The Elusive “Balance”

Balance TriangleI’ve been feeling really stressed lately and any sort of “balance” seems far out of reach. I used to joke that I don’t have “work/life balance”, I have “work/work balance”! But I don’t even think that’s really the problem. I precariously juggle work and life (defined for me as family obligations) without dropping too many balls, but I seem to fail dismally at what I think should be a third prong — “self”. See, maybe that’s what I should be aiming for. Some sort of a triangle that is in balance.

Earlier this month it was Mental Health Week in Canada. I visited the Canadian Mental Health Association website to take their Stress Index Questionnaire. While obviously not medical advice, their website lets you gauge your state of mind based on standard benchmarks.

Stress Index

So, yeah, I guess I’m stressed.

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I also did the Mental Health Meter questionnaire. On the question of balance (scale of 1-6), it said:

Mental Health Meter - Balance

Well, yeah, I think I knew that. It also tells me that the stress and lack of balance are affecting my ability to enjoy life (2 out of 6) due to “anxiety and worry”. Yup. And my apparent lack of flexibility in my opinions and expectations (2) can “create a strong sense of frustration”. (Case in point, why can’t the baristas just get my drink right?!) Luckily, I am also resilient (4) and have a good degree of self-actualization (4), which both help to keep me trudging along like the old Timex watch that “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking”!

I often think about the rule on an airplane, when you are supposed to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child, because otherwise you will pass out and be no good to anyone. But it is very hard for me to fall down on my work and life obligations and put myself first, or even on an equal footing.

  • IMG_2146Work is more than a full-time job. It’s deadline-driven with too much work and I’m coming into one of my busiest times. On top of that is the added stress of a forthcoming change in leadership that will directly affect my work life.
  • Family life could easily in itself be a full-time job, but financially I don’t have that luxury. I’ll be 58 this week and I have a sixteen-year-old (what was I thinking?) who for various reasons requires a lot of my time — 5 more weeks to get through to the end of the school year … I can’t wait! Servetus had mentioned an interesting article to me about “emotional labour”. That really resonated with me and I can see how much emotional energy I invest in keeping the schedule, monitoring and harassing about school work, making sure someone cooks dinner and dishes are washed, etc.
  • So, what about “self”? I fall last on the list. I’ve been meaning to get blood work done for months now, but there never seems to be time. I just paid my credit card bill late… again. I’d like to swim once in a while or maybe start riding the bike I bought a few years ago and never used. I’d really like to be blogging on a more regular basis, but I often when I finally have time for myself, it’s 10 or 11 at night and I am just exhausted. If I start writing, I feel so energized that then I can’t sleep!

IMG_2169What to do? Well, I am looking forward to my one-week beach vacation in July, but that’s still a ways away. I took a “wellness” day a week ago, which is a new feature at work and something that I never do for myself. It was a great idea, but between my younger son having hurt his knee the night before at ball hockey, my older son needing me to find out whether my insurance would cover him to take his final road test in the graduated licensing program, and the plumbing emergency we had (see the hole in the ceiling due to water going down through the wall from a shower), I can’t say that it was a stress-free day!

Will it help me if I get more organized? I took a really great time management webinar (live from Toronto, which meant I had to be at my computer at 5:30 a.m.!). It looked at the subject from a psychological, physiological, and project management point of view. The presenter also has a book called Cool Time shown here on his website.

  • He talked about the idea that constant emails actually provoke a stress or “fight or flight” response, making it impossible to steadily use the intellectual part of your brain for projects.
  • He also recommended filling your calendar at work with “tangible evidence of busy-ness”. So, three blocks of emails in the calendar over the day and blocked time for “focus time”, planning, and travel.
  • He even recommends having “crisis of the day” on the calendar, which can shift around but at least is acknowledged as happening regularly.
  • He applies the 80/20 rule (or modified Pareto principle) to almost everything, including that 80% of your time should be scheduled, with 20% left open for relationship building (or open door time).

I’ve been applying some of this at work and it really seems to be helping. I’m even putting lunch on the calendar and the time I have to leave for Weight Watchers on Tuesdays so that I am forced to do something for myself. I wonder if I can apply any of what I’ve learned to my home life? (Now, if only my family would just stick to the schedule!)

I also realized that I don’t take much time to “smell the roses” or even look around me. I have a wonderful view from my bedroom window, but most of the time I don’t even open the drapes!

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Not only that, but there are a few flowers in bloom at my house.

With a couple of birthdays this month (including mine), we’ve gone out to a couple of nice restaurants, both with gorgeous views of the water in the Burrard Inlet. The first is Vancouver’s Coal Harbour and the second is Port Moody’s Rocky Point Park (where the day was a mild but cloudy one).

If all else fails, taking the time to look around can sometimes bring some much needed comic relief… What was the Queen doing in my neighbourhood last week? Maybe taking her own much-needed break from the stress of the count-down to the Royal Wedding!

