By Roxanne Donovan - Wellness
As I mentioned in my last post, I am focusing four consecutive posts, starting with this one, on ways to improve an out-of-sync professional-personal dance—that interplay between the oftentimes competing demands of work and life. The first step to this new dance is identifying the problem. It requires examining two half steps.
The first half of this step requires you to ask yourself:
If you were being truly honest with yourself, how often in the last month have you completely disconnected from work during your personal time?
By disconnected I mean that after work hours you are focused solely on personal and not work-related activities – no surreptitiously checking work email while eating dinner with your partner, no editing papers while the kids watch videos, no conference calls during your drive home, no grading before bed, NOTHING having to do with work after work hours.
If you answered almost always or even the majority of the time, personal is the lead partner in your professional-personal dance. Nice job! No need to read the next three posts of this series. In fact, you can stop reading this post now.
If your response was more along the lines of, “come on, I have the type of job where I can’t be disconnected,” (but you’re not a brain surgeon) or, “there was that afternoon three weeks ago when my internet connection failed,” I invite you to read on.
Since you’re still reading, I can only assume it is because you have acknowledged, maybe not for the first time, that work is filling up more of your life than you would like. You are not alone. Our society’s 24/7 work mentality, coupled with technological advances, means there is no 5:00 pm whistle for most professionals. Instead, each of us must make difficult choices about when we focus on the professional and when we focus on the personal, keeping in mind that a healthy and fulfilling life is one where the personal is leading most of the time.
Use this moment of insight as your first half-step toward change.
The other half-step involves identifying the main aspect of your work—what I will call your vulnerability—that keeps the personal from leading in your professional-personal dance. Identifying this main vulnerability is important because interventions are most successful when they are tailored to address the problem.
Let me digress here and explain why I am asking you to identify your MAIN work vulnerability only, even though (1) there might be multiple work vulnerabilities; and (2) there might be non-work related vulnerabilities. Said simply, change is hard. Because of this, we can increase the likelihood of success by narrowing the focus. Starting with work is also important since professionals in U.S. culture are typically expected to put in long hours and many don’t have or can’t take the vacation time needed to fully recharge.
Okay, back to the topic at hand...
I have found repeatedly in my own life, and in my work with academics and other professionals, four main work vulnerabilities that serve to keep the personal from leading. [CAVEAT: Keep in mind YOUR main work vulnerability may not be among these, so please view the list below as suggestive not definitive.]
The four vulnerabilities are easy to remember because they form the acronym STOP.
Organization and Planning
Systemic vulnerabilities relate to the culture of an organization. For example, an organization might have a culture of invalidation or hostility toward underrepresented groups, such as people of color, women, gender non-conforming/transgender people, same-gender attracted people, or religious minorities. If you belong or are an ally to one or more of these groups, such a work environment would require considerable energy to navigate leaving little left over for the personal aspects of life. Other systemic issues that make it difficult to boundary work include indirect or non-existent communication, vague or conflicting policies, limited resources, job insecurity, and unchecked harmful interpersonal dynamics.
Temporal vulnerabilities relate to time and timing. It includes such behaviors as not tracking time well (i.e., not always knowing what time it is), losing time when engrossed in an enjoyable activity—called flow, or not knowing how long the tasks of a job will take to complete. How temporally focused you are is influenced by the ethnic subculture you grew up in. For example, in my Caribbean culture of origin, time is more abstract. This means it is not natural for me to know exactly what time it is during the day or exactly when I need to leave to arrive home on time for dinner. As you might imagine, this creates tons of problems given that most of my family’s activities are highly time-structured, not the least of which are my kids’ school day and their bedtimes. So when I don’t arrive home by dinnertime or I don’t wake up early in the morning, I am unable to spend as much quality time with my children.
ORGANIZATION AND PLANNING
I’m sure this requires very little explanation, but I’ll do it anyway. Organization and planning relate to how you structure your work time. Some of us do so in ways that maximize efficiency, and some of us do so in ways that minimize it. When we minimize efficiency at work, we increase the likelihood that work will spill over into personal time. Specifically, organization is knowing where everything is in your work environment, which makes it easy to find that file/book/ruler/pencil/website when you need it. This includes organizing your technology, such as your computer files and emails, so that information can be easily found. Planning relates more to knowing what you are going to do during a particular day and in what order. If you find yourself perpetually looking for things you need to do your job or are unable to determine what you should do first when you arrive at the office or next when you complete an assignment, you may need to tighten your organization and planning.
Perceptual vulnerabilities relate to internal standards for what kind of worker you believe you SHOULD be—careful here not to confuse this with what kind of worker you have to be. Those whose standards are excessively high are likely to have very little quality personal time. These high standards apply to those who believe they have to be connected to work at all times, even though doing so is unnecessary, and those that feel everything they produce must always be perfect. Certain environments foster unrealistically high standards, such as competitive workplaces, authoritarian supervisors, being part of an underrepresented group (a.k.a. token status), and coming from a work-centered family.
What is your main vulnerability? Is it among the four or is it something else?
What to do next?
Once you have identified your main vulnerability, come up with a plan to address it this year. For example, I now set a timer that goes off 30 minutes before I am supposed to leave the office to remind me to start wrapping up what I am doing. So far it is working well, but I am prepared to set the timer even earlier if I need to do so.
Don’t just think about a plan – write it down and post it somewhere you can see it regularly, like your bathroom mirror.
If you are stuck and can't figure out what a good plan would look like, be sure to read my next post on February 20th. It will focus on step two of the dance—differentiating personal time from professional time. In this post, I provide tips on how to preserve personal time, including ways to boundary the impact of the four work vulnerabilities above.
In peace and solidarity,