by Cate Bradley, PhD
Just as I was headed out for a day of joy-riding and hiking in the Sacramento mountains in south central New Mexico, the check engine light on my van went on. Being two and half hours from the nearest car dealership and a day away from the end of my brief and spectacular get away from Silver City, I thought it unwise to push forward with my plan for continued travel. Instead, I turned around and spent the day wandering the deeply beautiful acres of my friends’ property on foot. What unfolded was a magical day of slowing down to see the smaller scale of life. This article is an offering about work/life balance and looking at what is really right in front of you.
When my plans were foiled, I had a chance to switch from driving at 30-65 miles per hour on windy mountain roads, to walking along the banks of the Rio Hondo and poking around the overgrown pastures to see what kinds of plants grow when the mower doesn’t level everything. As I walked, I felt myself slip into that relaxing state of awe, of noticing, of appreciating and of gratitude. And then I did it all over again to see what I had missed on the first pass. Not surprisingly, I noticed more things. The same thing happened on the third and fourth pass. The saying goes “not all who wander are lost”. In fact, I was feeling delightful reconnections with myself, my inner pace, my sense of wonder, my passion for pattern-spotting in nature, and my applied knowledge of land management, especially within a riparian area. I got to totally geek out and I was in bliss.
When COVID quarantine happened in March 2020, I thought it was THE pause we all needed to stop the frantic pace of work and life. With full sensitivities to the harsh impact COVID has dealt to many, I saw the pause as a silver lining. I also thought we would all take note and come back to a more manageable pace when re-entry occurred. As the vaccine became more widely available and the reentry began, it felt to me like we were shot out of a cannon. Not at all the gentle re-entry I had envisioned.
What I’ve noticed since the summer of 2021 is that the pace seems even faster than prior to quarantine and people are trying to keep up with some phantom urgency, even as the recalibrations of “the new normal” are still being calculated and considered. This is not sustainable. It is not healthy, it is not rational, it is not gentle, kind or loving. It is harsh and unnecessary. I’m signing up for the work/life adoption plan, and I want to encourage you to do the same. My Connected Realities teammate, Sara Rose Tannenbaum, is my model. I’ve talked about the work/life balance, but she is carving a path to live it.
What work/life balance looks like is pretty simple, but it requires clear focus and determination to not be distracted by an endless stream of tasks competing for our attention. It might mean a 4-day work week . It does not mean cramming 60 hours of work into 4 or 5 days. It means being realistic about what can be accomplished within your desired work time. And it means establishing habits and protocols that allow for reliable spans of uninterrupted time to “get stuff done”. It also means setting boundaries with self and others to not operate in crisis mode all the time. To not be distracted by false urgencies or other peoples’ needs. It requires being flexible and cooperative without being derailed from our tasks and able to stay focused on our values.
Work/life balance requires being honest with self and others about what you can actually take on and accomplish within the agreed upon deadline. This means estimating time well and being accountable for what you say you will do, and honoring the role of your contribution to the overall outcome of a project. In this way, over-promising can be avoided, and so can burn out and mistrust by others because your missed deadline makes their life more stressful.
Work/life balance also means that your days off are your days off - no guilt about the work you are not doing. They are for you to decide how you really want to spend your time, and what you really want to manifest that reflects who you are and what you value. It means that when the “check engine light of life” comes on, you have some space to breathe into it rather than react to it or panic. It means you have the option to slow down and wander, if you choose
Achieving a healthy work/life balance that is aligned with your vision and your values for your life will take some significant behavior modification and self-reflection, so it won’t happen all at once. Be gentle in this process, as the author and filmmaker Valarie Kaur invites us to become a “warrior sage”. If you decide to consider the adoption plan, here are some steps to wade in and achieve the life modifications you seek.
First, get to know yourself through the fundamental self-help steps of rest, exercise, water, and good nutrition. Become a diagnostician. A check engine light coming on is a good time to do a full system scan to discover what is going on. When I am out of sorts or out of balance, I check under the hood here first. If you don’t know what to look for in these diagnostic steps, there are guidebooks a plenty or professionals to help you. If you do know what these tools are and you still stay up too late, sit on the couch binging on a screen or eating comfort food that renders your clothes uncomfortable – it might be time to talk to yourself, a friend, or a therapist. You don’t have to go into the deep dark holes, you just need some reflection on what you are not seeing.
Second, get to know yourself better. “To thine own self be true”, that’s Shakespeare, and it gets right to the heart of clarifying what you really want, need, and value? Any time spent considering these questions will pay you back 10-fold in quality-of-life satisfactions. Again, a friend and/or therapist can be a sounding board so you can hear what you think. It’s amazing to me how much the chatter of my mind can obscure the truth of my heart and soul.
Third, practice communicating clearly. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. If you need something, ask for it. If you have a boundary, hold it. If you need to say no, mean it. If you choose to say yes, honor it. Over-promising is codependency run amuck and it really messes with relationships. Knowing what you want and what you can actually do, and communicating that, is a generous investment in yourself and your community – however you define that. By modeling this you can inspire others to do the same.
Fourth, practice, practice, practice how to stick the landing. None of this is or will be easy. We have been nearly hardwired to over-work and to doubt ourselves. Over-working has NEVER been the antidote to self-doubt. Don’t fall for that lie any more. Slow down enough to find your true belief system. One that supports you and honors that you are valuable, unique, contributing, and fun/interesting to be around.
Be you. We need you.
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