Guest Post By Nora Frederickson*
Our culture often tells us to “push through the pain” or “go above and beyond” when it comes to chasing our goals. As a result of this philosophy – and, let’s not forget, our shaky economy – career professionals are working harder, putting in longer hours, and putting the rest of their lives on hold to a greater degree than ever before.
Dedication and hard work are critical for career success, but in order to sustain our efforts we need to structure our work and our lives in a way that does not drain us. “Work-life balance” sounds like a realistic concept, but it is difficult to implement because it means so many things to so many people.
As a public relations professional, I deal with frequent and extended travel, oversized egos, competing priorities, and ever-looming deadlines. It can be stimulating, but also overwhelming. I have also been a practitioner of yoga and mindfulness techniques for 12 years, and I stay sane at work by applying aspects of my practice to difficult workplace situations or decisions.
Even as a practitioner, I struggled with the concept of work-life balance for years. For me, figuring out my work-life balance wasn’t just a scheduling issue. It was a mental and emotional one. I often vacillated between feelings of inadequacy and guilt — I could have always made one more phone call — or exhaustion, after working two weekends in a row or staying late to finish a project for a client.
This year I finally began to apply basic mindfulness — a mental state where we are conscious of our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations – to my job. Used repeatedly, mindfulness practices provide us with tools to set mental boundaries between our stressors and us. I’ve learned over time to translate those mental blocks into the physical boundaries that most of us think about when we think of “work-life balance”.
Mindfulness helps the practitioner to keep setbacks or challenges in perspective, maintain focus, and avoid impulsive decisions. As a result one can preserve important relationships, reduce overwhelm, and survive in a fast-paced, dysfunctional or even abusive work environment. Most importantly, it increases the amount of control you feel over your work and career.
So how can this help you, when everyone has different work-life balance needs?
Mindfulness is about finding your own answers to what your mind and body need to persevere. For me, that process starts with a series of thought experiments:
- How does your body feel right now? Why?
- Does it hurt?
- Is it hungry or thirsty?
- Is it having trouble sleeping?
- What emotions is your mind feeling right now?
- What kinds of thoughts are you having and why?
- How sharp is your thinking today compared to your baseline?
- Is there a situation at work that is bothering you? How does it make you feel? How important is it?
- Is there a way you can mentally step back or minimize the impact of that situation?
The answers you’ve gathered will tell you what boundaries you need to respect to be most effective in your work. It might involve bringing snacks to work, learning to step back when a negative boss criticizes you, recognizing when NOT to take work home with you, or building in time with your family. It might mean looking for another job.
I can’t tell you what will work, but your body will. Acknowledging discomfort and limitations (mental or physical) can be difficult. But doing this allows you to assess what common recommendations for achieving work-life balance might actually work for you. And it allows you to reconnect to the aspects of your work that you really enjoy.
This is not always easy work. It requires compassion for yourself and the ability to recognize that as talented and driven as you are, you are still human and have needs. For many high-powered professionals, that can be a difficult truth to accept. But over time, listening to your body and setting boundaries builds the resilience needed to survive — and thrive — in your career.
*Nora Frederickson is a public relations professional living in the Boston area. She has worked for the AFL-CIO in communications and training roles since 2010 and has been a yoga and mindfulness practitioner for 12 years. Learn more about her at www.linkedin.com/pub/nora-frederickson/46/943/6b6.