In all of the vast literature on what it takes to achieve work-life balance (if there is such a thing) one concept is conspicuously left out most of the time. While the life portion of the phrase work-life balance likely encompasses health for most of us, it can be very easy to ignore this critical subject until you’re confronted with the consequences.
Healthy living is going to mean different things to different people but too often I hear downright ridiculous claims that seem to completely negate the fact that people are human beings and not robots. “I only sleep four hours a night” or “I routinely work 80 hours a week” are some of the more common phrases I hear. This is especially true in my field in academia where folks really wear their busyness as a badge of honor, health be damned.
Yes, I have pulled an all-nighter in the lab before, but that’s not anything to brag about. It was terrible. The older I have gotten the less willing I am to compromise my health (and sleep is a big part of that). Once you have experienced burnout and the depression that can ensue from that as I have, you can better establish boundaries that will not only preserve your sanity but keep your health at the forefront.
In order to do this, it is critical to constantly be evaluating what you are doing and why. It is extremely easy to find yourself living on autopilot and once you’re not actively engaged, bad habits can quickly take over. Next time you hear yourself saying that you don’t have time to cook a healthy meal because you’re so busy do your best to stop in that moment and evaluate whether that is really the case. I would venture to say that there is a pocket of time somewhere in your day that you can utilize to improve your health and wellbeing.
Another common mistake is to assume an ‘all or nothing’ mentality when it comes to making healthy choices. You want to eat better, exercise more, get better quality sleep but because you may not be able to do so on a regular basis you decide to toss out the entire concept until a less busy season of life comes along. The reality is that there is no perfect season when you’re going to magically have vast stretches of time to do all of the things you have been meaning to do unless you’re retired and even then it is not a guarantee.
Your body and mind do not get the same benefit of taking time off from those activities either. I wish I could take back the years that I have spent mindlessly going through drive-thrus after work because I was too lazy to go home and make a decent meal. I kept deluding myself because of how hard I was working. Balance for me was getting to go home at the end of a long day, sit on the couch and binge watch TV for a couple of hours. I may have been relaxing but I was inadvertently jeopardizing my health in the process.
I now approach my days with the concept of work-life-health firmly in mind. I am going to spend 8-10 hours a day at work so what can I do to not only be productive and advance my goals but to ensure that my life doesn’t start at 7 pm. It’s all about small changes that over time will have a significant impact to your overall quality of life. I start my workday with guided meditation; I now step away from my desk and eat my lunch while reading a book or magazine. I take a walk in the afternoon around my building to stretch out my body and clear my head. I’m preparing snacks and bringing them to work with me so that I don’t find myself in front of the vending machine at three in the afternoon keeling over from hunger.
At home I have made more of a commitment to eat healthy and I have not gotten any fast food after work in over two months. I put my computer down earlier and pick up a book or play with my dogs, and I’m trying to be more conscious of my sleep needs and getting to bed earlier even when all I want to do is maximize my free time.
It’s wonderful to have a goal of work-life balance but without your health you’ll just as readily have neither and for me that’s just not acceptable.