The start of a new year – welcome! I admit I’m not actually sure what happened to 2015, but there you have it. 2016. It’s at this time that most of us sit down with notebooks, pens, iPads, iPhones, dictaphones, tape recorders and the like to list out our “New Year’s Resolutions!” with such gusto and anticipation, only to have forgotten them by Easter. So this year, it is my resolution not to make resolutions, and to make intentions instead. For me, intentions require daily focus in order to fully achieve them; by consciously changing thought patterns, and modifying actions and behaviours, they eventually become integrated as an everyday part of your life. In essence, they are longer-lasting and serve to change you in positive ways. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that the resolutions to run 3 marathons and read 12 self-development novels in the new year get pushed aside into the ‘to do’ pile in favour of more immediate and exciting activities. And so, to avoid the feelings of failure and disappointment at the annual review of my Resolutions list, this year I will be setting intentions instead, and the first one is a biggie…work-life balance.
I know “work-life balance” has become more of a catch-phrase these days, but I have come to know this concept quite intimately over the past year; and instead of continuing the fascinating exploration of the impact of chronic stress and fatigue on the human body (see insightful TED-Ed clip here which is SURE to scare you into action), I intend to act – and regain balance in my life. And 2016 is the year to do it! Now at this stage most of you are probably throwing tomatoes at the screen and booing me, yelling that it’s an impossible feat given it’s Olympic year, a time when the best intentions, schedules and routines are flung out the window (usually by our equally stressed coaches and managers). But actually that’s exactly why I am writing this! In my experience, whether it is Olympic year or not, every year for us as sport scientists in the high performance environment is hectic, stressful and frazzled for many different reasons – post-Olympic budget cuts and organisational changes, staffing changes, commencement of the new Olympic cycle, long-term program planning and development, research projects, training camps, competitions…the list goes on. And then – wham! – before we know it it’s the next Olympic Games, and so the cycle continues. This is not to paint a bleak picture of the careers we have chosen (and love passionately!), but to take a look at the reality of our situations and to understand that our lives are unpredictable, ridiculously busy, mostly spent travelling the globe, and often at the beck and call of people other than ourselves.
So, my intention for 2016 – work-life balance. If you’re anything at all like me (obsessive-compulsive control freak perfectionist), taking a step back and setting some boundaries for ourselves is going to be extremely difficult, to say the least. Our jobs in the high performance environment are not only highly sought after and extremely competitive, once we have them they are demanding and take a lot of dedication and commitment to perform them well. We are responsible for performance enhancement from a scientific perspective; answerable to coaches, managers, and performance directors; and relied upon by members of our multidisciplinary teams to collaborate, interact constructively and contribute towards our athletes’ international success (well, when we are not MIA, locked away in our caves crunching numbers and not showering or eating for days). We are the types of people who do “that little bit extra” and “go the extra mile” for crown and country, while actually, all we are doing is setting a benchmark for work output that is both unrealistic and unsustainable. We are setting an expectation for ourselves and others of the quantity of work we are capable of delivering, when this is not actually a true representation of our abilities. While working longer hours may seem dedicated, we are often less productive, thinking “well I’m going to be here all night anyway”, whereas if we set restrictions on our work hours we will increase our productivity by inadvertently setting small deadlines each day. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to feel that little thrill of glee when we tick off an item on our wall-length to do list every evening?! For the real danger is this – when we continuously work long hours, we shift our sense of “normal”, and before we know it 12h days are standard, as are 3 week stints without a break and we feel guilty for not bringing work home on the weekends (also my experience. Anyone??).
A wise woman I know told me some great mantras to live by, which I have come to value enormously and rely on to keep my life on track. The first is “Pay attention or pay with pain”, in the sense that if we are not living in the present and being aware of our actions and behaviours, we soon will, usually by unpleasant means. The second is the “Feather, brick, bus” analogy, similar to the first in that there are 3 warning stages if we are not paying attention to ourselves and surroundings – with quite self-explanatory levels of severity. Having quite recently dodged the bus, I can advocate implementing these little mantras into your daily life to assist you in your quest for obtaining work-life balance this year. I must confess to you now that I have attempted this lifestyle change during this past year with varying degrees of success, which is why I am setting it as my main intention for 2016. And if it turns out to be the only one I make, so be it; as long as I achieve it.
There are a number of strategies I tried and implemented this past year which I will share with you below, in the hope that they will at the very least kick start your motivation to join me on this quest, and to give you some ideas to develop your own strategies to achieve balance. All of our lives are different as are the demands placed on them, so its in your power to choose/create ones that suit you and your lifestyle. Of course, I obviously wasn’t 100% successful in my previous attempts, so if you have any insightful strategies to add to this list then please – share! For all our sakes….
5 Top Tips for Work-Life Balance:
- Shutdown and regenerate. Use the weekends/free days to completely switch off, including shutting off email, phones and other lines of professional contact and DO NOT BRING WORK HOME. Spend time with family, friends, partners, dogs, cats, goldfish….just don’t think about work. Sleeping is also an option here.
- Set boundaries. Construct a flexible daily routine and weekly schedule that allows for all appointments, team events, meetings, testing sessions etc to be completed within reasonable working hours. Obviously early mornings and/or late nights are necessary but cater for them in the weekly schedule, particularly if weekend hours are often required.
- Schedule events in the evening. Start Chinese lessons, yoga classes or cooking school which forces you to leave the office at a particular time (again, within reason), and limits working till the wee hours.
- Talk to your boss. If the situation is out of hand, then it is no longer your sole responsibility and you need the help of the management team to assist with the situation. Have some potential strategies and solutions ready to discuss with them, including – dare I say it – delegation (it was hard for me to type the word), to show that you are not there just to complain about the situation but that you want to contribute constructively to resolving it.
- Breathe, eat and sleep. If you can set aside time for yourself each day to focus on the most basic acts of survival then good on you! *high five* Although these 3 things may seem ridiculously simple, they are the most easily forgotten, and believe me, changing these 3 habits alone will drastically change your life and your current situation.