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30 thoughts on “The Elusive “Balance”

  1. Talk about inflexibility — both of those questionnaires are pretty inflexible! I had to stop after a few questions each time. My life can’t be described in either / or. That said: clearly you’re feeling stressed. I hope the end of the school year comes faster than it feels it will come at this point. I personally think writing a calendar that looks like one’s actual life is a great tip (I never accomplished that very well, but in my last full time job I was required to put a hour lunch on my calendar, so at least I had the justification if I needed to tell people to leave me alone: our supervisor requires us to take lunch). I don’t suppose you could hire someone to do household chores? That’s the greatest stressor in my life because it is the least interesting, most aggravating, and most boring of the things that have to be done.

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    • Just to add to my fun… I decided I needed a Starbucks drink, left the store and stepped off the curb, and somehow landed hard on my hands and knees. Ouch. I can walk, but painfully, and I’m now trying to decide whether I need x-rays (while working on this holiday Monday and helping my son with his algebra)! Hopefully when the pain settles a bit it’ll turn out to be just scrapes and bruises.

      But yeah, the questionnaires are just quick and dirty, one size fits all. I hope this calendar method works for me and that I stick with it. The idea of the tangibility is, as you say, so one can say “Sorry, I’m all booked up. I can see you at 4 pm.”

      The bane of my existence is trying to come up with dinner ideas, shopping, prepping, and cooking. Even with my husband doing around half the cooking, I dread my turn at dinner. I wish I could afford a cook. A cleaning service might be possible, though.

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      • Uch — that’s no fun. I hope you’re feeling better soon. Visits to doctors are such a literal pain.

        Have you ever looked at any of those services where they UPS you the ingredients for the meals? They can be pricey, but they decide the meals available each week (you order as many of them as you like) and do the shopping. You just have to put them together. (I’m also a huge devotee of the slow cooker meal myself — slam it all in the cooker in the morning and come home 8 hours later and possibly make some rice or potatoes to eat it with.)

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          • My calculation is that the price per portion seems exorbitant until you compare it to restaurant meals, and it’s aimed at people who’d eat a lot of takeout and restaurant meals otherwise. It doesn’t make sense for a single or for families with huge appetites. (I looked into it for dad and me but as long as I’m not working full-time it’s a bit silly, not least because I don’t really dislike cooking.) But you can also order as few as two meals a week with some of them — so you’d have at least two decisions made for you.

            (That’s another stressor factor here, and I don’t know if this interests you at all, but it tends to play heavily into dieting — i.e., decision fatigue: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decision_fatigue . It’s another reason why delegating is a good idea if you can do it — it reduces the number of times you have to be virtuous during any given work period.)

            LMK if you want slow cooker recipes. It tends not to be nouvelle cuisine, of course.

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            • I think, though, you still have to do all the chopping, don’t you? And I have to say that my two boys eat astonishing amounts of protein! But for sure I’m going to look into it.

              I’m thinking that maybe the decisions would be easier if I did the meal planning on the weekends. Then I’m not trying to decide after making decisions all day. Makes sense.

              If I get to using the slow cooker, I may take you up on suggestions. The family tends to like a lot of Asian style cooking, which means lots of chopping and stir frying. Very time consuming!

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              • With meal delivery services, yeah, you still have to do the chopping. But I can get ready-chopped fresh vegetables in prepared combinations from our local grocery store. There are also frozen vegetable combinations suitable for stir-fry there. Obviously, more expensive. That said, around here where the only significant Asian population is Hmong we have a pretty basic definition of “Asian food.” There are lots of Asian meal slow-cooker recipes — mostly stuff that involves meat / ribs. I’ve occasionally made a Thai / coconut / peanut thing in a slowcooker with good results, though.

                I do think meal planning is a good idea if you can find a style of it that fits your lifestyle. My personal style is that I do one huge shop every six to seven weeks, and then much smaller supplement shopping once or twice in the interval for fresh ingredients, dairy, stuff we’re craving, things I suddenly ran out of, etc. I try to have five or six meals “cupboard ready,” i.e., these are things I know we like and all the ingredients are here in reserve. I don’t plan to have specific things on any one night, so I still have some choice when it comes right down to it, or I can offer options depending on how much time I want to spend. (This is more for me than for dad, dad doesn’t care so much what he eats as long as it’s not leftovers, whereas my preference would be to cook on Sunday afternoon for the whole week.) But if you work better with a rigid plan (some people do) a lot of magazines have a month of meals planned and a shopping list that goes with them.

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                • All good ideas. Lately, it seems like we’re going to the grocery store every day! I think we need to plan a bit better than that! I’m trying o limit the calories, too, and my older son wants to limit the carbs and maximize the protein, so that makes it a bit tough too. I’ve made a couple of good things with ground turkey lately and I tried one with Five Spice Powder that was really good.

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                  • yeah — that’s ruinous (time and money-wise both). Plus you buy things you don’t need because you’re there when you’re hungry (online shopping has also meant no impulse buys, which is a positive side effect).

