For the past few years, I’ve been struggling to find balance and contentment in the midst of my busy life of responsibilities. A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog describing my struggle called, Balance, Yeah Right, basically feeling lost regarding making significant changes. Well, since then, much to my surprise, I’ve actually made real progress. I feel happier and more relaxed than I have in years. No, I did not quit my jobs—any of them. I still teach college, high school; I still write my blog—in fact, now I have two. I’m publishing a collection of poetry, working on a short story collection, and writing another suspense thriller. So, what’s different? How can you takes steps to a happier, more balanced life too? Well, here’s what I did. Maybe it will work for you too.
Separate work and home. First of all, I set boundaries between work and home. I do all my grading and planning at work and don’t let it invade my free time. The only exception is when I get an unexpected day off in addition to my normal weekend, and even in this case, I limit my work to a couple of hours. In fact, I have developed such a habit of not working at home that I can barely force myself to do even this.
Get help and scale down. I resisted this for the longest time. I didn’t want someone else coming into my house, cleaning it in a way that was different than I do it. I didn’t want to spend the money either, but I finally gave in. It came down to the fact that I was tired of spending my only day off cleaning the house, grocery shopping, doing laundry, and cooking. The only time I spent with my husband was cleaning together or shopping together. I started dreaming of spending a day with him and my dog, walking through the streets of quaint Old Colorado City, going to the dog park, hiking, visiting a museum, or curling up together to read a suspenseful novel. That’s all it took.
We hired a trustworthy, bonded maid service to come when we aren’t home, we cut our grocery shopping down to every other week, and I gave up cooking all single ingredient homemade organic meals. We still eat healthy foods, but now I buy a few easy-to-prepare organic foods like premade sauces and deli-made meals or something similar. Not cooking everything from scratch has given me my life back! We had to compromise a little, but we still make sure we are eating healthy, natural foods, and I still make the homemade stuff, but only when I feel like it. What’s more is I actually enjoy cooking again!
I had to relax and be okay with the fact that my house may not be cleaned exactly as I would do it, but they still do a great job. Only shopping every two weeks has saved us money as well, so it kind of balances out, and that’s what it’s all about.
Say no. This was a hard one for me. Have you ever been secretly relieved when someone cancelled plans with you, even though when you made them you really wanted to participate? I still find saying no difficult, but I’m getting better at turning things down when I know I’m overwhelmed. With that said, make sure not to isolate yourself by saying no to everything. Dump the responsibilities for a few hours, see your friends and loved ones, and nurture the relationships that enrich your life, but stay home and do nothing when you really want to.
You can say no at work too. In the past, I thought I had to do whatever I was told even if it didn’t fit my job description or if it was impossible to do within the time allotted during my work-day. I finally had to stand up for myself and say that it wasn’t okay to ask me to work extra hours for free and allow work to invade my free time. I work my butt off without even taking a lunch break at work in order to get all my duties done at a stellar level during my working hours, but if it doesn’t get done, it doesn’t get done. No one has the right to expect the impossible. I guess I’ve had to lower my standards, but it’s the best thing I ever could have done for myself, and the strange thing is, I don’t think it’s lowered the quality of my work at all. On the contrary, everything seems to work better than ever before. Maybe it’s my happy, no-longer-abused attitude working to my advantage, allowing me to concentrate on the essentials of my job without stress.
Make a practical and realistic plan. Every day I make two lists—one for work and one for home. I write down everything that needs to be done, and then star the most important things that are non-negotiable. I get the most important things done first, and then do the lesser things when I’m done. Whatever doesn’t get done, goes on tomorrow’s list. I always get the non-negotiables done. I also get a great deal of satisfaction crossing things off my list.
Realize that some days it’s okay to throw out the plan altogether. I don’t do this often, but there’s nothing better than just ignoring the list altogether and doing what you want sometimes. By the way, there should always be at least one day a week when there is never a list at all.
