Work-life imbalance and simple ways to treat it

Paulius Rakštikas

The last couple of months have forced many of us to consider the extent to which work and free time can really be separated. The line between work and leisure seems to have all but disappeared. Having several online conversations at the same time? Sure. Revising code while discussing the latest blockbuster movie with your spouse? Why not! The question, however, is whether our fragmented attention could hinder both quality work and quality leisure? And how many tasks can we really perform simultaneously? Paulius Rakštikas, a psychologist, teacher of mindfulness and creator of the meditation app Pauzė is confident that the answer is… only one. Work in Lithuania talked to Paulius at a critical moment for many employees, right before we all revert back to the “normal” rhythms of daily life.

What would be your main piece of advice to someone who wants to be more attentive at work and general everyday activities?

First of all, you should always avoid mixing work with leisure. People who claim their jobs to be their hobbies are fooling not only other people, but also – and primarily – themselves. Upon hearing this, most people tend to start making excuses, “Well, maybe, but in my case…”. I do not find that convincing. Just look at highly creative people – you’ll never hear them equate work with leisure.

It is simply not possible to be partially engaged in work and be partially at rest. Whenever you throw your laptop in your backpack on a Friday, thinking that you’re just going to work for half an hour, both work and leisure get ruined. You should always strive to be specific about what you’re doing – either working or resting. Otherwise, you’ll get distracted quite easily. One video sent to you by a colleague soon turns into more videos and aimless internet browsing, and then, before you know it, it’s lunchtime, and you’re still staring at the same work email that you started writing in the morning. When this happens, we take our work home, leaning on the “work” side of “work-life balance” again, and very little of value gets done. The next day, we go to work again, feeling even more tired and less able to focus than before, and the cycle continues.

When you think about it, people who burn out aren’t necessarily working more than the rest of us. It’s usually those who keep switching back and forth between work and leisure, trying to squeeze in more of the former at every opportunity. In contrast, look at professional athletes. They don’t just train all the time, but rather follow a pre-set schedule which guarantees regular blocks of uninterrupted downtime.

Could those prone to excessive multi-tasking benefit from meditation or some other practice?

Meditation is not a miracle pill. The main thing which brings on discomfort is the loss of balance. I’m talking about the amount of time we dedicate to meeting our needs, such as sleep, exercise and time spent with the most important people in our lives. Before making any significant changes, it would be wise first to clean up your daily routine. A great way to do that is by setting a fixed period, say a week, for taking notice of, and recording, how much time you allocate to various activities. Many people are surprised to see the results of this, as most of us are used to seeing things differently from what they are.

So look at your daily routine and ask yourself: Am I getting at least 7.5 hours of sleep most nights? Am I physically active? Am I eating healthy, or do I struggle to find time for lunch? How much time do I spend with my loved ones? Only once the balance is restored can we start working on improving our focus. Luckily, it’s not that hard to do.

Where should people start in this process?

Imagine yourself sitting down to do some work, feeling focused. And then the phone buzzes. Now, even if you don’t read the message or don’t even lift the phone, your focus drifts. And considering that our phones tend to grapple for our attention multiple times per hour, this becomes a problem.

The first step that I recommend everyone take is to turn off all notifications. This isn’t as radical as it may sound, as most tasks do not require us to be “always on”. People who keep on rapidly cycling between different impulses often develop what’s called “continuous partial attention”. Whenever the mind has to deal with regular distractions, it eventually starts looking for stimuli on its own. And when none are to be found, it feels as though something went wrong. And that is exactly how we become dependent on the internet, text messages and our phones in general. If going cold turkey feels daunting, start small. For instance, continue using email at first, but drop the Messenger app and then go from there. To reiterate, I recommend this approach to everyone. Just give it a try and in a few short weeks, you’ll be reluctant to go back to your previous habits.

Mindfulness has recently seen a surge of popularity in the corporate world. Why do you think that is? And are there any ways to quantify its benefits?

Yes, mindfulness and other meditative practices have been growing in popularity, both in the form of lectures and workshops. At first, we had to lecture people on what these practices even are, but now they approach us for specifics. As regards to quantifying benefits, there’s no one right approach. For instance, the German company SAP, which offers mindfulness training to its 22,000 employees, had recently crunched the numbers and concluded that each additional percentage point of employee engagement raises profits by several dozen million euros. However, it would be a mistake to look at it from this angle alone. After all, we’re talking about people’s mental health and the quality of their lived experience.

The key indicator for me, and for most HR managers, is the critical mass of people who find benefit in these practices and make them a regular part of their daily routines. As an example, the session which I held this morning at a certain organisation was attended by 30 people. Is that a lot, considering that the organisation employs hundreds? Perhaps not, and yet, 30 people do find the time to join the group three times per week and meditate together for an hour. Stress levels go down, interpersonal relationships improve and this, in turn, leads to superior performance at work.

What would be a healthy way of coming back to the office? What steps should be expected from employees and employers?

It would probably be best to start by asking our colleagues, and ourselves, a few questions. What was this period like? What have we learned? What could help us return to work? Is there anything we would like to transplant from the erstwhile period into the present? Whereas employers, for their part, should not insinuate that there are no working hours, for they should be interested in quality leisure as well. Sure, it’s commendable for an employee to be replying to an email on a Saturday, and yet even a short dip into work-related activities during the weekend can be detrimental to the rest of the week in terms of productivity.

Short, unifying rituals can also be tremendously helpful. And it doesn’t have to be an hour-long meditation session! Why not just set aside five minutes before work, allowing people to share good news or exercise. It’s been noted that instituting a minute of silence before meetings tends to significantly change their dynamics, making them both shorter and more effective.