Having returned to full-time work for slightly over 8 months now, working on projects that for the most part were satisfyingly challenging, where the office environment was encouraging and colleagues generally demonstrated camaraderie. Things should look better than it previously was. Yet, I continued to feel overwhelmed and when asked how I feel these days, my response comprised only one word, tired.
It took me a while to figure out where did I go wrong again. It was a classic case of old habits resurrecting to haunt my new lifestyle. Each seemingly innocent decision to take on another piece of work created a mountain and before I knew it, I was buried under. I have allowed myself to fall into the trap of busyness, again. I started staying beyond office hours trying to clear more work, not willing to admit that in my tired state, I was not going to achieve very much and the work would continue to snowball anyway. I was back to my old ways of over-committing and I wondered why.
What was I trying to prove? That was a natural question to ask as I examined my motives. Why was I driving myself to work so hard? Why was I setting myself such hard targets? Were my bosses giving me pressure? Was I trying to justify my head count to my organization? Was I impatient for success? What was I really working and striving for? In truth, I do not know. It just felt like the most natural thing to immerse myself at work now that I am back at work. Furthermore, I genuinely enjoy the work I do now and find so much meaning and fun in it that I really don’t mind working overtime. But, was that really good?
I found out pretty quickly, though still not fast enough, that in life, there is a cost to everything. In choosing to indulge in work, I lost balance in my life, and as a result began to experience fatigue and with that frustration. I became upset with myself, not being as productive as I would like to, not being as generative as I knew I used to be and possibly could be if I had more rest. I found myself shifting back to my ogre ways and my Shrek personality coming to the surface at times. It was not good and I knew I had to do what I always knew, sort of, but always found it hard to do. I had to recalibrate how I work. I needed (desperately) to find a way to work sustainably. and that entailed setting and maintaining clear boundaries. This led me to create 5 simple rules that guide how I work.
Rule #1 Be thoroughly productive during office hours. I realised that the best way to ensure I do not bring work home is to finish all the work I need to do during office hours. It requires that I be intentional in my use of time, which includes resisting the urge to reply each email as they pop up on my screen, not joining in office chit chat when I know I have deadlines to meet and the like. It involves making compromises about lunch dates, about the number of meetings to sit in and the number of people I could talk to in a day. This sometimes involve saying ‘no’ to people who are not used to it, and accepting that I ain’t going to be everyone’s buddy in office. But that’s okay because at the end of the day, what is most important to me is being able to knock off on time knowing that the work has been done.
Rule #2 Guard personal time (that includes both me time and family time) religiously. This took some getting used to but it gets easier with practice. It basically means putting my needs and my family’s needs above my organization’s needs, which translates into giving my parents attention even if that results in me having less time in office to give my attention to colleagues looking for support or help. It means giving time to hobbies and whatever that helps me rest and relax, that reminds me there is more to life than mere work, that allows me to be present for people and events that matter to me. All these mean I can’t be clocking long hours in the office, regardless. In short, it means leaving office even when work is undone to catch the latest episode of Doctors, and not feeling guilty about it. Because… Rule #1.
Rule #3 Communicate clearly what is and what is not within my purview. I know that many would balk at this but I think this is key to being productive at work, not allowing my ego to drive me to do everything under the sun. Yes, all of us can do many things but in truth, we only need to do what is needful for our role in the organisation, and this was something I took a while to learn. Doing this involves quite often, saying ‘no’ to pieces of work that comes my way, which was not always a pleasant experience and there were moments when I worry if I might piss someone off for being ‘calculative’. However, I am beginning to see the beauty of such professional boundaries. As we begin to confront who owns a piece of work and who owns a particular decision, we are clarifying how each one of us play a part in this whole and how we can work together toward our goals.
Rule 4 Trust that my team is working alongside me and giving their best like I do. Why is this important? Because it is a reminder to honour my team’s input and stop redoing their work as my perfectionist streak often inclined me to. This redoing of others’ work not only took up time and infringed on my personal life, it also hid from the bosses and the organization the true capacity of the team. Not only that, such an act dishonored my colleagues’ efforts and deprive them opportunities of growth. However, the worst of all, it created an imbalanced relational dynamics that ultimately prevent me from learning from my colleagues. So, it is pretty clear that there is a lot of good in trusting the team. Even though there would be times when my colleagues let me down, I would still like to give others the benefit of doubt. Not just because it saves me time or because I am a saint (I am not!) but because there is no team without trust.
Rule #5 Resist the compulsion to stand in every gap that appears. Things crop up everyday and we all take turns to mess up, so it is natural (and should be so) to want to help when others get into a fix. We all experienced such moments and often wished someone would just lend a hand…But is it necessary for me to offer help each time a problem occur? The honest answer is ‘no’, and I need to stop over-committing myself to work that nobody wanted to do and landed on my lap because I did not mind helping. It is not hard right, to see how a violation of this rule would render it impossible for me to uphold Rule #1 and Rule #2. This is also somewhat related to Rule #4; each time I choose not to stand in the gap, I am making a choice to trust that someone else will, and as a team, we will learn to step up and back accordingly to both our circumstances and the team’s needs.
At the end of the day, I think it is really all about being humble and facing up to human limitations. I do not have an inexhaustible supply of energy like I used to enjoy in my 20s all the way to my mid 30s. I also learnt through experience that I am not the sole custodian of good ideas or wisdom, and there is much to learn, from everyone around us, whether they are younger or older, wiser or ignorant, skilled or unskilled. I am learning these days, not to overestimate myself and underestimate others. And I think I like how this feels, with new surprises popping up each day from unexpected corners.
For now, these rules are working and keeping my schedule in check. It remains a daily struggle not to ditch the rules and fall back into my senseless old ways of workaholism. Thankfully, because I have savoured the joys of work-life balance, I am eager to regain my balance and once again be fully present in all aspects of my life, not just at work.
There is something beautiful and magical when everything is put in its proper place and given due attention. I call it freedom, the freedom to enjoy life at its fullest. (Kungfu Panda prefers to call it inner peace, and I’d like to think they mean the same thing.)