A common struggle among those slogging out a living in the American workforce involves the concept of “work-life balance.”
Basically, it means setting aside time to turn off, shut the job out and live a separate life focused on yourself and personal obligations. The trick is finding enough of it to offset the stress and chaos of the standard 9-to-5 to job.
While my job isn’t the standard 9-to-5 by any stretch, it’s certainly chaotic and sometimes stressful. A lot of journalists I’ve known certainly share the feeling that our profession can be all-consuming, monopolizing time even in the quietest moments that should be reserved for personal projects and responsibilities.
Whatever. I’m not going to solve that. I’m resigned to never having the coveted work-life balance. Partially it’s because I made my decision to following a calling where I’m never really clocked out.
The other part though is rooted in the fact that there isn’t a single part of my life unrelated to some kind of work, regardless of whether a news organization is paying me for it or not.
Beyond my journalism work, I’ve tasked myself on a creative “publish-or-die” gauntlet where each week I churn out a new piece of art, music, writing, photography, blogging or whatever. My personal deadlines are more grueling than my professional ones.
Aside from that grind, there are matters of health and fitness. There’s planning trips and other adventures. There’s the constant logistical juggling of finances, housing, eating, sleeping. Besides work itself, there are issues of professional growth in terms of education, resume updates and other related projects, including social media, where those who fall silent basically cease existing.
Then there’s the social calendar of obligations to family and friends, which doesn’t even touch upon the complete insanity of the dating world.
Sure, one could define many of these side projects as “me time” – but the idea of work-life balance is to minimize stress and manage the push and pull of competing obligations without experiencing a nervous breakdown. My time is overwhelmed with activities I tackle daily at breakneck speeds. Eventually, there’s a baseline of lingering stress hanging over everything.
Long story made short: “work-life balance” is meaningless to me because life is work and work is life. My struggle for balance isn’t between work and “life,” some nebulous concept of other somehow divorced from what I spend 8+ hours engaged in per day. Rather, desired balance is between different projects competing for my time and attention.
To make sense of the two dozen different ongoing projects I’m involved in at any given time, I’ve found it necessary to move the needle on each a little bit at time, each and every week. It’s like a horrendous game of Whack-a-Mole where a low score means total life crash across the board.
On paper, marching through all of this is actually very organized and sane, the result of endless fussing over spreadsheets and experimenting with new methods of time management. But in practice, it’s madness since the best-laid plans fail in the field, with blocks of time bleeding into each other and one collapsing upon another like dominos.
It’s managing chaos, herding cats, directing oncoming traffic, whatever tortured metaphor you want to use. It’s also extremely repetitive. Even the most fun bits and time blocks I slice out to do nothing can seem so obligatory.
But the alternative is allowing things that matter – things I need to do, and those I greatly desire – to fall by the wayside.
The result is the last several months being extremely productive, but also extremely repetitive. I’m stuck in a loop, a weeklong Groundhog’s Day scenario with fewer rodents and more mind-numbing exhaustion.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy life or my work. I certainly do. My job and every other endeavor I’m pursing is near and dear to me. It’s why I do what I do.
But even living the dream takes a toll.
The upside to my current loop is pushing a lot of longstanding plans closer to the finish line and a general sense of accomplishment and fulfillment at the end of each week. The downside is rushing through my weeks in an indistinguishable blur. If every week is awesome, none of them are, and they’re ultimately all fundamentally the same.
Our memories are comprised of information our brains need, in additional to remarkable experiences that break the mold. Everything else – the grind of daily routine – mostly gets filtered out and confined to muscle memory. It’s part of why time seems to speed up with age.
During my university years, life was a lot slower. The abject chaos refused to be tamed, and as a result, time moved at a grueling pace. I remembered every aching second of those days. Last year too, with the grind of election-related coverage and other more difficult projects, seemed to never end.
This routine-laden 2017 though has been tearing past me at a terrifying clip, and I know it’s strongly tied to being stuck in this loop.
So how do I remix my days to be varied, exciting and productive while leaving nothing behind? I’ll let you know if I figure it out.