Eight tips to help you find a better balance between work and personal life
After I burned out a few years ago, I realised I had to change how I approached things
Use a timer for intense bursts of concentration. Photograph: iStock
I’ve been working since I was 14. I’ve worked in delis, as a dental nurse, a cleaner, and a trainee ear-piercer in Claire’s Accessories, and I’ve worked in the media for more than 10 years.
I’m someone who took pride in being driven – someone who always had a job, no matter what. I recognise that being “driven” only accounts for some part of my success – I had structural support around me, in the form of my parents, a university degree and my privileged white middle-class background.
But I still placed a large amount of my self-worth in how well I performed at work, whether that was becoming a national newspaper columnist at the age of 22, or writing a book while holding down a full-time job.
The problem with putting all of you into your career means you don’t keep an awful lot back for yourself. After I burned out a few years ago, I realised I had to change the way I approached things – while I’ve always been good at ignoring work emails at the weekends, I was taking work emotions and stresses home with me, waking up in a cold sweat with fear.
I realised that I’m someone who loves structure, so even though freelancing worked for others, it was never going to be a good fit for me. I began to build better boundaries between my work and personal life.
Here are some tips that helped me, and might help you too:
1) If you work in an open-plan office, or somewhere that uses a shared work calendar, block out chunks of time to focus. For example, Tuesday mornings are typically quiet for me and a good time to catch up on tasks that require more concentration. So, I put two hours of “do not disturb” time in my calendar so that nobody can grab me. Think about the way your energy flows during the day and when you could use some uninterrupted time. You could even explore this if you work for yourself – could you “steal” any time for yourself?
2) Use a timer for intense bursts of concentration. The Pomodoro technique focuses on breaking projects down into 25-minute chunks (called “Pomodoros”). You take a short break after every 25 minutes, and after four Pomodoros, you take a longer break.
3) Realise that everyone feels awkward and insecure at work. Some people just hide it better! You are absolutely not the only person on your team who feels anxious about their performance, so try not to beat yourself up for feeling insecure.
4) However, imposter syndrome is more prevalent for people from different backgrounds who might not be well supported in the workplace. Find a mentor and support system if you’re experiencing imposter syndrome. In Slay in Your Lane, Funke Abimbola explains how vital these were for her career progression as a black woman: sponsorship, mentoring and coaching are three things that are essential to career progression, and they’re all very different. Mentoring is guidance and advice. Sponsoring is someone actively looking for opportunities for you and putting you forward for them. Coaching is actually teaching you the skills: how to influence; how to communicate; how to get by; this is how you should run the meeting and so on.
5) Nobody is automatically good at having difficult conversations, so why not make being better at having them a work goal? Admitting to finding something tricky is not a weakness. Giving feedback is a skill that will grow the more you practise it.
6) When it comes to supporting an LGBTQAI+ employee, or any colleague whose lived experience differs from yours, you might find it useful to think about this advice from trans studies academic Jacob Hale: “Approach your topic with a sense of humility. Interrogate your own position. Don’t erase our voices.”
7) An article in the Harvard Business Review explains that there are three kinds of networking: operational, personal and strategic. Operational helps leaders manage their work internally, personal helps leaders in their development and strategic helps leaders consider new business challenges. It basically means that you can “network” in your current role and also with your peers. For example, a close work friend can help with “personal” growth, while a senior mentor will be able to help you connect the dots in your role “strategically”.
8) Don’t be your own worst boss. In an essay for the zine Do What You Want, Laura Snapes encourages you to write a list of the things that you do when you’re letting work overtake you: “For me, it’s things like not showering, forgetting to clean my teeth until way after lunch, obsessively picking non-existent blackheads on my arms, getting into a social media spiral, eating lunch at my desk . . . ” Keep your list of overwhelming habits handy so you can check in if you notice yourself doing these things. On the list you could also note what helps you calm down.
101 Tiny Changes to Brighten Your World by Ailbhe Malone is available from Easons (€13.99, Icon Books)