Sometimes people approach a mindfulness course because they feel their work-life balance is awry. On the face of it, it’s obvious what they mean, and we can predict that they’re experiencing it as stress. Still it can be worth unpicking the idea to see what it really means, because that allows us to be clearer about what has to change.
Last week I watched Elaine C Smith in a recreated 1960s sweet shop, measuring out Granny Sookers in a paper bag on a pair of scales, adding and removing sweets until they balanced with the four-ounce metal weight placed on the other bowl. Do we really imagine a set of scales on which we place ‘work’ and ‘life’ and then hope the two will balance equally? We know what ‘work’ is, but what is the ‘life’ that we put in the other bowl of the scales?
Are we contrasting work with ‘everything we enjoy’? A lot of people enjoy their work to a degree, but can still feel stressed and can still feel it sometimes intrudes on their lives. To set up work in this way as something opposed to what we enjoy would really suggest the person is in the wrong job. Of course that’s not always easy to change, but it also tells me that no amount of mindfulness training will help them feel better about it.
Is it a question of time, then? You may enjoy your work but there’s simply too much of it to do in the time you normally allot to work. I spoke to a group of teachers the other day. Most of them took marking and planning work home with them and did it after dinner. Almost all of them agreed that they could, to quite a degree, manage their time. They decided when they started and finished. Maybe they felt that there was always more they could do, but they did eventually put it away. They didn’t sit up all night doing it. Individuals drew the line at different places, and with different levels of determination and confidence, but they all did draw the line. They managed their time. Some went a stage further and shut off all electronic notifications, particularly on mobile devices, so they wouldn’t be interrupted. (‘Engagement has become this magic excuse for interrupting people all the time.” David Heinemeir Hansson) Good for them, and highly recommended.
The problem for them came when they put the light out and their head hit the pillow. At that moment, up surges a storm of unresolved work-related questions, plans, regrets, concerns, and worries. There can be nothing more intrusive than this, that work hijacks our attention when we should be safe and cosy in bed. Notifications on our phones are easy to control, our wandering thoughts less so.
The real thing
Life isn’t something that we should balance off against work. Work is no more than a part of life. If it intrudes on our other priorities – family, hobbies, learning, house and home – it’s right to take steps to limit its calls on us. It’s right to draw our boundaries and protect them. What’s harder is to take control of our attention, recognise when it’s diverting itself to work and bring it back to what is in front of us. Being aware of the basic concepts of mindfulness – managing attention, thoughts as events and so on – can be the first step. Meditation gives us the gymnasium exercises to understand the draw of work and build the mental muscle to protect the areas of life that need protection. These should go hand in hand with real-world measures to manage our workload, manage our managers and find a work environment that works for us.