How to Thrive in the New Age of Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance. Yeah, I’m going there.

A search on Amazon brings back a hundred pages of book recommendations. Every few weeks a new thought-piece makes its way around on the secret to achieving balance or whether it’s even achievable. It’s become an industry in itself (do you think those people live balanced lives?).

For the blissfully ignorant, one side of the debate demands that we draw clear lines and boundaries between the personal and professional, while the other side believes that the mere concept of work-life balance is BS. We are so obsessed with solving this problem that we believe overcoming it will lead to our occupational nirvana.

The concept of balance is not new, nor is it specific to our modern work culture. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek figure and father of Western medicine, wrote about the importance of knowing one’s self and believed that balance was essential in order to maintain mental and physical health.

Our bodies are smart, smarter than we give them credit for. They tell us when we’re hungry, in pain, or tired. Some of these signals we readily accept and address, while others go ignored. When our workloads overwhelm us, rather than listen to our drained brains, we try to soldier through. We ignore the negative consequences while bragging about being overworked and pulling all-nighters. 

As New York Times bestselling author Erica Ariel Fox recently wrote on LinkedIn, “When people don’t make a clear choice between resting and working, or any other competing commitments, they usually try to do both and succeed at neither.” As it turns out, we’re not succeeding at taking a break.

Vacation is one part of finding the illusive balance we all strive for. Think about these tips to take a step toward balance with your next vacation:

1. Hold the phone.  
Leaving the office doesn’t quite mean what it used to. Reaching the workplace is now as simple as reaching for our phones. If you take the workplace on vacation with you, time off isn’t going to help your quest for balance. Instead of working through vacation, try to disconnect or, at the very least, set boundaries for email during your break to maximize the benefits of time off. In an interview with Fast Company, serial entrepreneur John Roa likened work-life balance to a glass of water slowly filling with work stress and responsibilities, leading to clouded thinking and a decline in productivity. For Roa, vacation is a way to dump the water out in order to see more clearly, “I come back completely re-energized. I’m ready for new challenges.”

2. Pursue your bucket list.
Aside from the obvious opportunity to cross off a few dream destinations during vacation (my list has quite a few), time away from the daily grind can be spent nurturing other passions. Whether it’s pursuing a love of abstract painting, learning to play the ukulele (I failed at this), or honing your side hustle, by exercising your brain in a new way, you expose your brain to new thinking. Not only will feeding your fancies give you peace of mind, it will also produce more creative thinking on the job—regardless if that’s what you intended or not.

3. Free your mind.
Between work emails, social media updates, and all the other distractions vying for our attention, we rarely take time for profound thought or simply let our minds wander.

“Because many things are new on a vacation, it naturally encourages people to transcend their perceptual thinking ruts (they notice the newness around them) which can be great fodder for new ideas. I think being relaxed helps the creative process,” Bryan Mattimore, author of Idea Stormers: How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs, told Forbes.

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day demands of life and work. Use vacation to reflect on needs that continually take a back seat because of more pressing demands. Give your brain a break and a chance for reflection. By being more intentional with our time and recognizing when we need a break (and taking it), we may find ourselves more present in the now.

Personal and occupational nirvana isn't something that can happen overnight or as the result of one day off. But you've got to start somewhere, and vacation is just the right gateway.

September 22, 2016