As I try to navigate my way through living in a pandemic, I often feel like everything I need to do is of equal value, and therefore all of it is worth doing right now. I need to check my work email, but I also need to do my laundry, I need to exercise a little, I need to make myself lunch, I need to respond to the email from yesterday, I need to write my novel, I need to finish that TV series I started, etc. I allow all of these items to be equal in my mind, all of them feeling like they are what I should be doing and also what I should be putting off in favor of something else. And if I spend all day doing one type of thing and ignoring all others (or staying paralyzed and doing nothing), I feel terrible and wonder where my time went.
We’re all familiar with the idea of work/life balance, but that is not the only scale on which activity can be measured. Here are some other categories of distinction I’ve found useful to consider:
1. Complex vs Routine
How much fresh brain power do you need?
Complex: create a gardening plan, figure out a computer backups solution, write a novel, learn a new recipe, run a meeting
Routine: weed the yard, fix breakfast, read a book, do a puzzle, attend a meeting that could have been an email
2. Fun vs Practical
Is there a purpose beyond your own present happiness?
Fun: watch TV, play a video game, chat with friends or coworkers, bake something that isn’t good for you
Practical: reorganize the garage, clear out your email, sort through digital photos, meal prep for the week
3. Reactive vs Proactive
Are you doing this because you want to or because someone/something else is prompting you?
Reactive: return a phone call, buy a baby shower gift, sew a button back on a shirt, fix the lawn mower
Proactive: learn to quilt, start a new TV show, change a process in the office, build a shed
4. Maintain vs Accomplish
Once you do the work, will it be done or will you need to do it again (in the next five years)?
Maintain: practice an instrument, do the laundry, clean the kitchen, exercise, submit expense report
Complete: fix the dryer, create an emergency kit, buy a new desk, get all power moons in Mario Odyssey
5. Family vs Self
Would you still be doing this if you lived alone?
Family: cook for others, play with children, book appointment for a parent, have family game night, discuss partner’s work troubles
Self: work on a hobby, learn a new language, complain about your work troubles to a friend
6. Taxing vs Restorative
Over time, does it fill you up or wear you down?
Taxing: scroll social media, do physical labor, teach children to do anything, write a difficult email
Restorative: journal, take a bath, watch a movie with someone you love, clear off your desk
You’ll notice that no side of these scales is the “correct” side, or even the enjoyable or easy one. Each side is potentially negative if you spend too much time there. Spend too much time on accomplishment over maintenance and things will fall apart. Spend too much time on family over self and you might lose your sense of identity.
Every item exists on multiple scales at once. For example Family Game Night is routine, fun, proactive, maintenance, family, and either taxing or restorative depending on whether you’re introverted or extroverted (and how competitive your family is).
You probably keep a good balance in some of these areas already, and you probably have a suspicion about which one(s) you are routinely unbalanced in. If you’re unsure, take your current task list (the FULL one that includes home, work, longterm, etc) and try to sort the items into the two sides of one of these areas. Repeat until you find a category so unbalanced you can’t ignore it, and focus on adjusting the ratio for that one.
Depending on the person, balance doesn’t necessarily mean equal tasks on both sides. I’m a pretty ambitious and goal-oriented person, which means I can skew more towards practical over fun because oftentimes practical things are fun to me. But if I have 25 things on the Practical side and 2 on the Fun side, even I can admit I’ve gone too far.
Remember that balancing yourself out is not always about adding more to your plate – it may require things to be taken away. This is especially true right now as you are under so much stress. If you’re currently working, you might need to compensate for the kind of tasks you do at work. If your day job involves a lot of complex tasks, you might need to focus on more routine tasks in your home life to prevent exhaustion. If your job is mostly routine tasks you may want to look for complex things to ensure your days are fulfilling.
This is not about becoming hyper-productive while sheltering at home or “getting the most out of your quarantine”. It’s about keeping a sense of rhythm when other rhythms are lost. You would never insist that a friend spend all day sorting photos or all day pulling weeds. Remember to be at least that kind to yourself.