Over the past year, I’ve gone through an interesting unscientific experiment in work/life balance: nine months in which almost every waking moment was consumed with work or school due to my conference interpreting graduate program, (during which I continued working part-time), and then two months of a pretty laid-back schedule while I waited for my interpreting exit exam results and took some vacation.
I live in Boulder, Colorado, sort of a work/life balance laboratory: we’re sometimes classified as both the best-educated small metro area in the US, and as the fittest city in the US. Whether you want to call that work/life balance or “work hard/play hard,” it makes for an interesting environment. When my family relocated here from Boston 18 years ago, I had to train myself to ask, “What are your interests?” or “What do you like to do in life?” as an icebreaker cocktail party question, rather than, “What do you do for work?” because many people are more defined by their non-work interests than by their careers.
Surviving a year with no work/life balance
During my grad school year, my sanity strategy was simply to accept the lack of balance and do what I could to cope with it. Most days I would arrive at my office in time for an 8 AM class (meaning I got up around 6:30), stay at the office for class and work until around 6 PM with maybe a 30 minute break in the middle of the day, then put in at least an hour of studying or working after dinner. I made a point of taking at least one full day a week off; on “screen-free Saturdays,” my husband and I went mountain biking, hiking, or skiing for most of the day. But I often put in three to five hours of school or work time on Sundays. I’d estimate that I probably allocated at least 55 hours to school and work in a typical week. Some coping strategies that really helped me:
- Meditating. I’ve mediated for 10-15 minutes pretty much every weekday since December, and it’s made a huge difference in my ability to cope with stress.
- Admitting defeat in certain areas. I like to eat real food for lunch, and I started out with an ambitious idea that on Sunday nights, I was going to make large batches of a couple of different dishes and then pre-pack my lunches for the week. Dream on! That happened maybe twice, and the other alternative was spending way too much money (since I paid my grad school tuition in cash and was working less) on eating out. So I compromised on prepared food. I became good friends with Tasty Bite pre-made curries and precooked rice, and I’m not sure I will ever be able to consume Madras Lentils without thinking back on my pandemic grad school year.
- Giving myself total veg-out time. I’m not much of a veg-out person. I always say that one thing I’m terrible at is doing nothing. But this year, I found that sometimes I just needed to lay in our backyard hammock and listen to podcasts for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, or allocate part of the weekend as simply “recharge time” where I didn’t have any particular plans.
Now that I’m out the other side
A few observations from the other side of a year with pretty much no work/life balance. After I took my Master’s exams at the beginning of June, I forced myself to slow down significantly. After several months of doing interpreting practice multiple hours a day, I told myself that it was OK to take a break until I received my exam results (a month later). I also planned a two-week trip to Europe where the only work I did was to periodically check e-mail, so in total I had the better part of six weeks with very little stress. I did a bunch of translation work in June, but I haven’t worked in the evenings or on weekends since May, and I’ve been working more like 35 hours a week rather than 55. A few thoughts on that:
- Particularly in the US, I just think that a lot of us are simply trying to put 10 pounds of flour in a five-pound bag, as my grandmother used to say. We think that the work/life balance problem is us: we have poor time management skills, we don’t plan ahead enough, we need too much downtime. When in reality, we’re just trying to do too much, and particularly trying to work too much.
- You can’t do multiple things full-time and be good at all of them. You just can’t. Now that I’m also out the other side of parenting (of course “mom” will always be my favorite job, but now that my daughter is almost 19 and living on her own, the day-to-day work has slowed down a lot!), I can see that lots of freelancing parents are really asking, “How can I work 12 hours a day and still be there for every moment of my kids’ lives?” You can’t. You just simply cannot. And trying to do that is a recipe for exhaustion, feeling like a failure, and not doing a good job either at work or at home.
- Sometimes the answer is simply to work less. By many measures, the US is the most overworked developed country in the world. I personally find that when “life” builds up, I start to feel stressed at work as well. The house is a mess, the laundry is overflowing, there’s no food in the fridge, the car needs an oil change, we need to get estimates on a new roof, etc. etc. etc. and all of a sudden I’m having a hard time concentrating at work. The answer, for me at least, is to take some time off work to manage those things so that they don’t get out of control in the first place, which means working less.
- Weirdly enough, I think that one of the biggest keys to work/life balance as a freelancer is to be honest with yourself about how much you need to charge in order to meet your financial goals, then assertively market to clients who will pay those rates. One of the most common work/life balance laments I hear from freelancers is, “I know I’m burning out and I would love to work less, but I can’t afford to.” For many people in that category, I think that the problem is often one of two things: a) denial/lack of knowledge about how much they need to earn as a freelancer in order to meet their financial goals, or b) sticking with clients that don’t pay enough to meet their financial goals.
My pandemic grad school year taught me a couple of things: it’s possible to survive a defined period of time with very little work/life balance, and in order to get your work/life balance back, you probably don’t need to streamline, you just need to work less! Readers, any thoughts on this?