Rocky Road: A problem with work-life balance and fear of changing careers

by DGO Web Administrator

I’m in a position where I work a lot, and I’m having a hard time finding a work-life balance. I find myself working all weekend to make sure I’m ahead, and I feel guilty when I take any time for myself. This past weekend I had family in town (I hadn’t seen them in months) and I made myself check out and focus on them instead of working, but when Monday rolled around, I found myself so stressed out and panicked that I could barely focus. I don’t know what to do. I’m already on an antidepressant, which should be helping with my anxiety, but when it comes to work, nothing makes a dent. How do I take my life back?Stressed trying to be the best

Dear Stressed,

I’m going to take a leap and guess that this quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Big Magic,” is something you might identify with:

“I cannot imagine where women ever got the idea that they must be perfect in order to be loved or successful. Ha ha ha! Just kidding! I can totally imagine: We got it from every single message society has ever sent us! Thanks, all of human history!” (If you are not a female, you can take comfort in the fact that you live in a society so egalitarian that the pressure to be perfect is now evenly distributed.)

First thing is to cut yourself some slack. Perfectionism is a hard habit to quit. Like a bad relationship, it always wants to creep back into your life.

Part of the problem, I’m guessing, is that a manner of working that suited you at one point in your life may have begun to feel out of whack as your expectations have changed. When I was a recent college grad, I was happy to sacrifice weekends if it would help my work stand out. As the years passed, I grew less inclined to do that and more inclined to feel resentful if I had to.

My point is that achieving work-life balance is kind of like gardening. You work from the ground up. Neither nutrient-poor soil nor a soul-sucking workplace are things that can be repaired overnight. A good place to start is with getting clear on your priorities. Counterintuitively, I recommend starting with the “life” part of the equation rather than the “work.” My experience is that work is like clutter in a closet — it expands to fit the space it has.

What pursuits outside of work most excite you? Whether it be soap-making, poetry writing, or roller derby, find a way to commit yourself to it by taking a class, joining a team, or booking a trip. Don’t wait until things are less busy at work because they never will be. Once you’ve committed to a passion project, two things happen: 1) you become more focused at work because you know you need to get out of there, and 2) your bosses learn you have time that is off-limits for their projects. They may grumble about it, but 99 to 1 they won’t be unhappy enough to do anything about it.

The hardest part, you are likely to find, will be quieting your inner critic. Being over-worked and over-scheduled can be perversely gratifying in that it makes us feel our time is valuable. As you take decisive steps to scale back, the critic is likely to berate you for slacking. If something goes wrong as a result of your stepping back, the critic will say this is evidence you can’t be away. This isn’t true. Instead of capitulating, look at what systemic measures can be put in place to allow for your absence. As a business owner, this took me a long time to learn. In the beginning, if an employee made a mistake while I was away, I would castigate myself for trusting some else to do my work. Eventually, I got better at training and empowering my employees. Now I can be away and know that the operation is in good hands.

Of course you can always change jobs, but I would try making changes at the one you’ve got first. The more you exercise your agency, the more natural it will come. And that is a skill that will serve you no matter where you land.

I’ve worked in my industry for a long time and am seriously considering changing fields for more stability, but I’m nervous to change. Any advice on how to make that leap?Fork in the Road

Notwithstanding what I told the previous letter writer, I think it’s essential to stay nimble in today’s rapidly changing world. I’m only mid-way though my working life and I’ve already had three careers. There’s upsides and downsides to that. Each career change, I told myself my previous experience would count for something. It didn’t. Or, at least not in giving me advanced placement in my next career. But it was helpful in giving me confidence, which is everything. Whatever choice you make, fear can’t be your motivator. I’ve seen it a hundred times and it never turns out well. On one end, people cling desperately to jobs with diminishing remuneration because they are afraid of change. On the other end, people decide to change to a certain career because they think it will pay well only to find they either don’t like it or the market no longer values it.

In my experience, a rewarding career lies at the convergence of a person’s skills, passions, disposition, and life circumstances. When you look around that intersection, you may find yourself at an unexpected place. That is the joy of life.

Katie Burford has worked as a social worker, journalist, university instructor, nanny and barista. These days, she’s a mom, professional ice cream maker and writer. Reach her at [email protected], @rockyroadadvice (Twitter) or Rocky Road, 1021 Main Ave, Durango, CO 81301.


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