It was the moment someone suggested setting up a Doodle poll to organize going for drinks that I realized something had gone wrong.
You know how it goes. A casual agreement to go for drinks with more than one person all of a sudden gets stuck in pre-production longer than a new Mel Gibson film. Wednesdays aren’t good for you, ever. You could do this weekend, you think, but you’d earmarked that to work on your blog, and your friends sagely nod and mention the screenplay they’re writing, or the novel that’s been on their desktop at 1,000 words for months.
You open up your calendars and see small purple dots as far as the eye can see. The initial excitement of having a night out has ebbed away, replaced by the realization that this night out, should it ever get the green light, will be yet another thing to add to your already Jenga-like schedule. That’s a lot of pressure to put on pints.
Most of us have been there, and it’s pretty obvious why. It’s that often-talked-about fear of missing out, the archetypal first-world problem that’s insidiously entered the lexicon like a really annoying tapeworm. The idea is that increased exposure to seeing what other people are doing, particularly via social media, has led to us ignoring what we are (or should be) enjoying ourselves. We are so inundated with news that our peers are going out and living at 100 miles an hour that we feel the need to keep pace lest we be left behind. Next thing you know you haven’t gotten home before 10 for five nights in a row.
But you don’t need to read the research to realize that looking at the next few weeks of your life and not seeing any free time is going to feel a little bit daunting. Being chronically overbooked takes its toll on your well-being as well as your wallet, but still it’s so easy to succumb to the pressure to say “yes” to every opportunity that’s presented to you. At some stage, you’ve got to begin saying “no.” Want an easy way to start? Here goes: Cancel your Monday night plans.
This is actually the one and only New Year’s Resolution I’ve ever made and kept. Maybe it was the New Year’s Day hangover this year — one of those deeply existential ones brought on by drinking unspecified quantities of unlabeled liquor your friend brought back from China, where you hum “The New Year” by Death Cab For Cutie all day and quite seriously consider getting into herbal teas — but I decided to make a plan to change.
I began to think about the long weeks I’d been having at work. The ones where Thursday morning rolled along and I struggled to find the motivation to go in, let alone be any good at my job. Most of them began with me going out on a Monday. I felt like when you start the week with a sprint, you burn out before you see the finish line. Come in tired or hung over on a Tuesday, and you’re always playing catch-up on yourself. The days start to feel like heavy water.
So on Mondays, I took the night off. Made no plans, put no pressure on myself to complete anything. Just got home, cooked something, played guitar, slept. When I readjusted the scales ever so slightly, the weeks got noticeably lighter.
Life coach Holly June Smith has noticed this lack of balance growing among her clients, and she puts it down to the multiple side projects and creative hobbies many of us have in addition to our jobs:
“These days everyone has an ‘and’ thing in addition to their day job. Often the ‘and’ thing is the bit that really lights us up creatively and is something we aspire to make a living from, but that doesn’t always happen right away…. If you’ve got a number of projects on the go, pick the ones that feel most important right now. Otherwise you risk making tiny bits of progress in lots of areas but not ever completing anything.”
The “and” thing (aka the side hustle) is far more than a millennial cliché. Some people pursue something creative, like writing a novel or working on a screenplay; others are trying to make extra money, maybe even starting a small business. Hell, maybe you’re just really good at selling stuff on eBay.
Obviously you know you need to work on your “and” thing, but if you go in too hot, you’ll burn out pretty quick. In 2015, I had a full-time job and, in January, put an album out. I completed three tours in three countries using up my annual leave, and by the end of the year the last thing I wanted to do was play music, particularly the same 10 songs I’d been hammering for the past 12 months.
It was this fatigue that led me to my Monday epiphany. It’s a small change, granted, but it worked — those clear hours in the week enabled me to take a step back and look at what I wanted to do, creatively and professionally, and put some plans in place to do them.
For you, maybe that small change is something different. Take the full hour of your lunch break. Turn your phone off after 10pm. Learn to make something delicious that takes less than 10 minutes (peanut butter, soy sauce and chilli flakes makes an acceptable pad-Thai sauce, and nobody will judge you for eating noodles straight out of the pan).
The thing about work/life balance is that it’s much the same as any other kind of balance, in that you tend to sway from side to side before finding the right approach, and sometimes you don’t realize you’re off-balance until you’re falling from the high wire onto the net below. It takes ongoing effort, trial and error, and most importantly, getting back up when you’ve fallen down.