Never-ending deadlines. To-do lists. Lunches on-the-go. Inboxes that are never empty.
It’s a challenge that nearly everyone can relate to: Creating clear boundaries between our work and personal lives so that — despite never-ending tasks and obligations — we can strike somewhat of a balance and avoid burnout.
The causes of this imbalance are numerous. From our own ambitions to a sense of naïveté to societal expectations.
‘Hustle Culture’ — where we’re constantly working to achieve our goals — is a widely accepted narrative.
As the saying often goes, if we simply work harder, we can achieve our goals. I mean, the more we work, the more satisfied we’ll feel. Or the more we hustle to make other people’s lives easier, the happier we’ll be… right?
I’ve run into this issue firsthand. While building our social enterprise ThriveHire, navigating personal and career expectations, and trying to balance a social life, I started to experience burnout. It hit me hard, in unexpected ways. I lost almost all motivation and energy. It wasn’t easy, and the challenges are simply too long to list in a short blog post. But with the support of family and friends, I started to slowly examine what I had done to get myself there, and more importantly, what things I didn’t want to bring back into my life so that I could avoid arriving at the same point later in my life. One of the biggest insights I gained was how I personally wanted to unsubscribe from a Hustle Culture. Simply put, I wanted more time in my schedule for ‘unproductive’ things that rejuvenated me. It’s an ongoing process. But here are some insights that I’d love to share with you.
Hustle Culture is often glorified. People who are widely referenced as being ‘geniuses’ or ‘at the top of their games’ commonly discuss the sacrifices they made to achieve their goals, sometimes as if it’s a ‘badge of honour.’ And within this rhetoric, it’s easy to overlook the tradeoffs. Within our ‘hustling’, we risk burnout, we can experience poorer relationships, and inadvertently, we can fall into a trap of placing productivity over our own self-care. So the tricky question is, What sacrifices are you willing to, or should you, make in order to achieve your goals?
That’s a personal question. The answer will be different for everyone. But what I can’t help but acknowledge is how little it’s openly discussed in many of our societies. COVID-19 certainly hasn’t made this challenge any easier. The lines between our work and personal lives are increasingly blurred. It’s now easier than ever for our working hours to creep into our personal time. I’d therefore argue it’s an evermore important time for us to interrogate this.
One of the professions where this issue is very common is entrepreneurship. In the mission that entrepreneurs have to ‘solve a problem’ and ‘create an impact,’ we can fall into a trap of using our passion as an excuse to overlook our health and well-being. It’s easy for drive to become a means to overlooking our own needs. And as the founder of a company, I learned this the hard way. I didn’t realize how embedded I was becoming in Hustle Culture until I was one year into ThriveHire. I would often stay up past midnight to work on tasks. I’d feel guilty for not responding to emails when I was doing something that could energize me, like going on a hike. It was as if I found myself running on a hamster wheel wondering why I couldn’t manage to simply step off of it. And not surprisingly, I started to experience signs of burnout like:
To put it bluntly, it was a wake up call to re-prioritize things.
This experience is of course not only relevant to entrepreneurs; professionals in various domains of global health can experience it too, from people in the non-profit sector to academia, policy and more. If you’ve read this far in this post, odds are you may have experienced it yourself too.
Although it’s easy to glorify Hustle Culture (even if done inadvertently), with time, I began realizing that I wanted to unsubscribe to it. No social mission or task was worth my health. I began prioritizing sleep. I intentionally carved time for tasks like reading a (non-work related) book, hiking, listening to a(n unrelated) podcast, and journaling. And more importantly, I finally started to feel less guilty about all of it because I understood the value in those tasks.
Although I don’t know if a perfect work-life balance can ever be ‘achieved,’ I do feel it’s something we can prioritize and intentionally work towards. And during this attempt to unsubscribe to Hustle Culture, here are some lessons I’ve learned:
Whether you’re launching a business or are starting that new degree program, define upfront what success looks like to you. Everyone will have an opinion of which sacrifices you should make and which ones you shouldn’t. But with time, I’ve realized that no matter what my existing demands or obligations may be, I don’t need them to come at a cost that I am not personally willing to commit to. Gaining this clarity over my own definition of success — and more importantly, giving myself the permission to follow through with it — has had a huge impact on my health. I feel less stressed and no longer feel obliged to make everyone happy, as I now understand what I’m personally working towards (and equally importantly, what I’m not).
It can be easy to assume that by putting in copious amounts of work, we can inspire others to work hard and ‘go after their own dreams.’ But that’s not always the case. What you’re willing to sacrifice may not be what the people around you want for themselves. In fact, we may inadvertently be placing anxiety and pressure on others to always be working. This mentality can influence company culture and inadvertently lower team morale.
Counterintuitively, once I started discussing concerns more openly about my own burnout, I started noticing an indirect byproduct: A sense of validation and ease. It was as if (not consciously) I gave others permission to be open about their own struggles in striking a work-life balance. While that was of course not the goal, it was an unexpected observation. It was ironic. Because while we often fear raising these conversations over concerns that it may inhibit team productivity, I found the opposite happened: trust and camaraderie was built. Simply put, we were acknowledging and humanizing this problem, and in turn, people started feeling more understood and motivated. And during this, I was surprised to see just how common of a problem burnout is!
When we’re passionate about something, it’s easy to attach a good amount of our worth and identity to it. If it’s successful, we can experience a euphoric high. However, the opposite is also true. What I’ve learned is that I don’t think either approach is healthy for myself. Because even if it’s ‘successful,’ most of my sense of self-worth is balancing on that one pillar. And that’s a pretty fragile state to be in. Our identity can shift over time based on our experiences. At the end of the day, work (or whatever it is that we’re prioritizing or valuing at a given time) is just one facet of our lives. It’s not everything. Gaining a sense of identity beyond that is crucial. And I’d argue that investing in areas like our relationships, hobbies, etc. don’t just ‘complement’ our work. Rather, these facets are equally important aspects, which can benefit other areas in our lives.
While navigating this, I asked many people over the past year how they’ve maintained a sense of balance in their work and personal lives. I received a handful of responses. Some people said the idea of a balance could never exist, while others shared how they’ve learned to make more time for a larger array of activities.
As mentioned above, although I don’t know if we can ever maintain a complete work-life balance, like anything that we choose to prioritize, I do think we can intentionally work towards it. During this, I’ve also learned that it’s an ongoing process. This isn’t an end-point that we simply reach. The reason is because different chapters will inevitably bring different challenges. And during these times, we’ll need to find ways to adapt and to prioritize different things. We’ll have to make sacrifices. But within each of these chapters, I’m starting to recognize a common challenge is making time for self-care, and not falling into the trap of giving more than I’m able to.
Overall, with time, I’m learning it’s okay to just take time for rest. To come up with individual metrics of success. And in doing so, I can start making contributions through a means that I’m more likely to sustain over the long-term. Thoughts? Disagreements? Add your work-life balance insights/experiences in the comments below!