When I started my job at Siemens after my PhD, I had a meeting at my boss’s office and looked at the wall behind his desk. In big letters he had “work-life balance” with three exclamation marks hanging as a reminder. Similar to me, this said boss was a true workaholic. He had managed to move up the career ladder of this big conglomerate in enormous speed. I did not really need to ask him why he needed this reminder because it was quite obvious: he lived for his job. From the beginning, I was also lucky to be mentored by this boss and one of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me was the following: “If you have troubles to unwind, do something in your free-time which is not related at all to your job. I know you learn Chinese, but this is also for your career. Find something else. I started to learn Italian, because it makes me think of holidays, I look forward to the trips and I do not really need it at work.”
I always found it hard to relax. Most of my holidays are planned in detail in advance with a tight programme – I never had a real beach holiday for longer than five days, because it drives me crazy. And no matter if I worked as an employee or for my own company, I always identify with my tasks and look for ways to contribute to the projects.
However, when I quit my job and started out on my own, I clearly overdid it. I started working at 6.30 in the morning, then went to the co-working space when it opened at 9. Apart from lunches or gym sessions with my friends, I gradually reduced my social life and also spent the weekends working. My calls with my team in Europe were sometimes as late as midnight or I woke up at 4.30 to catch them before they went to sleep. I did this not because I was anti-social (those who know me in person know that I am actually a party animal) but because I was obsessed and at the same time scared. I needed this to work out. I risked my career, my savings, my future.
One day I met my friend Olivia for a coffee. When she looked at me I knew something was up: “Liz, you look shit! You look so exhausted. Please take a day off. You need to rest!”. That was harsh. But unfortunately true. And because my mother – my usual direct and sometimes harsh voice – was 10,000 km away, I actually needed to hear it. I looked into the mirror and Olivia was right. I did look exhausted. I decided to take the day off, went to Ikea and did some shopping to decorate my room. The next day at the coworking space, I started to think if I was really as productive as I thought I would be. And you might have guessed – I was not. Furthermore, my creativity was gone and it made working on tasks such as app or website design or marketing really hard. The longer I have worked for myself, the more I really thought about how realistic this work-life balance actually is? Can we really have a balance when we start out in our careers? Can we really have it all?
I never was a person who drew a clear line between my professional and my private life. Frequently, I have troubles with people who live for the weekend, hating their jobs from Monday until Friday and spending the weekend drunk to forget about how miserable they are in their jobs. It is totally normal not to love your job every day. But I do not consider that a work-life balance either.
Gradually, I started to define the term “work-life balance” for myself: Unless, there is a really busy week, I try not to spend more than nine to ten hours before the screen. You might laugh but this is improvement. It used to happen quite frequently that I got caught up in something I started at 6.30 in the morning and only realized that I spent the whole day working on it when the sun went down. Moreover, I also started to address the feeling of guilt. When I was not in front of my laptop or not answering emails, guilt was all over me. I thought I needed to prove to myself and everyone that I am really working. (I actually should write a separate article about how often I am considered a housewife with “no real job”. 😀 ) And then I remembered my boss’s advice again. I enrolled in art history courses and started painting. And, of course, I invested in my social life again. Because in the end, which life do we lead if we cannot share our successes and happy times with our friends and family?
To sum up, the term “work-life balance” does not necessarily mean a clear distinction between my professional and personal life. My definition has become a 3-3-3 formula: 1/3 is the job, 1/3 is social life and 1/3 is investment in myself. Often, these three bleed into each other and I am perfectly fine with it. I met great friends because of my job or joined professional forces with my friends. But as a last note: I tink it is totally utopian to think every single week can be equally balanced. I have some weeks where I invest in the first third and simply do not have the time to invest in myself or my social life. But then I try to allocate more time the following week. Maybe we should call it “life balance” or “positive life approach”?
Have a balanced/productive/positive (however we want to call it) week ahead!
Special thanks to Erich Reindl who shared his beautiful photos with me.