Monday, January 4, 2016

Writing Lab: On Work Life Balance

Prompt: "Do you think you have a decent work/life balance?"

BlogHer's Writing Lab was so helpful to me last month that I think I'll continue responding to prompts now and then as we make our way into 2016. I may even start writing posts ahead of time and scheduling them to auto-post at later dates the way I used to. When I get in the mood to blog, I often feel like writing more than one post, but I don't always feel like updating more than one of my individual sites at a time. 

On that note, I can definitely see I'll have plenty to say about this month's theme -- balance. The tradition one kind of covered foreign territory for me, but I feel like my entire life has been about learning to understand balance and set appropriate boundaries, both for myself and for other people. This has especially been the case when it comes to my professional life.

I am about the furthest thing there is from a workaholic and I've always been that way. I very definitely believe in working to live, not living to work. When I'm working too much, I'm irritable and upset all the time. If I'm too stressed or too overworked for too long, I can also get incredibly sick -- mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. That said, achieving and maintaining a healthy work/life balance is of the utmost importance to me. It's also been easier said than done for most of my life.

While it's true that I don't like to work, I am also the kind of person that gives work their all when I'm actually on the clock. I have high standards for myself, I'm a person of integrity, and it shows in everything I do -- even when I'm doing something I loathe. This means I've never really been the employee that winds up getting fired or having their hours cut way, way back. Instead, I wind up being the one that gets all the extra shifts, extra responsibilities, and extra work to do whether I want it that way or not. 

You'd think that would have stopped happening once I went into business for myself writing for clients out of my home, but it actually made the whole work-life balance thing a lot harder in ways I wasn't all that prepared for. When you work outside your home, there's a very clear separation between "on the clock" and "off the clock". When you're not at the office, you're just off... period. Even if you have a massive pile of paperwork waiting for you when you return or a busy week coming up, you're still off and you still behave as if you're off. If a client or customer calls your place of business outside of business hours, they don't get an answer. They know they have no choice but to wait until the next block of business hours begins and you know it, too.

When your home is your office, it's tougher. Especially if you don't use a different computer for your work-specific activities or have a designated area in your house that is only for working and nothing else. It's harder to mentally feel like you're off, so work and your personal life can really start to intrude on one another if you're not careful. This is even more the case if your family and friends have trouble thinking of what you do as an actual job. People have a hard time understanding why they can't bother you during business hours or when you're under a deadline since you're technically at home and responsible for making your own schedule.

Then there are the ways modern technology has made it more of a social norm to be perpetually available and reachable -- to everyone and all the time. Right from the beginning, my clients not only expected me to be at least potentially available to them 24/7, but most barely saw what I do as work and didn't see why I should need regular days off of any kind. It wasn't as big a deal when I only had a couple of clients and a few assignments to worry about at any given time, Once my business picked up speed though, being willing to work "any time" just wasn't sustainable anymore. I was literally working all day every day -- pretty much from the minute my eyes popped open in the morning until the second before my head hit the pillow late at night -- and I was miserable that way. (Like I said. I'm not a workaholic, so I don't get off on being busy all the time.)

I addressed the issue a few years ago by designating and announcing regular business hours and off days, just like a service provider that works out of a brick and mortar establishment would do. I put strict limits on the amount of work a given client could assign. If those business hours don't work for a prospective client, they're politely told that we're not a good fit and that I can't do business with them after all. I started charging people rush fees if they expected me to accept an assignment at the last minute. Most importantly of all, I got back into the habit of telling people "no" when they tried to force the issue or violate my boundaries. Life has been a lot better, happier, and easier since I did those things.