Working hard, or hardly working? Definitely the former.

Sofia Weiss Goitiandia

Work-life balance is undoubtedly one of the subjects I write most about. Why? Put simply because in 2019 the phrase is popular, but the practice is not. We live in a culture that demands near relentless productivity and as a consequence, many of us lack a conception of when to stop, or even the need to do so. We blur the lines between work and home, compulsively check our inboxes, and may even believe that writing essays at 1am is the norm (sadly, it might actually be in Cambridge). All this, in many cases, to the detriment of our wellbeing.

I’ve lived the consequences of overwork first-hand. Your type A perfectionist woman who has felt the need to prove herself since she could crawl, I’ve used work as a coping mechanism time and again, suffering burnouts worse than a thrice-used match as a result. Luckily, I now consider myself to be ‘in recovery’, and am quite fascinated by what it takes to achieve that elusive equilibrium between books and bed – especially in the midst of a Cambridge degree. Whilst I haven’t ‘achieved’ it as such, there’s a few helpful strategies I’ve learned during my (ongoing) journey.

Firstly, if there is an activity that you need to do on a regular basis for the sake of your sanity, make the time to do it sacred. Whether it be a weekly yoga class, music lesson or counselling session, write in your diary and view that ink almost like a tattoo: permanent. Unless there is a legitimate reason – for clarification, this does not include a reading list – you should not skip that appointment. For me, it’s my weekly meetings with the therapist who has guided me through my eating disorder recovery, and now helps me generally to be more mellow, as well as more ‘myself’. I think at this point that someone would have to fight me (and win) for me not to attend. I would rarely encourage anyone to follow my lead, but on this one I do: book those appointments, and go.

Secondly, if I am debating whether to study or whether to attend an event that is not strictly academic, I ask myself the following question: ‘how often does this event happen?’ If the answer is once, I close my laptop and leave for whatever interesting talk or concert or [insert activity here] it is that may be on. For example, this weekend I definitely could have worked, but I chose to attend a public speaking workshop for women instead. Not only did I leave feeling more empowered than I would ever have felt by writing up lecture notes, but the event was a one-off with a speaker from the other side of the country. By contrast, my lectures are nearly daily occurrence, so I’ll find another time to tackle their content.

Note that had this piece of work been a deadline, and the workshop another Wednesday Cindies, I probably would have stayed at home. Not to work into the night though, but to sleep, and hence study more effectively in the morning. Whilst I lament Dolly Parton’s experience of the 9-to-5, I do believe it’s actually quite an appropriate working time-frame to adopt at University.

Finally, finding a work-life balance means – for me at least – learning to let go of perfection. Let me give you an example. Oftentimes the injunction to put work away for the day sounds fine, but the moment you’re stepping your foot out of the library door you realise you haven’t done something as well as you could; you turn on your heel and walk straight back in to do it right. This would certainly have been me in the past, identifiable by inch-long bags under my eyes and a litre bottle of coffee pretty much surgically attached to my hand. What did I get at the end of it? On average, 5% more on an essay. This, on reflection, is simply not worth it. Nowadays when the daunting realisation that I could do more rears its obnoxious head, I question: how much will this matter in one month? What about one year? Usually the answer is ‘not a lot’ and I bid adieu to the library.

Now if all else fails or the above seems too difficult for the moment, do not despair. There have been very many times during this journey where I’ve given in to the annoying roommate living in my head, who seems to think I’m a supercomputer never wanting nor needing rest. Even so, when this side of me wins and I fixate more on my work, I still try to find respite. How? For two minutes I put down my pen, look outside, and try to embrace both the wonder and insignificance of life.

I don’t want to pretend to live whilst actually buried in charts, assignments and to-do lists. I doubt anyone does. Work-life balance is a worthwhile quest and – I believe – achievable; but it is a process of iteration: fail, try again – you know the drill.

Featured image by the author 

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