness of our life outside of work. But for the money, we probably wouldn’t be there.  When work isn’t making us happy,  making enough money is a trade off we can live with.

 However, meaning at work has been rarely just about the money we earn, but perhaps more about achieving something important, helping other people and being part of something bigger than ourselves. I’ve experienced all these lofty aspirationsat one time or another, and it’s great; without that sense of purpose, I lose my way, and become demotivated. Many studies have shown that when people are contributing to a higher purpose, they are likely to have a healthier outlook on life and be more resilient to stress.

A pendulum swinging

The important question I ask now is what is the right balance between happy and meaningful experiences. For example most research indicates that parents are more unhappy most of the time than people without children. However these same parents reflecting ontheir life would comment that having children has been the most important and meaningful activity they've engaged in. You can think of this as a pendulum, which swings back and forth between experiences. Some are more happy than meaningful, somemore meaningful than happy. This will happen throughout your life. The middle reflects an equal balance of happy andmeaningful experiences.

 The key is looking for some expression of balance and proportionality without imagining that there is some perfect symmetry or balance between all the areas in your life. It’s unlikely that these areas will ever be in balance perfectly. But when life is really out of balance for too long, that’s when there can be a problem.

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Setting limits in advance

I’ve now learned from past experience what my limits are. It's all too easy to slip back into bad habits so what helps me is to write those limits down in advance. It always helps to have accountability from others about this too. This is the checklist I do in my career planning every year to make sure that I’m going in the right direction:

  • I spend enough time each week ________ on the things that are important to me and make me physically healthy, happy, and not too stressed outside of work
  • In terms of annual compensation, the absolute minimum I will accept to fit with my lifestyle and my goals of life outside of work is ______________
  • I’ll be entitled to ________ paid vacation days per year
  • I’ll usually be working _____ hours a week and the absolute maximum I will work in busy periods (of say a month) to maintain my family, social life and hobbies is ____
  • At stressful times that do impact my health and well being, they don’t happen more often than ________ every month and they don’t have a long-term impact.

Alarm bells now start ringing when I go way out of line with these things. And I’ve now got a much better perspective to focus on the essential and limit everything else.

You’re the only expert on you

All too often I thought that making change happen means I have to quit my job, live off my savings and make radical changes, but I've learned there is a different way. I can get a better balance by building in the right practices that help me make small acts of commitment every day. It is a fine balance to weigh up all of life’s competing opportunities and demands - to focus on the essential and limit everything else. As I said at the start of this piece, no one else can tell you how to live your life or navigate your choices. We all have to build our own routines to make life and work fit for our unique situation.

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Martin Underwood is the Head of Career Strategy at Life Productions, helping lawyers and other professionals find a better career fit and take practical action through advice, courses and networking.