I remember the days quite clearly. Standing on the platform at about 5am, shattered, waiting for the train into work with several other miserable people all of us slaves to the wage.
My story is probably familiar. Job in London, moved out when I had kids so I could afford a decent house, longer commute as a result. To minimise the impact I had condensed my hours so instead of working 5 days a week I worked 4 longer ones. As a result I got an extra day at home on the weekend but the trade off was leaving the house at 4.45am and getting in at 7.30pm on a good day. If there was a delay, which there frequently was, it could be 9, 10 o’clock or dossing down with my in-laws because I couldn’t get home at all. It was a grind and although I still believe it was the right thing to do at that time, I never the less longed for a better life.
I’m not alone in challenging the status quo. In a recent survey 60% of respondents admitted they have a hard time maintaining a good work-life balance and most of the people I speak to would prefer to have more control over their time. But is it really what we want and if it is, whats actually standing in the way? I suspect we will all resonate with the same thoughts: Fear of the unknown, conforming to the norm, lack of appreciation of our own self worth. Yet if we can overcome, the rewards are priceless.
These days I work for myself. My acupuncture clinic is about a mile from my home in the shadow of Ely Cathedral and I’ve structured my days so that I can do the school run most days and see my kids both in the morning and the evening. I preserve Mondays and Fridays to work from home, catching up with paperwork and all of the other unspoken responsibilities of a small business owner. I don’t drive a flash car or live in a flash house but I live comfortably within my means. Most importantly the 5am train journeys to London lie firmly in my past.
What convinced me to change? There were various epiphanies in my transformation but I think that the process of change happened broadly speaking in three steps. Ultimately the only barrier that truly stands between us and a better work life balance are the ones we place their ourselves. Breaking down these barriers happens by challenging your thought processes and these three steps will help you to do that. Ultimately you may read this and decide that the sacrifice is too great. That’s fine too, its all about choice.
Step 1 – Challenge your relationship with money
Everyone needs money to get by in life but western lifestyle is driven more by desire than by need. In my lifetime alone we have added mobile phones, broadband and cable or satellite TV to the typical household budget. Stretch back a generation and the list wouldn’t even have included a TV. Undoubtedly we have become more dependant on mod cons and technology but when you strip it right back, our existence doesn’t actually depend on them. In fact we only need 2 things to survive, food and sleep (I’d accept a third absolute need of clothing if living in a variable climate like the UK) Everything beyond this basic need is a choice. Once we can understand this in this highly simplistic way we can start thinking more honestly about the things in our life that are important to us and why.
An why is this important? because for most of us, work-life balance is about compromises. A lifestyle that involves us enjoying time with the family in luxurious surroundings without the interference of our office is called a holiday or retirement. Work life balance however is exactly that, a trade off of priorities to make the very best from your personal circumstances. That means sacrifices and as most of life is driven by economy, financial sacrifices are likely to sit at the middle of your decision making.
I first started to think about money differently when I moved to Ely where the train station is sandwiched between a large Tesco supermarket on one side and countryside on the other amongst which is nestled the Bridge Fen allotments.
I often pondered the irony of looking out longingly at the allotments, wishing I could be out in the fresh air growing my own food for my family. Instead I was travelling to work to earn money to spend in the supermarket on inferior quality produce. The reason? I was too busy earning the said money to spend any amount of meaningful time growing my own vegetables.
You may want to read that again a few times to get your head around it!
I am realistic. Giving up work to grow vegetables was not going to even things out. The money I earned in “veg growing time” paid for more than just groceries. It was however a good example of one area where I was making an unpalatable compromise. Looking even more laterally at the savings, I could have most likely cancelled out my monthly gym subscription too on the natural exercise I would get maintaining an allotment.
I haven’t changed my life by growing veg (though it still sits at the back of my mind in the “to-do” pile) but this was my first observation that set me to changing my whole way of thinking. Once I broadened this simple perspective I started looking at how I spend all of my money and asking hard questions about want over need. Entertainment subscription or time to get out into the fresh air and kick a ball around? Takeaway at the weekends or time to cook something? Do I need an expensive house? Do I need an expensive car? What can I get by on? If I don’t want to get by, how much will it all cost?
