Are you leading a double life?

Do you ever feel that you are two separate people leading parallel lives? I’m not talking some sci-fi, alternate reality, Sliding Doors kind of thing. More that you are functioning so distinctly in your professional and your personal lives, to the extent that they don’t feel synonymous.

These days it’s all about getting a good work-life balance, so they say. What they fail to mention is that there is no separating your life from your work; they are intrinsically bound together. You can take the work from your life, but you cannot take the life from your work.

What is a good work life balance anyway? Is it simply a good balance for each individual? Working 50+ hours a week might actually appeal to a singleton in his/her early twenties, but be a nightmare for parents in their mid-thirties.  It depends very much on circumstances. However, when work starts to bleed regularly into free time, alarm bells should start ringing. Missing important life events such as school plays, sports days, birthdays even, is a good indication of an imbalance. Sacrifice is inevitable sometimes, but it is important to count the cost.

I never thought I would be one to lose my grip on my work life balance. But I did. Big time. When I started my business, I had clear intentions. I would work set hours, be really strict with my boundaries and switch off every night at 6pm. I was very naive. My husband, who had run a business beforehand, warned me that it was almost impossible to switch off, but I didn’t fully understand what he meant. It was a steep learning curve.

Work was the first thing I thought about when I woke (often at 3am!) and inevitably the last thing at night. It started to dominate my thoughts. I was present, but not present. I would say goodbye to my husband as he left for work but really not acknowledge his leaving as I was too distracted by my thoughts or by an email or text. I lost count of the times I realised a few minutes later that my husband had gone for the day and I hadn’t really noticed.

When I started my business in 2007, smartphones did not exist. By 2010, I began to wonder how I ever managed without one. My smartphone was both a blessing and a curse. It enabled me to work remotely and always be on standby in case of emergency. It gave me freedom I had not had before. But in times of stress, I would imagine hearing my ringtone, even though the phone was dormant. I changed my ringtone on several occasions to counter this. Even today, there are certain ringtones that make me shudder, as I recall the feelings of dread they gave me all those years ago.

Unsurprisingly, I lost a lot of weight in the first 12 months of my business. I remember early one morning, chasing the bin men down the road, as I had forgotten to put my wheelie bin out the night before. To my horror, my trousers started falling down mid-run!

As my business grew, there were long periods of stability, which I welcomed with open arms. Very occasionally, we would have quieter periods and I secretly relished these times, as they afforded me time to catch up. I knew not to get too comfortable however, as nothing was guaranteed and the business I was in meant change was almost inevitable. In tough times, when recruitment was very difficult, I felt I was in survival mode most of the time. Juggling. Firefighting. Plate-spinning.

At my worst point, I felt isolated and alone, frustrated, fed-up and extremely stressed. I questioned where the determined, purposeful and resilient person I knew I was had gone.

I knew something had to give.

So I started making changes. And I started thinking differently. I listened to my instinct more when recruiting staff and taking on new business. I started talking more to the people who worked for me. I tried very hard to understand their perspective when they called in sick. I offered more understanding and compassion. I got a separate mobile phone for work, which I switched off at weekends. I worked from 7am to 7pm most days, but I only responded to emails and texts during office hours, unless it was an emergency.

I put in place a multitude of different practices and they all had a positive effect. I started to enjoy my work again. I found my equilibrium. I actually looked forward to Mondays!

I had redressed my work life imbalance.

At the team meeting in December 2018, when I announced my departure from the company, I told my employees that 2018 was the easiest year of my working life as a business owner, and this was largely down to them and their support. But it was also due to the changes I had made over the years preceding which had restored my sanity and saved me from living a double life.