A Space for Everything, and Everything in Its Space: Lessons in Work-Life Balance

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In the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, there’s a beautiful passage which begins “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heavens”. In the past few weeks, I’ve learned a personal lesson in the importance of making time and space for all the necessary purposes of life, not just the work-based ones.

My life, which was already pretty full-on, has recently become even busier — which is why I’ve been quiet on the posting front for a while. I was in danger of feeling quite overwhelmed with the amount of work and other responsibilities I had going on and so took a couple of weeks off from writing. Feeling overwhelmed is not a comfortable place to be emotionally, and is very subjective; what feels overwhelming to one person might seem pleasantly busy to another. A lot depends on what resources of energy, time and organisational skills one has available. The fact is that once you as an individual feel overwhelmed, you are effectively just that — regardless of what the next person might say.

I write often about the necessity of ‘taking care of self’, especially (though far from exclusively) in the profession of counselling; restocking depleted resources of emotional, mental and physical energy is vital to the therapist’s role of being fully present and alert for his or her clients, not to mention all the other important relationships and commitments in his or her life. So what had happened to my ‘care of self’?

Well, there were several factors. Firstly, a persistent virus had played havoc with my physical reserves of energy, and — as anyone who has started up a new business will tell you — the demands of running our counselling centre were only to a limited extent ‘offloadable’ onto other people, meaning that I was still doing a lot of the day to day management. Secondly, I downgraded the importance of taking enough time out for myself, thinking that I’d do it “after I’ve finished writing this month’s newsletter”, or “after I’ve done the housework” or “after I’ve seen my clients”. Thirdly, I stopped using my desktop calendar effectively. My stress levels were rising and I wasn’t taking time out to review my commitments and how I could manage them more effectively. What I lost was my commitment to ‘me time’.

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On my computer, I have a calendar programme which displays all my diary dates and commitments in an easy-to-read weekly format, with entries displayed in different colours depending on whether it is a booking at the Centre, a personal commitment, some other work commitment or whatever. It is my indispensable guide to my day and week ahead. Everything goes on there — client bookings, room viewings, workshops, staff meetings, dentist and GP appointments, parents’ evenings, you name it. For a while, I was in the habit of also scheduling in taking the dog for a walk, cooking a nice meal, doing some card-making or knitting, watching a DVD with a glass of wine. It was nice to see some green (for personal or leisure) activities marked on the display, as well as all the blues and purples and reds for work-related ones.

But instead of scheduling in some time and space for these personal activities, I’d begun filling up the spaces on the calendar with work-related ones. Partly, it’s the nature of being self-employed — it’s hard to say no to work offers because of the anxiety (particularly in the current climate) that they won’t come again. But the effect was that my personal, ‘self-care’, replenishing activities were being sidelined and squeezed in when there was a little space left over after everything else was finished, if at all. It wasn’t healthy, and it was beginning to feel rather chaotic.

So taking a break from contributing to Psychology, Philosophy and Real Life was the first step to re-establishing a sense of balance in my schedule. It gave me an extra few hours in the week to get on top of what I needed to do, to take time out and relax — and realise how unfamiliar it was for me to spend some time doing absolutely nothing! Or at least nothing that could be construed as being work-related. I watched some mindless daytime television, read a couple of undemanding novels, and spent some time writing a long email to a friend whom I hadn’t been in touch with in any meaningful way in quite some time. It felt good to put work on the back-burner in a conscious and deliberate way, if only for a few hours or a day or so here and there.

And so now, I’m getting back in to the habit of scheduling in some proper downtime space in which to top up my energy reserves. Coincidentally (or not, if you’re a believer in the idea that everything happens for a reason), my client work tailed off considerably during the two to three weeks when I was feeling at my most over-stretched. Without my consciously scheduling or arranging it that way, several of my clients decided to take a week or two off and no new referrals came through. It was almost as if the universe was arranging things so that I would get the break I needed!

Now when I look at my desktop calendar, I see the blue, purple and red spaces interspersed with more green ones — the promise of and commitment to some more ‘me time’. And I feel all the better for that.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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