Will you define the work? Will the work define you?


Shared on Flickr by Helen ST

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.” 
― Alain de Botton

In my first year teaching I was completely and utterly consumed by work. I loved the work and fell deeply in love with it that first year; I loved the intensity, the creativity and the connections with kids I found…but the work owned me. Over the years my love has not waned, but I have had to define the balance between being owned by the work and owning the work. Over the years I have watched, both from a far and up close, as others have struggled mightily with this subtle yet significant difference. Some have lost and some have won.

Where is the tipping point between being owned and owning?
Where is the point of no return for losing yourself to the work?
Where in the work are you sustained and renewed?

I am no expert at balance. For me it has been an ongoing process of reflection, readjustment and re-calibration and is part of the work itself.

Insights that have emerged for me, as I defined the work are offered below:

1. Define your own balance.
My balance is getting a bit out of balance. I love big messy and impossible projects. This is where my passion for the work lies and is sustained. I know these projects are what keep the “fire in my belly” alive. When I do not dream big and set far-off goals I disengage from the work. This is my balance. I have had to search out and create such projects.
Many have given advice on balance, schedules and some have raised eyebrows at my work routines. I like to get up early to write and do school work. I like to work with kids outside of school on big projects. For me, these projects are my source of joy and connection.
However, there are seasons to my work and at times I have had to step away (for family, my husband’s work demands, etc.). For me stepping away has made the work even sweeter upon returning. Like a speed limit, there were times in life I had to slow down. And then there were times I saw it safe to speed up.

2. Know what you sacrifice.
Dinner with the family? Sleep? A dentist appointment? Hold up for yourself item by item the specific activities and chores you are not doing when you choose to extend the work beyond the work day. Are these vital and important or are you ready to let go of these? For me I know what I will let go of and know for example that I will not let go of family dinner and time after dinner to hangout.

3. Eat steak before sizzle.
In all aspects of life it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and hype of any project. How novel! How fun! This is the sizzle. But to survive, to grow, to build you will need to eat steak. To find the steak you will need to find where the essence of your work lies. For me the essence of my work has been the connections with my students. I use these as my compass. Projects, initiatives, activities that prevent or destroy these are ones I avoid. Sometimes this will feel counter intuitive. I have kept this definition up front and center as I make the many micro decisions every day.

4. Hold no expectation of others.
This is where I still struggle. I can hold expectations for myself and work towards those. I know I cannot impose my expectations on others, students or co-workers; they have to do this for themselves. If I do this unconsciously, then when I end up disappointed, this is my problem to own and deal with, not theirs.

5. Say yes to what you love.
This morning I choose to say yes to writing as I know this activity feeds me and produces a mental calm for the week ahead. Just as I know that making time to have significant conversations with people I work with, whether students or adults, have over the years, feed my soul. I know making time for student requests for extra help and putting these before meetings or committee work has served to keep me rooted in the work I love.

6. Find your way to let go.
There will be many things to let go off; bad days, disagreements and disappointments. How you let go and shake these off will flavour the days and years ahead. Look behind and see the rocks are you still dragging. Is it the work of today or the rocks of yesterday that are dragging you under? For me, letting go is a process I need to honour, it takes time and deep reflection to let go. I need to give myself the mental opportunity to work through these tricky spots so I can do the work unencumbered tomorrow.

7. Hold on to what you can’t replace.
Early on in my teaching career I decided very consciously I would hold on to what I couldn’t replace and nothing else. I watched teachers get bent out of shape over lost pencils, scissors, bobbins etc. I cannot replace if lost, my love of teaching; I decided to fight every day to hold onto that. I cannot replace student confidence, curiosity, and trust, if lost. I would fight for those.
Pencils, stapler, broken glassware no big deal!

8. Act from love.
There is a sweet spot somewhere in your heart where the work does not feel like work. Here, the work comes from you without effort, without thought. You must find this spot and work to go there as much and as often as possible. This is the work you are called to do; this is your work and no one else’s. This is where you own the work.

9. Embrace the zany.
Some days are going to be those that make you wonder why you choose this work anyway. You will feel as a donkey must, struggling up the last part of a steep escarpment with an over heavy load. You will think: “I cannot.”
It is on these days that you must search to embrace and celebrate, the silly, the zany, and the things that tickle your funny bone. These gifts of lightness will save you from forgetting the joy of your work.

10. Lift your head.
As the work gets heavy we tend to drop out heads and see all that is still not done, all the challenges we face. It is in these moments I remember to lift my head and look out…way out…to the farthest horizon to see the big picture again and anew. Ah right…this is the bigger purpose of my work.


4 thoughts on “Will you define the work? Will the work define you?

  1. #1, #2, and #4 especially resonate with me. Thank you for organizing and putting into words the scattered emotions and ideas that have been going on in my mind.

  2. This was a pleasure to read – not pleasure in a joyful way, but in a meaningful way. How many professionals now have access to their work outside their workplace? I believe most do via laptops, web-based access, and smartphones all blurring the lines between personal & professional, or between work-life and home-life.
    One of the challenges with educators is that the job is NEVER done – there is always more prep or planning or marking or tweaking or contacting parents or etc… We must decide for ourselves where the daily finish-line is. I know this is constantly a battle for me – one I don’t always win.
    In this regard, point #2 above is my filter when I chose to work late, or when I chose to bring an extra amount of work home. What is most important to me in the long run?
    Thanks for the post and for helping me reflect on my work-life balance.

    • Hi Paul, Exactly, work has now seeped into our home life just as home life has entered the workplace with the omnipresence of our cell phones. I was talking to a colleague about how now it seems like a long time if I don’t check my email ALL day on Saturday. In the past I could easily go all weekend without once even thinking about it. This blur while providing continuity to our identity, also provides challenges. To completely disconnect from work (no matter how much we love what we do) has become more challenging and in certain respects more demanding.
      I am thankful that in my continual challenge to find balance, I inevitably run out of steam and recognize that I need significant unplugged time, I just wish I could recognize this before the run out of steam stage 🙂 I know my enthusiasm for new projects and learning is both my blessing and my curse.
      As always, I appreciate and value you readership and comments!

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