I have to fess up: I don’t always do so great with the whole “work/life balance” thing. But that’s okay– this blog is all about the joy of accepting failure. So let’s have a good laugh at a recent moment where I thought I had made significant strides. Then I take a hard look at tips to help me grow to be someone who can respect work and life.
Here’s a real conversation between me and my most trusted friend (my wife):
Me, arriving home on time for once: “Hey, I think I’m getting better at unplugging from work after the day is over.”
My wife replies, “Did you leave right after your code worked?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Then you’re not getting better, you just happened to leave once you found closure.”
Me, dumbstruck, “Wow. You’re right.”
So what did I learn there:
- I probably was doing better, though I’m not completely cured of my inability to disconnect from a busy, hectic job that I love. But I am making strides, so we have to learn to celebrate the progress we are making.
- Disconnecting takes planning and awareness. It’s not as easy as “just stop.”
- A community of trusted people is always valuable. Do your best to surround yourself with people who accept who you are, and who are making positive steps to get to where they want to be. Finding positive people like this can be hard, but there are many great Meetup.com groups that can provide helpful communities to share your failures and learnings. In my case, my wife has been invaluable in helping me become the peaceful, centered person I want to be while also loving the person that I am today. When a trusted friend tells you that you’re straying from your goals… listen to them.
Let’s specifically unpack that discovery about how disconnecting takes work. Buddhist literature often uses the word “practice” because the skill of mindfulness requires repeated attempts and work in the same way it takes practice to become proficient at any other skill.
If you’re like me, then you’re still gaining proficiency in your work/life balance skill. Trust me, I get how hard it is to leave when you finally get into that groove of getting tons of stuff done and feeling empowered. There have been plenty of times (more than I wish) when I was already 30 minutes late for dinner, but my brain told me, “Don’t stop. Solve one more problem. You’ll feel great!” But I can say from experience that pushing through is almost always the worst idea. We programmers often joke that the moment you open up the next task is when you’ve doomed yourself to think about that new puzzle all night long.
Okay, so we’ve established that stopping is hard, but what if I told you that there were techniques to help you, and that with time it would become easier?
Tip #1: Force yourself to walk away by drinking too much water.
Yes, I’m asking you to pee a lot. It’s an old trick that my music recording professor taught me. If you drink lots of water then you’ll have no choice but to get up occasionally. And often times the act of getting up can give you a new idea on how to better solve a problem or the insight to quit for the day.
Tip #2: Have gratitude for what you’ve already accomplished.
If you can pause and remind yourself of all that you have completed, then you prevent yourself from focusing too much on what you haven’t completed. This basic act of self-care is so important to the skill of mindfulness. You showed up, you worked hard, and you cared. Those facts alone means that you should be proud to go home. This practice of self-love can make the difference between being stuck in your head all night versus being present with your friends and family.
Tip #3: Leave while it’s broken.
I know how hard this one is to swallow, but if you allow yourself to only leave once a task is fully complete you will always be staying at work late. Instead:
- Write an email to yourself with notes so when you come back you’ll feel prepared to pick it back up again. Plus, sometimes the act of writing out your ideas on how you might solve the problem can help prevent your mind from revisiting the same thoughts over and over again.
- Pro tip: Notes are great but I once overheard a fellow developer say, “purposely break your code in the spot that needs work. Go home and when you come in you’ll know exactly where you left off.” All occupations probably have some way of leaving a starting point for your tomorrow self. I imagine a contractor could leave a tool or a material in an obvious spot as a sign to pick up at that spot tomorrow. It’s like a heavy, obtrusive bookmark so you can’t ignore what page you were on. Since it will be impossible to ignore where you left off, you’ve given your brain the gift of being able to let go of that mental thread.
- Quietly tell yourself: “The work will get done eventually. There will always be more work. But all I have is this moment.” We rarely take the time to care for ourselves– especially when we want to run really fast so we can get a promotion or a raise. But the truth is that you will only succeed at work if you treat it like a marathon. You have to pace yourself or otherwise will pass out before the final lap. Often times the only way to stop yourself from sprinting is to leave a little bit of the assignment for tomorrow.
Tip #4: Accept that your mind will continue to return to thoughts of work.
So am I practicing the above techniques? Yes.
Am I still obsessing about my craft after work hours? Yes, of course.
And that’s okay, because I am human and we can’t escape our biology. But what if focusing more on our biological condition allowed you to improve more? We all have to breath, right?
I love this quote about the power of breathing and how meditation should include forgiveness about stray thoughts. If you approach meditation from this perspective, you’ll be more likely to continue doing it.
“When a feeling or thought arises, your intention should not be to chase it away, even if by continuing to concentrate on the breath the feeling or thought passes naturally from the mind. The intention isn’t to chase it away, hate it, worry about it, or be frightened by it. So what exactly should you be doing concerning such thoughts and feelings? Simply acknowledge their presence.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
When he’s referring to breath, it’s part of a goal to remind yourself of the truth that you are not simply a brain in a jar that happens to be moved around by a body. You are your body as well. So consciously breathing helps you to calm your whole self.
Breathing is one of the easiest meditation practices available to us. And you can do it anywhere, anytime! I like to do a micro-meditation when I change my standing desk from sitting to standing. (Yes, I know I’m very lucky to have a standing desk.) While I wait for the desk to rise, I have 10 seconds with no excuses but to quiet my mind. Another great time for quieting your mind is on that long commute. When you get the chance, breathe in deeply while thinking something good about yourself. Breath out while thinking that you’re forgiving yourself for something. Keep doing that and you’ll find you’re focusing more on breath than on rapid thoughts. But if a thought does come up, it might tell you something incredibly clear, like “why am I so afraid to just go home?” If your brain gives you the gift of that truth, then you’ve gotten something wonderful out of the breathing meditation… so now it’s time to listen and GO HOME.
These tips might help you, but like I mentioned in the story with my wife… you might not always be great at respecting work life balance. And that’s okay– we’re all a work-in-progress. Take pride in the fact that you are doing the work of improving yourself and that you’re loving yourself enough to take care of your needs. Remember, the goal isn’t to fix yourself. You won’t “become better.” We don’t care that you were late to get home, and we don’t care that you might be late to dinner tomorrow. You only need to be better in this present moment.