Fit little moments of relaxation and fun in wherever you can. I like to take 15 minutes in the morning after getting ready for work to read or work on a puzzle I’ve been putting together. I listen to fun, adventurous, or suspenseful books on CD in my car whenever I drive. This makes me feel like I haven’t neglected all the books I want to read, it makes me look forward to going to work or driving anywhere, and it has the surprising effect of making even rush hour traffic peaceful and enjoyable. I have actually wished that I could be stuck in traffic longer just so I can finish a book. I also keep an adult coloring book nearby to pick up whenever I need a few minutes of relaxation (not in the car!). I have a Kindle book on my phone at all times, so I can enjoy a few minutes of escapism whenever I have to sit and wait for anything. I get some sunshine and fresh air whenever I can by reading outside or walking my dog or meditating under a shade tree. These little moments are more than stress reduction. They make me feel like I have dozens of happy things in my routine that make every day feel like a joy.
Do what you love, and it won’t seem like work. Everyone says this, but it is so much easier said than done. I know not everyone can just quit a secure job and change careers at the drop of a hat, but if you really hate your job, you need to make a plan for a change. However, you may not need to do anything that drastic. Once you make some changes in what you are willing to do and what you are unwilling to do, you may start loving that old job again. It’s amazing what setting limits can do to your attitude at work. You may start looking forward to working once you feel like you are no longer being taken advantage of. If not, then it might be time to look for something else.
Realize that you don’t have control over most things. This can be tough, but realizing that there is nothing you can do about some things, and that you can’t control the outcome all the time is really quite freeing. Know that if your plans don’t work, it’s not the end of the world. You are going to be okay. Life is full of making little adjustments. Keep adjusting your course in ways that add joy, and before you know it, you’ll wonder why you ever bothered to be unhappy in the past.
Finally, be content within yourself, and you will be happy most of the time. If we love who we are, take care of ourselves, and treat ourselves with respect, then we will be content and joyful almost all the time. Happiness is a fleeting thing, and when tragedies strike, of course, we will grieve, but we can experience moments of joy more and more often when we are accepting of who we are and take the time to nurture ourselves.
So, this is what I’ve done and what is working for me. I’m no life coach, but I know what it is like to struggle with stress, busyness, and discontentment, and I also know what it feels like to be free, joyful, to love my job and home life, and to finally feel relaxed. I hope you find this same contentment in your life. Peace. –Christina Knowles
Those of you who are Jon Stewart fans, like I am, know where this line comes from. At the end of every show, Jon would show a clip of something unbelievable, ridiculous, or ironic that reveals a not-so-surprising truth, at least it shouldn’t be surprising. Well, my personal moment of Zen came a few weeks ago when I had a heart attack at the end of a long day of stress, work, dehydration, and lack of sleep—during the summer break when I should have been having fun and relaxing. It’s ironic because I’m the youngest in my family, the one who eats organic, does yoga, and exercises every day, and the only one who has had a heart attack. It was not-so-surprising because I was a workaholic perfectionist. I say “was” because this epiphany-causing event has changed my focus from work to living my life.
With that said, this is not an instant fix for my workaholism. Like any addiction, working too much and trying to make everything perfect are things that are not easy to give up. Having started the school year, I am bombarded with opportunities and requests to work around the clock that have to be ignored. This is not easy for someone like me. I have a list of things to do that seem urgent and could never be accomplished in the work-day, but I’m trying. I have to constantly put my list out of my mind and do something purposefully peaceful and get to a place where I feel comfortable doing what I want to do with my free at-home time.
According to my list, this weekend, I have to create leveled reading groups for two classes, grade sample writing, create some unit modules for my website, look over and record pre-tests, and fill out some teacher evaluation goals and self-evaluation stuff. All of these things seem urgent. Ideally they would be done by Monday, but I worked very hard all week, and I need to relax and have fun, as prescribed by my doctor—I’m not kidding. Besides that, if I die next week, will I rather have had fun with my husband, or have gotten my “goals” written for the state evaluation, which are not really my goals, but what I think they want to hear anyway? I know what I want to do today and it’s not that.
