Nothing Teaches Like Mistakes: Reclaim the Balance Between Work and Life

Cheryl Voloshin describes her journey to reclaim the balance between her technical communications work and the rest of her life with tips for how you can get started reclaiming your own life.

reclaim the balance

Reclaim the balance between work and everything else
Photo by Rachel Houghton

In the fall of 2011, I had a job where I loved the work, loved my boss, loved the company and hated my job. The reason was simple. I had lost any balance between work and the rest of my life.

In the final months, I never stopped working. I didn’t sleep.  I was an absentee mom. My husband and I were disconnected and struggling. I stopped visiting with friends because all I ever talked about was work and I couldn’t stand to listen to myself talk. I was always tired, short-tempered, and stressed. And because my life away from work was a mess, I told myself that the only thing I was doing right at all, was work.

Looking back, I see what happened. Early successes in streamlining processes and improving productivity earned me greater responsibility, respect and raises, but no additional resources. I gave up whole parts of my life in five or ten minute increments over ten years to give my work the increasing commitment it required to succeed. Then, when I’d done all the working smarter and working harder I could do, I had nothing left to give.

So, I quit. I recommended a replacement and stayed on to train her. I gave them the best chance of success I could.

The day I chose my family and my life over my job, everything got better. I’d been on a slow road to hell and suddenly, I was on a path that felt like my own again. I did eat, pray, and love, but without the world travel. I ate meals with my family again. I prayed, meditated and cleared my head. And I learned how to better love the warm, wonderful, beautiful family that somehow survived my insanity. I just wanted to go home at the end of a day, be with the people I love, and still be able to love my work.

Reclaim the Balance Between Life and Work

I took a few months off and then, when it was time, I went back to work. Today, to keep the balance I reclaimed, I do things differently.

I own my own balance. Part of my mistake before was to expect my employer to recognize the problem and act on cries for help. But here’s the thing. They didn’t have a problem. I did. I kept delivering what they needed at greater and greater expense personally, not professionally. They kept getting what they needed. Where’s the problem, right?

I behave like I value my relationships. No brainer, right? But creating time to maintain important relationships takes effort. I multitask to do it. Most of us are looking to get more exercise anyway. So I invite folks for a walk or a weekend hike. I’ve become a social deal closer by planning the next lunch, walk, or drinks at the end of the current one. With my family, we’ve discarded communication subtlety or indirectness. I make eye contact and ask for what I need. I say things like, “Can you help me?” “Will you hug me?” “Please take out the garbage, do the dishes, and take a shower…now please, really I mean it.”

Circle back around when choosing “No,” “Not Now,” or “Not me”
Photo by Rachel Houghton

I diplomatically say no, not now, and not me. By my nature, I am a hard worker and a pleaser, so refusing a task was a tough lesson for me. But once you say “yes” to a task, it’s yours forever. With the right blend of genuine desire to help and a little up front effort to put tasks where and when they belong, you can minimize the little nibbles that can take a big bite of your time.

  • No – I never say “no” right away. When in doubt, I hold back on committing. I circle back once I’ve had a chance to evaluate the work. I never make people wait long for a “no” and I always explain why. I use this process each time I engage with a new “customer” even when the answer is yes. That way they’ve seen it before when it happens for real.
  • Not Now – Saying “not now” is the same process as a “no,” except that the answer is a schedule that can often work better for everyone. Timelines get adjusted all the time. A new deadline turns a “no” into a “yes.”
  • Not Me – Don’t say, “That’s not my job,” unless you want throw a stressed out coworker or boss into a rage. Those exact words can have a career-limiting impact, no matter how true it might be. Hear the person out, and if the work really doesn’t fit your skill set or your responsibilities, then offer to help them find someone who CAN help them.

I take back my balance five minutes at a time. I lost my balance in increments; it makes sense to get it back the same way. By adding 20 minutes to the time I give myself to commute, I get an hour plus of exercise every work day. So not only do I get the workout, I get it without taking time from other things. It is also an amazing feeling to pedal, walk, or run away from the office at the end of the day. I also take the train, so I have time to listen to music, catch up on my reading (audio books are wonderful for the chronically motion sick like me), or even just take a deep breath and count my blessings. It can take some creativity and preparation, but you can reclaim the balance by creatively adding activities you love into things you already spend time doing.

I eliminate time wasters. Take a week to identify your own time wasters and find ways to get rid of them. I replace time wasters with something that spins the time waster in a positive direction. For example, if I can spend time complaining, I can spend time planning, proposing, and implementing change.

Find shortcuts to relaxation
Photo by Rachel Houghton

I find shortcuts to relaxation. There’s something about wind in tree tops that immediately calms me and lets me breathe. Find your shortcuts and use them often to catch your breath and remind yourself what’s important in your life. It’s thirty seconds that can reset your attitude and reclaim the balance.

I do what I love. Not all of us can be rock stars, ballerinas, or astronauts, but making time for the things we really enjoy doing is important to keep our spirits young and our lives vibrant. Keeping those interests alive with a karaoke night, salsa lessons or a taking a moment to watch the shuttle make its final fly-overs can be just the tonic for a tough week at the office. I’m writing a teen novel with a friend on Saturday mornings. We’re both surprised at how much fun we’re having.

I know when and how to quit. Sometimes the definition of success is acknowledging a lost cause early and giving up. If it’s worth doing, give it everything you’ve got it. If it isn’t, walk away with your head held high. Be proud of your own good sense. In your work, when you plan the transition and stay fully committed until your last day on the job, no bridges are burned and you get to end on the best possible terms.

Reclaiming one hour of time every day gives you back over 15 days in a year. You can start today to reclaim your life. Carry a note card with you in the next week and write down ways you can reclaim your time five minutes at a time. Have another card where you write down how you’d spend your new found time, and then prioritize that list. You may not be able to do it all at once, but you probably can do it all eventually. Good luck and good balance!

Cheryl Voloshin

Cheryl Voloshin is a technical/freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She would never (ever) intentionally rob a team of their will to live and is so utterly dependent on external validation that failure is never an option. Like her stuff? Contact her by email or connect via LinkedIn or Google+

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