What immediately came to my mind is the often elusive and arguably irrelevant concept of ‘work-life balance’. This is no surprise given I’ve only recently returned from a six-month traveling sabbatical.
I’ve tossed and turned about how I think and feel about this concept for years. At first glance, the concept of work-life balance seems reasonable and its simplicity is appealing. Go a little deeper and the advice you’ll find is a minefield, particularly in relation to achieving this state of looking like you have your sh*t together. Try to put strategies in place, all well-meaning in the pursuit of work-life balance, until you realise they’re not realistic nor sustainable over the long term. Life happens. Priorities shift. Stuff has to be done.
‘Balance’ is not constant
The first issue with the concept of ‘work-life balance’ is that it, and the advice that surrounds it, implies a constant state of all life things being balanced, usually in a physical (time) sense, and this balance is maintained consistently over time. This, in reality, is absolute bollocks. The main reason for this is priorities. Another reason is opportunities and for the most part, our little control over them of when they appear.
Nowadays, I like to think about work-life balance as a life of ‘seasons’. This way of thinking doesn’t put ‘work-life balance’ up on a pedestal, but embraces different ‘seasons’ in life, or periods where the work-life balance scales are tipped a little, or a lot, in either direction – work or life. Self-awareness plays an integral role in determining one’s priorities at any given time, season or stage in life.
Over the last five to seven years, building a career has been a priority in my life. I accept this as a ‘season’. This priority was right for me at the time. Going into my next five years, I see the scales tipping back in favour of ‘life’. No less committed to my work within the time and mind ‘space’ I give it going forward. But this does mean I need to work smarter and be more strategic with my professional development and industry engagement than I have in the past.
‘Balance’ is more than time
The second issue with the concept of ‘work-life balance’ is that it implies examining the way we use our time. This also has had me stumped in recent years as I’ve slowly come to terms with the loss of my Mum. Time I had, for extra commitments whether these be work or otherwise. Capacity, I did not. This realisation was a huge shift for me to grasp, that not only does work AND life require time, they also require mental and emotional capacity. And not all things in life are created equal with regards to all three – time, brainpower and emotional stamina. Some commitments take up time, but don’t require much brainpower. Other commitments take up both time and brainpower. And then there are those almost invisible commitments (eg. not on a calendar) such as going through a rough time, that require emotional presence and time to work through it.
Working out these things, which commitments take up this or that amount of time, mental and emotional space takes time and a bit of trial and error. Again, this comes down to developing self-awareness. Thinking about ‘work-life balance’ as having ‘capacity’ or ‘space’ has provided me with a more holistic viewpoint from which I can make decisions about my commitments based on what I have on my plate. This re-think of what ‘balance’ means helps to see this concept in a more flexible and relevant way.
‘Balance’ is almost irrelevant to today’s ways of working
The third issue I have with the concept of ‘work-life balance’ is that it is not entirely (or arguably, remotely) relevant to our ways of working these days. Remote working and working from home blur the lines between work and life. And this blurring of lines is also a key feature of being a library and information science professional. Both our personal and professional values are rooted in having a sense of responsibility to serve and care for our communities, AND we value and exhibit ourselves as life-long learners. What we care about and do in our ‘life’ part influences and/or impacts on our work, and vice versa. It is this key feature of being a LIS professional that places us in danger of overloading ourselves at the detriment of our overall well-being.
We are a passionate bunch and we are in a privileged position to love what we do. This is beautiful but it is also a risk. We cannot be our best selves to others and our communities if we are sh*t out of steam. This also makes the concept of ‘work-life balance’ irrelevant and simply unattainable. But, what the concept does do is remind us that we have different parts of ourselves and areas of our lives that we need to embrace and attend to, in order to keep well.
You are more than your work
My recent sabbatical has helped me to embrace the other parts of my self, outside of library world, and my work as a LIS professional. Not working for six months was probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. But I have come out the other side with an identity of a whole person and not just who I am as an LIS professional.
I realised something else while journaling the other night – work-life balance is achieved when your work self is offset by your life self. That is, that I don’t just come home or finish a day’s work to plonk myself on the couch to mindlessly watch TV. Doing that occasionally is tiredness. Doing that consistently is burnout.
‘Balance’ is when I come home and still have enough energy and ‘capacity’ left to be a wife, a friend, a sister, etc and do other things I love, like hosting family and friends at my place, writing, reading and barre classes. Doing these other things, other life stuff brings me joy. Keeping well and balanced helps me to do things well, be the best I can be, and not end up being almost resentful of the things I bring upon myself. ‘Balance’ is also about being present, mindful and intentional with everything you do.
So, what does my ranting and raving about ‘work-life balance’ mean?
We need to accept that life happens. We have control over some things, and little to none over others. Life occurs in ‘seasons’ when either work or life tips the ‘balance’ scales. This is okay, as long as it aligns with your priorities at the time. Everyone’s priorities are going to be different at any given time, and that’s okay too. What I’ve come to realise over the years of building a career, and starting to transition into ‘mid-career’, is that self-awareness is invaluable to achieving all you want to achieve in this life and understanding when you’re able to devote the necessary capacity to do so. I don’t like doing things half-arsed, and neither should you.
To new information professionals, my advice is by all means, say ‘yes’ to opportunities that come your way. Learn all that you can. Accept that doing the degree and these early years are a ‘season’ in your life. But take a breather every now and then. You deserve it. A career isn’t build in a day, a week, a month or even a year. There is plenty of time. Ensure that you reserve ‘capacity’ for things that offset your work and professional self. Even in some small way. Hang on to them because they will help keep you sane and focused on the bigger picture that is life.
The state of keeping a balance is not constant. Nor is it attainable or desirable, I think. A more realistic view of work-life balance is that we move through it, in and out, constantly throughout our lives.