In a few minutes, I’m going to meet some friends in nature to meditate and drink coffee—not at the same time, of course. Then I’m going to hang out with my husband and go see an art/photography opening by a friend of his. Later, we will do something with our dog. It’s his birthday month, so we’re celebrating our little guy. Maybe I’ll do a little reading later, and if I feel like it, I might do one thing for school—probably create those leveled reading groups. Then I will go back to focusing on my actual life until Monday.
I have to keep reminding myself that work doesn’t own me; it rents me from 7 am to 3 pm and occasional evenings. It’s just what I do when I’m not home, living my real life. I love it, but it is not who I am; it is does not define me. Who I am is here with my friends and family and experiencing the life I want to live. That is my Zen, and I will go on reminding myself of this until it comes naturally. Peace.—Christina Knowles
I’ve always believed people should live balanced lives: you know, mind, body, spirit. I learned this was important through life-long yoga practice, reading philosophy, and talking to wise ones who successfully practiced this path to peace and contentment. However, I’ve NEVER been able to achieve it–not even for one whole week. I live a life of never-ending to-do lists, schedules, alarms, and obligations. I even make to-do lists and schedules to make sure I schedule time to relax, but no matter how hard I try, something important is always neglected.
I am naturally motivated to improve my mind. For this I need no prompting. I don’t have to try very hard to make time to learn something new, read, or write. I once spent an entire summer studying philosophy and theology. Because I am a teacher and a writer, it is easy to justify time spent on these activities. But I recognize that there is more to life than my intellectual pursuits. The first thing that drops off my list is usually physical exercise.
I wasn’t always a sedentary person. When I was younger, I was an enthusiastic runner, I took Karate, yoga, and figure skating lessons. I used to dance. I admit that I never liked team sports or traditional working out at the gym. Actually, I loathe it. But running and skating cleared my mind, yoga relaxed me, Karate–well, that kind of sucked, but I liked the idea of being able to defend myself. However, after four knee surgeries, my doctor told me that I was not allowed to run, skate, or do karate. Ever. To avoid major knee reconstruction (which would involve breaking my legs and sitting in a wheel chair for almost a year), I was told to take up cycling. The doctor told me that even swimming would be too hard on my knees, and walking should be kept to a normal strolling pace. So I bought an exercise bike and have been pretty good about riding it on a regular basis. The only thing that motivates me to do this is that I literally cannot walk if I stop for any length of time. I also still practice yoga, but not with any consistency. Needless to say, my daily 20-30 minutes on my exercise bike is not really meeting my aerobic needs.
As for the “spirit,” I tried meditating and yoga, which does relax my mind and body. I also nurture my inner self by spending time with people I care about and by pursuing my artistic interests. I think I need to spend time outside in nature as well, maybe even be a little adventurous. I need to spend quality time with my husband, family, and friends. I need to just do nothing sometimes. I long to do nothing, but I am really NOT good at it.
So, as usual, summer vacation from teaching was the time when I planned to regroup and get my life back in balance, as if it ever were. I immediately made preposterously unrealistic goals, to-do lists, and schedules to accomplish everything to attain this balance. Of course, I thought, it would be balanced because I made sure to include something from every area on which I wanted to work. It turned out to be the opposite of balance. Before I knew it, I signed up for three courses to help me with a new class I’ll be teaching in the fall, I started writing a new book, and I’m helping some students create an e-book short story anthology. I have about 15 books on my must-read list. I’m riding my bike (a real one) daily, spending time outside walking my dog and gardening, fitting in time with friends and family, staying up really late with my husband, trying to fit in a few hours of writing every day, re-organizing and cleaning my house, and basically going crazy trying to keep up. And there is never time to do nothing. This is worse than working full-time. Well, almost.
My husband tells me that I need to prioritize, that I can’t do it all. But isn’t that the point of balance? Doing it all–at least some of everything? Making sure that I meet the needs of all the different aspects of my being? When I try to prioritize, everything seems like a priority. I don’t get this balance thing. I think I am incapable of it. Or perhaps I just need a better schedule. I’d better get right on that.–Christina Knowles