Healthy Detours: A Meditation on “Work-Life Balance”

Back in junior college, I often sauntered from the Left Wing through the Right, into the canteen for my favourite snack. Tastes had evolved from the good old French toast days, or the 10 or 20-cent frozen jelly from even younger days. Oh, I’m nostalgic now. Bring me some toast and jelly, and don’t forget Tam Tam crackers too! Clearly tastes didn’t evolve as much as offerings did. Well, we gotta settle for what we can get. And what could I get in that flap of a refrigerator, but the epitome of my recess breaks: Kit Kat Chunky!

Sloganeering is bad.

Balance was an obsession for me as A-Levels loomed. Some of my classmates might recall the beaming delusion of a face musing about the 2 to 3 TAB (Take-A-Break) sessions planned for every week. These are my breathers from studies. It wasn’t just a random rant; I drew my weekly timetables on tiny notepad papers with relish. To retain command of 2 afternoons a week felt necessary to my identity as a student.

An escape it was, but only for a return. I was no rebel, because I had quite the ability to convince myself in the little pleasures of problem-solving, even if they left deeper problems unsolved. Studying was a role I took up without question, because I was not bad at it, because I never thought about alternatives, because my friends were with me and my parents too. Yet it was not my role. I cannot commit all my time to it because I want to be more than that.

For all the angst, rarely did I make conscious what I was to do during TAB time. I could play FIFA, I could blog, I could hit the bowling lanes. I did whatever I wanted when the time came. This is like controlled procrastination, though I was hardly in full control for the rest of the time. The logic was to recharge my energy, so that I could get back to spinning a pail of water fast enough to avoid spilling it.

Perhaps you weren’t so quietly gung-ho like me. You might have loved figuring out which car will fly off a turn on a hill.  If you didn’t, you must have drunk concoctions in the lab. Good for you. But even if you could slog at academics for weeks and months, there is the promise of relief waiting at the end. When A-Levels end, I will burn my notes into a firebird! I will cross the skies and sail the seas, to be where I wanna be! We all have places we can escape to.

Mars bars, a safer journey to Mars.

My approach is just like that of “work-life balance”, where “life” allows us to get back to productive “work” on Monday mornings. It’s not the other way round, since leisure activities are casual and unpaid, and hence seemingly optional. It’s our free time. But since “work” is tiring – as implied by the term – perhaps “life” should be relaxing. The question comes, should leisure be productive? And very briefly, how might it be relevant for work?

I have done admin jobs in NS and after. Those were times when I needed to seek fulfilment in my free time, more so than in school. But boring work is all the more draining. I can plan my night for the entire day, but when I get home, instinct lands me on the sofa and leaves me there. And no, I’m not there to analyse the cinematic techniques used in the 9pm Mediacorp dramas. For all creative work – even that of interpretation – involves effort. And effort deserts me because it’s all spent on paid work and my dissatisfaction with it. It’s hard to be “productive”.

And so I used to get annoyed when people ask, what do you do in your free time? It reminded me of the things I wanted to be doing but was not keeping at more than occasionally. What about you then, what do you do in your free time?

  • Do you go out or do you stay in?
  • Do you sleep or do you stay up?
  • Do you surf or do you travel?
  • Do you play or do you make?
  • Do you eat or do you taste?
  • Do you hear or do you listen?
  • Do you see or do you observe?
  • Do you read or do you analyse?
  • Do you rant or do you write?
  • Do you rush or do you plod?
  • Etc.

I don’t mean this exercise as a criticism of passive leisure, not at all. Relaxation can be necessary as a form of release or as a form of social bonding. We must conceive it in terms of our wider life situations. What more, what is passive to some may not be passive to others, and the same goes for active leisure. For instance, a film analyst would need effort to simply enjoy a light-hearted movie, and a struggling writer would need effort to fuss less about words and just dump thoughts onto paper.

Instead, this is a presumptuous first shot at identifying passions. Looking closely at how we tend to spend time, we might see how we do which things (actively or passively), when we do them (tired or energized), and thus why we do them. Leisure is now no less important than work to our identities, but often we run too much from work or frown too much at procrastination to pay attention. Discovering new passions can enliven us even when they require effort.

Another option is to use the reflections on our leisure time for our work lives. Since leisure is often of our free choice, it can reveal what interests us outside social expectations or focused aspirations. It’s flawed, as invisible forces like advertising and cultural norms also creep into our leisure behaviours. That’s why self-discovery is never so straightforward. Nonetheless, the process of thinking about leisure can allow us to question our formal work and direct efforts into making it better, going elsewhere or keeping them separate. Our life is, after all, larger than any job or occupation. We must observe our leisure tastes.

Ferrero Rocher, a sign of good taste.

Till now, I have maintained a clear delineation between study/work and leisure. I just suggested how work distracts us from conscious leisure, and how that can in turn make us more conscious about work. But are they exhaustive? In other words, does leisure – in all its varieties, alone or with others – equate to life, as in “work-life balance”?

“Work-life balance” misleads us, by making life something we manage only in service of paid work. “Life-work balance” would fit Gen Y tastes better, for it implies that life is not just about paid work. But the word “balance” is problematic, because it entails a divide. Balance thus becomes a compromise, an excuse for fear of deeper self-investment. We end up reducing one or the other. So what’s missing?

Life itself takes effort.

It’s no surprise, but we tend to take pains to avoid them. Feeling sad, run it off. Feeling angry, run away. New friends coming, pass them by. Old friends going, let them go. Again and again, we opt for caution, for the illusion of how things are done and have been done. We hold on to the familiar as our identity, forgetting that they used to be unfamiliar. And so we struggle to find purpose in a world where routes are predefined and beliefs are hardened beyond conciliation.

Leisure serves multiple purposes, but one of it is to find passions we are willing to work at, if only for ourselves. Passions can bring us down new routes and make us more human. Yet this is no guarantee. A singer can be lost amidst the fame, as can a blogger amidst advertorials. Passion can turn into work in the superficial sense. And so for all its merits, we cannot confine our efforts in life to work and passion. They are important, but they don’t make us complete.

Life itself takes effort.

I identify myself as a writer. It is what I will be proud of telling friends, even if there is scepticism about the genre, the quality, or the commitment. Fiction is not intuitive to me, perhaps because of my attention to inner realities. I stick to what interests me, and then how I think it might interest others. My niche is introspection. It takes time. It takes effort. I can’t produce when school work is in all over my head. But piece by piece, writing furthers my understanding of life.

Even then, what you see is necessarily a constructed product. It is selective, like the vague impressions we get from university project mates. Yet it is also accidental. It may not be apparent, even to me, but the craft is a culmination of prolonged periods of procrastination, when I allowed my mind to wander about the topics – or away from them, to return more productively. And so I don’t believe in single-minded focus, on academics or on writing. Life cannot be mapped out. Escape allows re-engagement, possibly in a deeper way. That is if we allow ourselves a little reflection; not after we retire, but right now; not once and for all, but time and again.

Bob the Builder, Yes We Can!

This would make a bad GP or sociology paper, because I’m not writing to academic conventions. I mention this because it’s easy to have only one notion of essays. Essays are attempts, and this is my latest attempt at introspection for the eyes of other people (you). It is also my latest attempt at becoming more effective at life. I shall give no explicit conclusion, as that presumes too much authority. Instead, I exhort us (me included) to return to the midst of words and find words and actions of your own. There is no one, correct, final answer.

How about grabbing a cup of Milo before starting over?