                    Obvs you have to do some fishing for what you want, nutritionwise — but this kind of thing isn’t that rare: https://detoxinista.com/kung-pao-chickpeas-slow-cooker/ (stressing I haven’t tried this recipe). It’s not stiryfry but it would take you about 10 min max to make in the morning and when you got home — without detouring through the market — your house would smell great.

                    (can you tell I’m a slowcooker enthusiast? LOL.)

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  2. It really sounds as if you are coming close to breaking point. Now that you have recognised that, is there nothing you can do? Organise family to help out at home (dividing up chores), addressing work load at work *especially* because there is a leadership change (perfect opportunity to share insights into the current day-to-day work load). The calendar idea is really good. I also get stressed when I meet points in the day when I simply do not know what to do first – translate/answer 50 e-mails/write an article/plan publication schedule – and allocating blocks of time for each of those tasks would at least create a process that provides clarity.
    I hope you get some sort of break – it sounds as if you need it!

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    • See part of the problem is that I have a hard time giving up control of things. I now have an assistant at work, for the first time in my career — it is really hard to learn to delegate things I could do myself! But I guess I have to. I know what you mean about not knowing what to do next adding to stress. I’m trying to make better use of to-do lists, as well, and so far so good. As I just mentioned in response to the comment from Servetus, I just fell as I was coming out of Starbucks. Just debating whether or not I need an x-ray. Can I not just get a break? (Not literally!)

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      • Delegation — to me this is a subset of the “emotional labor” issue, i.e., the conviction that someone else won’t care about it as much as I do. I got really good at this at the end of my time in TX. I had a grad student who I paid an hourly rate (usu $18 an hour) for a certain minimum number of hours a month, and more if I needed them. (The minimum hours was to keep her “on retainer,” so to speak.) I tried to have her do everything that made me feel any kind of negative emotion (e.g., filing things, making photocopies, sorting out books to give away, concierge stuff like going to the DMV) or called forth any negative memories or feeling of shame that might slow me down. By the end it was really great. She did almost my whole move for me and I did not have to relive my memories of the place by sorting through ten years of paper.

        One lesson that I learned for me w/r/t cleaning services — when I look at my bathroom and think, uch, it’s filthy, I feel ashamed for not being on top of it. A cleaning person looks at it and thinks, this needs to be cleaned. (I mean, yes, they may also have other thoughts about whether I’m a slob or not, but the thing is that they are not held up by dealing with feelings of shame about it.) So really, they are much more efficient b/c they don’t have the same emotional relationship to the task that I have. I’m not only delegating the labor of cleaning to someone else, I’m insulating myself from feeling the negativity associated with the task. The first is negligible (I mean, I know how to clean), but the second is priceless to me.

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        • Yes, I think you’re right that they’re connected. The problem, too, is that I enjoy the administrivia, even though I shouldn’t be doing it, so it makes it even harder to have someone else do it. But I need to get better at it. We’ll see if in fact you can teach an old dog new tricks!

          Getting rid of guilt and shame would be good! I’ve got an ad for a cleaning service pulled out to look at.

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      • Oh no. And that’s a typical sign of your body telling you to take time-out. Have you had it looked at? If you’re in pain, then do.
        An assistant sounds great – but I understand what you are saying. However, think of it not only as him/her relieving you of some work, but also as you/your company supplying a job for her/him.

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        • You’re right. I think I was just thinking about something else and somehow put my foot wrong. Both legs are pretty painful, although I think just sprained. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment in the morning.
          My assistant is very willing… I just have to get used to having one!

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          • Glad to know you are having it looked at. I would consider it a sign by the universe, telling you to take care of yourself.
            Good to know that the assistant is not adding more problems to your work – except for the initial worry about what you will actually have him/her do. It’ll settle over time.

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  3. Something else we do now that’s made a huge improvement for us: online groceries. We order everything for pick up from the big box grocery store. (The service happens to be free, but I’d pay for it.) Except at peak times I can order as late as 1:45 a.m. and pick up the next morning. (it’s more crowded around holidays.)

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  4. OK — last comment about cooking. In Asian recipes, the aromatics can be a pain (fresh ginger, fresh garlic, chopped lemon grass) — all these are available in jarred, canned or paste varieties. I really appreciate this for garlic — I just use a spoon to take what I need from the jar and then I don’t have the smell on my hands afterwards either.

    I should become a cooking evangelist.

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    • My older son bought me a mini-cuisinart-like gadget, with a pull handle that twirls the blades. It works pretty well as a time saver and it’s not as much of a hassle as the big one. I think my store has chopped garlic, but it’s the dehydrated one. Still pretty good, though.

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  5. So sorry to read that you are feeling out of balance! Sounds like you are already taking steps to improve things, good for you! Is there a way you can also talk with your boss at work, to see if things can be done at work to lighten the load a bit? Keep at it and I so hope things will get better for you…

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    • Thanks. It’s not a great time right now. My biggest stressor, though, is trying to get my son through the remainder of the school year. Just over four weeks left.

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