This isn’t to say I live a frugal existence. There are many “wants” amongst my expenditures, the luxuries I feel give me the right balances in life, but what I did, and what I advocate for those who want to change their lives, is to really analyse expenditure, challenge your thought processes and in doing so set out your priorities. Do I need it, will I use it, will it make me happy? Cant afford your mortgage? Sell your house and buy a cheaper one. Already on the first rung of the property ladder? Sell and rent, move abroad, live in a caravan. I know it sounds drastic but you really need to get to the bottom of what drives you. Our society is very good at telling you what you need but its important to understand that it is not need, it is choice.
I could live in a bigger house. I chose not to because it gives me the freedom to work less hours and spend time with my kids. The point is that financial freedom is an option for most of us once you peel away your manufactured barriers.
Step 2 – Find the right role in life
Actually this came to me last but Ive put it here in the chronology because (for reasons that become clear later) my own experience suggests that it’s a better fit sooner in the process.
For some people, the pathway to work life balance is going to be easier than for others. Some jobs lend themselves to part-time hours or flexible working. Others can make an easy transition to consultancy or agency work. But what about those of us who don’t have an easy transition or who are looking for a complete change?
For many years I had longed for the freedom of working for myself. Trouble is, I’m risk adverse. My dad lost heavily in a business venture back in the 80s and as a result growing up was hard. Jumping into the unknown and potentially investing speculatively on a business terrifies me and no matter how miserable I was the safety of my situation took priority over my happiness. It didn’t stop me dreaming though and I spent days and weeks in contemplation and conversation with family and friends trying to find the perfect plan. I got nowhere except frustrated.
My inspiration came from an unlikely source, a discarded newspaper on the train that I’d have normally ignored. This day however I picked it up and chanced upon an article about a person who had won a slimming title after losing a phenomenal amount of weight. I wasn’t really interested in the story and almost put it down but just at the end I saw a short sentence which read – “now works as a slimming consultant”. The simple idea of using your own experience to coach and inspire others made complete sense and as I thought it through I realised there were other examples. Reformed drug addicts working in rehabilitation, former gang members working with inner city youth’s and many more where life experience translated to work. From that moment I set my future career path on doing the same thing.
It was an exciting moment because I knew that this was a safe bet. I was investing in myself and as such had as much control over the investment as its possible to have. But what did I have that people wanted? The answer was simpler that I’d have thought. I’d stepped back from the world and looked at it from a different view point and when I looked around, realised that lots of other people are striving to do just that. I was going to change my life and in doing so improve my health and then I was going to help others who were stuck! I walked down a couple of dead ends before I decided that Acupuncture would be the vehicle for delivering my aims but once I’d decided what my “purpose” was the rest became simply about getting the right tools for the job.
Now it may well be that you have a clear idea of what you want to do. Braver people than me may chose to really go for it. If however you are like me and struggling to see what you have to offer the world my advice is to look a bit closer to home. The answer may be a lot closer than you think.
Step 3 – Step off the merry-go-round
Of course all of this insight and self realisation is just the preparation. You can buy the best parachute, get the best training and lay out the softest landing but whichever way you sugar coat it, you will eventually have to jump and that takes either courage or an almighty shove.
My encouragement came from a good friend who used to listen with good grace to my daily moans and complaints, crazy business ideas and mad-cap plans for a future that was apparently getting no closer. He would simply say to me, “Tony, you need to step off the merry-go-round”. And you know what, this metaphor encapsulates the whole experience of change so beautifully I cant think of any better way to put it! I wouldn’t however recommend getting off the same way as me. It was spinning pretty quickly and I was half jump half push . I failed to hit the ground running and as a result fell flat and hard. You can spare yourself some pain by slowing the merry-go-round down and having a few steps planned before you jump! Never the less my fall became part of my toolkit. I got up, fixed myself and here I am now sharing the experience to help others so I guess it wasn’t all that bad!
Bringing it all together
Embracing a work-life balance isn’t an easy task and there are times when it feels the world is against you. Society embraces quantitive success where achievements are measured in pounds and pence and it takes a brave person to challenge this and live their life to qualitative values.
What I can say, from personal experience, is if you can embrace the change a happier healthier life is almost certainly awaiting . Most people will secretly hanker after everything you have gained and actually, far from mocking will probably applaud you.
Good luck with your journey.
Tony is a former Metropolitan police sergeant now working as an acupuncturist in Ely, East Cambridgeshire and is available for private appointments and public speaking. Details of how to contact him are given here.