Stepping off the Scale: Rethinking the Idea of Work-Life Balance

Stepping off the Scale: Rethinking the Idea of Work-Life Balance
Tom Armbrecht, PhD August 31, 2018

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Editor’s note: In today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world, we’re able to work almost anywhere at any time. But how does being so connected affect our lives and the way we view work-life balance? Here to share his insight and expertise is Tom Armbrecht, PhD, a former professor of French studies who is now an online learning architect. 

As technology and cultural norms make work ever more invasive in our lives, many people struggle to find a balance between their jobs and their lives. Achieving equilibrium between the two may not be the best way to manage work’s place in your life, however. As its etymology reveals, “balance” comes from the Latin word bilancia, meaning “having two scale pans,” like those the Roman goddess Justitia holds. As an image for a just relationship between work and life, a balanced scale implies that they hold the same weight or importance. Personally, I view work as part of my life, not as a separate aspect, and therefore have problems with the very premise of the comparison.

Even if there is “work” and there is “life,” I am not sure that parity is the ideal relationship between them. I find it more useful to view work as a puzzle piece that contributes to an overall picture that can only be fully realized when each aspect of life is pieced together.

Analyzing work habits

Instead of thinking about my job as something to be measured against the rest of my being, I try to make it correspond with my responsibilities and desires. To understand how work fits into your life, you must first know when and how long you are actually working.

I recommend a practice that I call “chronophagia” (from Ancient Greek; literally, “time eating”). Chronophagia involves keeping track of how you spend time in half-hour increments. A spreadsheet or calendaring program can be helpful for recording what you do during the day. Google Sheets has a very useful template available called “Schedule.” This type of accounting is helpful whenever you’re having problems getting things done, or when you’re feeling as though you have no time for yourself.

To make this exercise work, you have to be not only honest with yourself but also self-aware and diligent at recordkeeping. Although you might see this activity as one more thing to do, getting a concrete idea of how you spend your time over the course of a week or two is worth the effort. It can reveal the place work occupies in your life.

Here is an example of how I spent a week as a professor when I used to teach.

professor's schedule for one week

After learning how I used my time, two things surprised me:

  1. I was working more than I thought, but not much more than an average, full-time work week.
  2. My work was confined to surprisingly traditional hours, even though it didn’t feel that way.

This information led to two meaningful realizations:

  1. I wasn’t slacking off, even if I felt I wasn’t doing enough.
  2. The emotional space that work was occupying in my life was greater than the actual time I spent doing it.

Understanding how emotions impact work habits

The emotional invasiveness of my job was largely due to the guilt I felt regarding how I spent my time. I ascribe this feeling to a list of responsibilities that never seemed to diminish. I internalized the misconception held by many people that teachers don’t work enough. At the time, my feelings were compounded by the fact that, as a college professor, I did not spend eight hours a day in a classroom. Instead, I worked at home, in cafés, or, basically, whenever and wherever I could.

Seeing my work habits represented graphically lessened the feeling that I should be working when I wasn’t. It also revealed that the problem wasn’t necessarily how I managed my time, but rather how I handled my feelings. This realization made me feel less guilty about the work that I was doing, and more concerned about the effect it was having on my psyche.

Improving time management

Even if feeling guilty is not a job-related problem for you, there are many things you can learn if you track your own “time eating.” You might find that you frequently interrupt work to attend to something else, which prevents you from concentrating. On the other hand, you might realize that you are waiting until too late at night to start working, which slows you down. Maybe you’ll discover that you can budget 30 minutes a day for a nap, which could give you a boost in productivity. Whatever you have to learn from your own chronophagia, a global view of your schedule can help you organize it by setting aside time for chores and relaxation, just as you do for professional obligations.

Keeping track of your schedule will also help you realize when you are devoting energy to work outside of the time you’ve designated for it. I sometimes listed hours spent ruminating about my job as a category in itself. Understanding how you spend your time now is the first step in figuring out how to do it differently in the future.

Committing to time off

If you look at my schedule, you will notice that I didn’t do any school work on Saturday (and that I got up at ten, but this was highly unusual—I promise!). Although I have plenty to do every weekend, not working on Saturdays is a deliberate choice and one that I highly recommend.

Each weekend, I try to observe a “sabbath,” or a day of rest. My motivation is not religious, but it connects to self-care. Consciously excluding work from my life one day a week (or, if that’s not possible, just one afternoon) provides emotional respite, even if I have an active day otherwise.

On my day of rest, I do not allow myself to work. I also do my best to keep thoughts about work out of my head, telling myself, “I’ll deal with it tomorrow.” Giving myself permission not to do anything I don’t want to, whether work, chores, social responsibilities, or what-have-you makes me feel freer than I do all week because I’m able to fully relax.

Frequently, my day of rest ends up filled with activities. I often clean or call my family, but it is my choice; I do it because I feel like it. The fact that I do not have to do these things — at least on that one day — allows me to rest, reflect, and have more energy for the other six.

Reflecting to improve time management

I recognize that not all people’s personal situations will allow them to control their schedule to the degree I could. Even so, knowing when you are actually working (or not) and how often you make time for other activities gives you real data to which you can react.

You may find you are managing your time poorly and must change your schedule to meet your responsibilities. You might also find, like me, that your self-recrimination is not justified, even if there’s always work to do.

“Time eating” and designated periods of rest won’t lessen your responsibilities, but they can help you stop weighing work against the rest of your existence. You can instead regard your job as an aspect of life to be both temporally and emotionally managed so that it fits in better with how you spend your time as a whole.

Additional resources:

Tom Armbrecht has a PhD in French studies from Brown University. Formerly a tenured professor of French, he taught literature and philosophy to both undergraduate and graduate students before deciding to focus his career on online learning. His current position as an online learning architect allows him to capitalize on his pedagogical expertise to design courses that engage and inspire students and teachers alike.

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