“Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralysed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds' wings.”
― Jalaluddin Rumi
A week or so before I was due to report back to work, a couple teacher friends asked me if I wanted to get together to lesson plan. My answer was an incredulous laugh and an absolutely not. I am not paid to work in the summer, I thought (and probably actually said). But, it’s true. And it doesn’t make me a bad teacher. In fact, it makes me a much better one. Let me explain.
Work life balance is important in all careers. Teaching especially. We, on average, spend 59 hours a week working — and even then it’s never done. There is always more you can do. Always a better lesson, more to grade, a different seating chart, parents to contact, committee meetings to attend, clubs to sponsor, sports games to go to, the list goes on. (and on and on and on).
Another layer of guilt — all of this is helping children. To succeed, to learn, to grow — and if you could do something more, you should. Right?
Nope. I can’t. And I’m done feeling guilty.
Teacher or not, here’s why you shouldn’t either.
When I started teaching I remember staying up until the wee hours of the night trying to get my lessons together, stressing over all that I had left undone, and feeling like a bad teacher every time I missed a basketball game. I was exhausted, took naps every day, got sick all the time, and felt generally ugh constantly. And still wasn’t a great teacher!
While there is always a learning curve, and more time will be spent in the beginning of any new venture, this was extreme. And unnecessary.
Luckily, within a few months of feeling like the walking dead, I had a discussion with a mentor teacher. She told me she never takes work home. If it couldn’t be done at work, it didn’t need to be done. And while I was pretty good at that, the emotional baggage took a while longer.
I’m proud to say that now my work life balance is something I am really proud of. I don’t take work home, I don’t take the stress home, and most importantly, I don’t feel bad about it.
I’ve set boundaries and those boundaries have enabled me to actually be more productive and need way less time to do the same work. I mean, I’m not just mindlessly punching a clock to get a paycheck and summers off — I work hard! When I’m at work. Then I can leave guilt free.
Are you headed for burnout?
I don’t need to give you a checklist for what it might look like or feel like to be headed towards burnout. But pay attention to the signs. Are you taking on too much? What can you let go of? Why do you feel like you can’t?
One of my favorite people and inspirations is Bob Goff. He is an incredibly accomplished man — a lawyer, author, non-profit founder, US diplomat -- among many other things -- and is known for his love, care, and availability to others (he printed his cell phone number in the back of his New York Times Bestselling book and only rejects calls if he’s on a plane). And yet he quits something every Thursday. Big or small. He says that he quits for his own well-being, to open up his life and time to new opportunities, and to get out of a rut.
In other words, you don’t have to do it all. It’s okay. Quitting isn’t going to change anyone’s opinions of you or your life trajectory. Make room for the things that are adding value to your life. Not the things you are doing because you think you should.
And if you’re not convinced, consider this. According to a Stanford study, there is a "productivity cliff" after 50 hours of work per week. The relationship between hours worked and productivity is linear (math woo!) up until 49 hours but then falls after 50. Productivity dramatically falls after 55 hours per week (the cliff) so much that someone who works 70 hours a week produces no more than someone working 55. Whoa.
Working more and taking on everything doesn’t make you more productive or successful. It becomes a situation of diminishing returns, while also taking a toll on your well being.
What can you do?
Most of us don’t have the luxury of quitting our jobs or dictating much of what we do when we are there. But we can control what we do when we are not. If you want to prevent burnout and cultivate equilibrium in your work life balance, try some of these things:
1. (Try to) Let go of control
Many times we work overtime and stress out over the things that we are desperately trying to control. Realize that you can’t control it all. You can do your best, you can work hard, but then let it go.
Worry comes from the desire for control, and worry ruins your off time. If you’re thinking about work as you go to sleep, on your weekends, or when you are with friends — you have a problem. A problem we all have, sure — but it’s still a problem that needs to be addressed and mitigated as much as possible. Realizing that the whole company/school/whatever doesn’t live or die based on how many emails you sent on the weekend is a good start.
2. No work email on your phone
Now, this doesn’t work for all professions, sure. But for me at least, a huge life changer was taking my work email off my phone. Whatever it is — if it’s after hours — it can wait. If it cant, someone will call you. Chill out.
And if you can’t help but check your emails outside of work hours, at least do all you can not to respond until work hours resume again. When you set the precedent of responding at all hours — people expect you to do it and will continue to contact you in this way. If you set the boundary that you are available during certain times -- and stick with it -- people won’t expect to hear from you outside of that time frame.
3. Friends outside of work (way outside)
This one is hard for me. Teachers tend to flock together. And I love them! I love spending time with my teacher friends BUT I need a larger circle. We all do. When you spend all your time with people in your field, your life narrows until work is literally your whole world. Which inevitably will lead to more stress and quicker burnout.
The life of a teacher is way different than the life of a doctor. Or a fundraiser. Or an entrepreneur. Or an artist. A dogwalker. It's all different. Hanging out with a lot of people reminds you that not only are you a normal person who is not defined by their job, but that every profession has it’s problems.
4. Get some hobbies!
This goes along with a wider circle of friends, but seriously — get a hobby. I always think it’s crazy when people just go to work and… not much else. When you don’t have passions outside of work that drive you, even a job you love will inevitably become something that you dread.
I wrote about the importance of a quest, and I believe it more than ever. If you don’t have something fully for yourself, you will artificially conflate your work with your purpose and value in a way that is not healthy.
5. Check in with yourself
Schedule check in’s. Are you happy in your work? How much of your time outside of work is spent thinking about work? Do you feel like you are making a difference? Is the time you’re spending giving you joy?
Sometimes in my class we do the beginning of the year activity "Making a pie chart of your summer". How much time did you spend sleeping? Eating? Swimming? Watching TV? We assign each hour in our day and create a pie chart to visually see how our time is spent. Even for kids it is shocking.
What does your pie chart look like? What area is lacking? How can you enlarge it? What part of the pie can you get rid of/shrink?
Now, obviously there are situations where you just have to go full force. If you’re new to a profession, if you’re an entrepreneur or a freelancer, if you are in a new role or prepping for a short term goal/project that is audacious.
But, unpopular opinion: if things aren’t ever getting easier, or year after year you still feel the need to put in tons of extra (uncompensated) time in order to do your job well… maybe this job isn’t the right fit for you. Maybe this company or field isn’t right. But something isn’t right.
Ultimately, we work to live, not the other way around. Our work should give us meaning, but it shouldn't be the only source. Give yourself permission to make the shift.
They’re obvious, right? More time for family, friends, and your own passions. Less stress, worry, and overwhelm. When your life is in balance, everything is better. You are a better, more productive, and efficient worker. A better friend. And you have the energy to put into the things that you feel are important (and those might even be at work!)
So get your priorities straight. While it is important and valuable to be a hard worker, remember that your work has it’s place in your life. It is not your entire life. There is so shame in leaving it where it belongs.