Life’s Alchemy: Transmuting Work Into Life

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 11: Balance

Why do we spend so much time working and so little time living? That’s the question that’s puzzling me this rainy Sunday afternoon.

I’m sat in the lounge with my two-year-old daughter’s head nestled into my chest, watching her favourite TV programme before her afternoon nap. As we sit, I’m using Byword on my iPhone to jot down a few feelings and ideas that have just come to mind. As a small business owner, father and husband, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Work/Life balance and what steps I could take to try and improve without compromising any of my roles along the way. It’s a tough proposition because we naturally assume that we can only ever dedicate ourselves to one role at any given time. The notion that these areas of our lives can co-exist never seems to come to mind, yet here I am, enjoying a moment of paternal closeness with my youngest daughter whilst putting these emotions into print.

It’s not as hard as it sounds; You just need to sit back and evaluate your definitions of ‘Work’ and ‘Life’.

What is Work?

My wife and I have a very clear definition of what constitutes “work”. Work is any action you complete which can be preceded by the words ‘Have To’, ‘Should Do’ or ‘Must Do’. It is through the adoption of this mindset that we have been able to overcome some of the difficulties that all married couples endure at various stages in their lives. It’s a strategy that has allowed us to grow closer as a couple, evolving into more of a team that two singular, disparate roles in the household.

You see, it’s very easy for people in relationships to take each other for granted, especially when you have been together for a long period of time. My work days would involve getting up at 5 am, dealing with the long commute into London, putting in a full shift at work and then coming home to help with the children. The commute home would invariably involve studying so that I could improve myself and my prospects for more work. Once the little darlings were in bed, I would then attempt to wind down before starting the whole rigmarole again the next day.

It’s a routine that must be familiar to many people the world over. My main problem arose from the fact that I suffered from a very closed mind when it came to considering my wife’s day. She “worked”, but only three days a week rather than five; How then, I reasoned, could she possibly be more tired than I was? After a succession of fatigue-induced arguments, I eventually experienced one of those rare ‘light-bulb’ moments when I tried to play out a day in my wife’s life and realised that she was working more than I was.

Everything she was doing – every action she was taking, every decision she was making – was not done out of choice, but out of necessity. Her mind and body were working all day and I was too self-involved to realise this.

Everything she was doing – every action she was taking, every decision she was making – was not done out of choice, but out of necessity.

Anyone who is a parent knows it is is a role that brings with it tasks and actions that simply have to be completed: daily, weekly, monthly. Children need taking to school, clothes need to be washed, shopping needs to be purchased from the supermarket. There’s playing, reading, maintaining a clean house – the list of tasks and actions that need to be performed in the role of parenting goes on and on.

There isn’t a direct financial reward for this work, however, that doesn’t mean that it’s not work. If all things were equal, would my wife choose to spend all of her time on these tasks? Of course not. There is nothing she’d like more than to be able to meet up with her friends occasionally without the children, to be able to remember she is a woman as well as a wife and mother sometimes. Yet this was something I neglected to realise and, thankfully, have since been able to put right.

As well as a healthier marriage, I also have a healthier relationship with myself because I have far more of an understanding as to why I used to feel so tired all of the time, both mentally and physically. My day was almost fully populated with actions that would constitute work, even though I didn’t see it and even though I thought I was being healthy by having this mindset, it certainly wasn’t the case. My day was filled with ‘Have To’, ’Must Do, ‘Should Do’ but there was one vital phrase that was missing and was responsible for me slipping into some of the darkest times of my life.

What Is Life?

If work can be defined by the phrases ‘Have To’, ‘Must Do’ and ‘Should Do’ then we should also find a phrase to define life. This phrase is ‘Want To’.

I always try to ensure that my days are filled with actions that I know I want to do because this is where the life elements of the work/life balance come into play. If I complete an action that I have to do, I always try to make sure it’s followed by some reading, or listening to a podcast for ten minutes, maybe playing a little bit of Plants vs Zombies 2, perhaps phoning my wife to see how she and the kids are – something that is going to bring me joy and make me in a positive enough mood to kick off with another work task. It very much follows the reward-based culture and I can happily admit to being motivated by this approach! After all, I love doing things that bring me joy, so why shouldn’t I incorporate it into my workflows in order to improve my productivity levels? Seems like common sense to me.

You may be skeptical; I experienced the same skepticism myself. In any given day, it can often feel as if there is just too much work that needs to be completed in order for this balance to be in any way realistic. But there is a way.

Change Your Work Statements into Life Statements

When I started on this work/life balance project, I couldn’t believe the number of actions I had that I simply Had To, Should Do, Must Do. Could I cut these tasks out of my life? No. I decided to go down another avenue and work out how I could change a Must Do statement in a Want To statement.

Let’s take the example of getting the train to work. At first glance, this is a work action because it’s something that you must do. However, if you look at why it is you are performing that action, you can redefine what it means to you. I get the train, as opposed to driving, because it gives me the opportunity to be able to do other things, like read, write posts and develop killer Mac workflows! I travel to work because the end result of this action is a financial reward and I am able to support my family. Giving my family the best life I can is something I want to do. Therefore it is entirely plausible that I want to get the train to work to allow this to happen. All of a sudden, by re-evaluating the action and its ultimate reward, I’ve changed it from a Work task to a Life task.

by re-evaluating the action and its ultimate reward, I’ve changed it from a Work task to a Life task.

I found many other elements of my ‘work’ life that I was able to shift across in this way. Creating training material for clients gave me the ability to hone my skills in applications like Clarify 2 and ScreenFlow, which is something I want to do. Making calls to various VIPs gave me the opportunity to impress them and get recommendations, as well as the potential for extensions to my contracts – again, something that I want to happen.

Not everything can be shifted in this way though! There will be some things that, no matter how hard you try, you will NEVER look forward to completing. These are the ones that are most susceptible to procrastination and this is how I dealt with them.

Being able to sit back, review my actions and evaluate why they have to tasks exist has been key to achieving a level of balance I could have only dreamed of years ago. Completing more actions because you want to rather than have to simply means that you are able to live more. And after all, isn’t that what we are here to do?
So it’s time for little one to head to bed now for her afternoon nap. We’ve had a great cuddle, some lovely little chats and I’ve been able to write something that may help some of you good people out there. I wanted to write this piece and I wanted to spend time with someone who means the world to me. By shifting between these two actions, I didn’t have to worry about balance.

I turned Work into Life.