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As diaries fill up, let’s keep some time for reflection

Work-life balance updates

“Sorry, I’m unable to do the meeting then. It’s blocked out for my personal free time.”

I said this a few weeks ago as someone had put a date in my diary for a meeting. They sounded a little taken aback by my stance. I reiterated that it’s the time I block out for swimming. The meeting wasn’t urgent and it could easily have been reworked around that time, yet they still looked puzzled over Zoom. 

The arrival of September has always been a month of new beginnings, reflection and a chance to rethink old habits and usher in better ones. This year, as the world starts opening up and our calendars are filling up, I’ve found that scheduling my free time has become not only a “nice to have” hack but a radical act for my mental health. 

One of the things I enjoyed about lockdown was the time to tap into hobbies and discover who I am outside work. Having a strong sense of self is more important than ever and being intentional about fostering that is just as important as an “urgent” meeting. Sadly, we don’t put enough emphasis on this, even though research has shown that the most fulfilled employees are those who have a life outside of the office. 

Pre-pandemic, a lot of us relished “the cult of being busy”. Busyness became the new status symbol and we used to wear it with pride. And we all do it to various degrees. With burnout on the rise and the more I’ve read about it, the more it feels like something we’re not only expected to feel, but encouraged to. We say we wish we had more time to ourselves, but I’ve come to realise it’s not what we actually want. A study by Silvia Bellezza, an associate professor at Columbia Business School, looked into how we signal status through our use of time. It showed that we aspire to have a busy schedule rather than more leisure time.

When we look busy to others, our ego is stroked. Even while we’re feeling totally burnt out, and it’s impacting our lives negatively, we’re still getting something from the fact that we’re “busy”. We’re romanticising the parts of our work that are unhealthy: looking busy, clocking long hours, checking our emails over dinner. In fact, we’re so busy being busy that we are not taking the time to re-evaluate what actually makes us happy and fulfilled.

© Angus Young/Alamy

There is a pressure to love what you do, but when I entered the world of work with exactly this sort of passion and vitality, I was naive to the reality that loving your job can be a trap. You shouldn’t wake up every day dreading it. In one of my favourite episodes of the Channel 4 comedy Peep Show, about two hapless housemates, Jeremy says to Mark: “I feel like my soul is being chipped away, bit by bit,” and Mark replies sarcastically: “Welcome to the world of work, Jeremy.” 

While our jobs should not feel like our soul is being crushed, our unhealthy pursuit of the perfect job feels like a job in itself at the best of times. The more we romanticise the perfect job or career, the more we neglect our non-work self, the very thing that is essential for our happiness. 

Personal fulfilment outside the 9-5 life allows us to gain confidence, new skills, and overall a deeper sense of satisfaction. Time away from the office has been a chance to rediscover creativity and encourage people to learn new skills. The figures speak for themselves: according to a YouGov poll, UK consumers spent an additional 24 per cent on hobby supplies and 21 per cent on books in 2020.

This is why hybrid working is the future and one we must continue to fight for. It allows us to cultivate a life away from our desks and sandwich lunches, immerse ourselves in our local communities, develop hobbies and sustain relationships with those around us.

I enjoy what I do, but don’t want to derive all my meaning and fulfilment from it. That’s too much pressure to put on ourselves. 

As we venture back into routines, we must continue to seek value in other areas of our lives. When the weeks get busy in the coming months, don’t forget about the other things in life that you enjoy. Our jobs can’t be the only meaningful thing in our lives, even if you do love what you do. 

The writer is author of ‘The Reset: Ideas to Change How We Work and Live’

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