Many years ago when I first started speaking about work/life balance, I asked people to consider four quadrants of life: work, play, relationships and self-care and to ask which area needs more time and attention. While this is a beginning way to think about where balance might be missing, it no longer gets to the heart of how we can create healthy balance to offset stress and burnout. Many pundits consider the term “work/life balance” a dinosaur of the 1990s, calling it a myth and impossible to attain, and there is a movement afoot in this country to deconstruct it.
Many interpret “work/life balance” to mean “perfect balance” or “equal balance” in which each quadrant must be perfectly balanced. Major corporations are batting around the new buzz phrase “work-life integration.” Jeff Bezos, for example, advises Amazon employees to stop aiming for work-/life balance because it implies a trade off between the two. But what does “integration” mean? According to those who resist the term “integration,” it implies 24/7 connectivity. Organizations that routinely provide free electronic devices to employees have been accused of sending the message that employees must be on call. And a 2018 study suggested that wireless devices force employees to stay connected to their jobs when they’re trying to disconnect.
As the line between work and personal time continues to evaporate, especially with more employees working from home, both terms “work/life balance” and “work/life integration” have become old fashioned. In Europe, the term “life balance” has become the preferred term, because leaders there insist “work/life balance” implies an equal proportion of work and personal life—which isn’t really balance. I agree that “life balance” more accurately depicts what we all need to strive for. Many people burn out toiling at schoolwork or trying to do it all around the house and are not necessarily “at work” in the literal sense. They can be students, volunteers, retirees, stay-at-home parents as well as those gainfully employed in the workplace.
Plus, neuroscience has advanced how we think about balance. If we cut to the heart of the issue, it’s about resetting our nervous system. Our autonomic nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (or gas) and the parasympathetic nervous system (or brakes). We need both. If you think of yourself as a car with only brakes and no gas, you won’t get out of your driveway. And If you have only gas and no brakes, you will burn out your motor or go off a cliff. So making sure you activate both systems gives you a healthy balance whether or not it involves the workplace.
But how do we do that? It’s possible to be simultaneously engaged in a project—work or otherwise—and accomplish a deadline (gas) while practicing a Microchiller—a brief (five minutes or less) exercise in which you’re focused in the present moment, observing what’s happening around you as it’s happening (brakes). As you go about business as usual during the day (gas), you can pay attention to what’s happening around you as it happens (brakes), which helps you unwind, clear your head and raise your energy. Examples are taking an “Awe walk” in nature, following your breath or noticing as many sounds around you as you can during a Zoom meeting. When we strike a balance between our two systems in this way, research shows we have more calm and clarity, are more productive and enjoy whatever we’re engaged in at the moment.
When you’re fully engaged in the present moment—regardless of what you’re doing—you notice that previous worries or stressful thoughts about the future are absent. You might be aware that your heart and respiration rates are slower and your tight muscles have loosened. That’s because you took your mind off the gas pedal and applied the brakes—brought your mind into the present moment with the rest-and-digest-response.
You can blend the gas and brakes into your daily routines without added time. You can intentionally walk with present-moment awareness bringing your attention to the sensations of your feet against the ground or noting the feeling of the open sky, sights and sounds around you as you make your way to the parking garage. When you weed the garden, you can pay attention to the plants’ resistance against your hands as you tug and the sound of stubborn roots and smell of fresh soil as you unearth the weeds from their home. When you clean the toilet bowl, brush your teeth, drive your car or cook a pot of soup, you can step out of your thought stream and make yourself fully present in the activity. While waiting in the doctor’s office, you can practice mindful listening. In the grocery store line, you can tune in to your body sensations. Stuck in traffic, you can focus on your in-breath and out-breath and imbibe the calm in your body. You can even practice open awareness right now. As you read on, you might find your mind wandering from time to time. If it does, just be aware of your wandering mind, let its distraction be okay and gently bring it back to the words on the page.
Whether we decide to stick with “balance,” “integration” or simply “life balance,” boundaries and a certain degree of mindfulness of the present moment are required to apply 21st century neuroscience, create balance and prevent burnout. The gas and brakes metaphor of the autonomic nervous system is a reminder that we don’t have to strive for equal or perfect balance. When we’re driving our cars, our goal isn’t an equal application of gas and brakes. On the Interstate, we might use more gas than brakes for many miles. Stuck in a traffic jam, we use more brakes than gas. We use both as needed to get where we need to go while remaining on the road at a safe distance from other cars.
So it is with present-moment awareness and full engagement in whatever we’re doing in the moment. Watch your mind and notice where it goes from moment-to-moment for the next 24 hours. Note the difference when you’re present (brakes) and when your mind drifts to the past or future (gas). When your mind wanders, gently bring it back into the present. As you continue to practice using gas and brakes in collaboration, you cultivate mindful productivity. Tension subsides, you have more relaxation, steadiness and well-being, and you arrive at your destination in one piece.