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Work-Life Balance for Social Change Professionals

When it comes to issues of work-life balance.  I have a few things to say. I was brought up to be the best. From good grades since elementary school, to excellent grades in university to scholarships and an admission to do a PhD it was clear my professional path was set and I was destined for glory.

Hard work, professional excellence would come first and everything else, I mean everything else, family, friends, romantic life, would be second, third, or none.

I can’t remember what happened. Maybe it was the tired look of professionals as they fall sleep in the metro or bus; or the thousands of downward dogs I did in yoga; but I started questioning things. I started seeing people overworked, underpaid and underappreciated in the NGO sectors and academia (where I spend decades). What if there is more to it in life than just working? By then, I was already living in the U.S. while doing my PhD and starting to take on consulting work. By the time I was done with the Ph.D I was already married and I was committed to having a life not being defined solely in relation to my professional doings. In any given party the question to ask is: what do you do? And then you start blubbering where you work and what you do, all I hear is blah blah blah. I want to get to know you, who you are? Do you write cartoons? Are you into poetry? What are your favorite places to go for walks? In social change we do fascinating things and it’s ok to learn and connect from one another but I guess I got tired of everyone being defined by their occupation as their only identity source.

What is work-life balance?

I have no idea. Like Santa Claus, I think is a myth. But wait a second. It sounded like I was going to write a blogpost advocating about work-life balance. I have an issue with balance, as it pre-determines that we need to have perfect lives. We don’t.   Think about it. We need to have clean homes, we need to be fit, eat healthy, have money and savings, love our jobs, loving partners, and perfect little healthy children. Really? Who has that? We are all dealing with sh….. life. Our lives will never ever a perfect balance or work, family, and clean dishes. If you think is because you don’t make enough money, think again. Basically, as adults, life is kind of hard and kind of sucks. I don’t have to tell you, each of us can relate. On top of that, we chose professions that are dedicated to helping others and changing systems. What does work-life balance should be for professionals in social change?

First of all, why is it important to talk about these issues? I’ll cut to the chase. To prevent issues such as chronic, preventable illness and simply burnout. If ALL you do is work insane amount of hours and don’t invest in yourself, you will burn out eventually.

You can burn out physically or worse, emotionally. So before this happens, here are a few tips for you to start creating your definition of work-life balance that makes sense in your life. Think about this: how could you help others if you are not helping yourself?

Burnout prevention tips

1) Don’t tie your job to your sense of self

Ask yourself. If the organization you work looses it’s funding (it happens my friends) and you are out of a work. Who are you? What are you left with? Not really, if you put all your identity into this one job it can make you very vulnerable. Simply ask yourself, who are you apart from the job? Do one thing this weekend that feeds that person. I don’t say hate your job, or detach emotionally, just re-examine who you are in relation to your job. It’s very liberating. I have this whole persona besides my professional side, I love it. I love my job but I am a lot more than my job. This includes my job as a mum too. It’s important that we discover who are we, not only in relation to our family roles (daughter, husband, parent).

2) Work smarter not longer

I got a great job years ago and I also found a yoga studio close by. The yoga class that worked for me was at 5:30pm. This is early for a typical Washington DC office schedule. I made sure I told everyone I had a yoga class at 5:30pm to avoid late meetings. I was afraid I was NOT going to be taken seriously in the organization but I needed the yoga class. I stayed in for lunch hour to compensate (not great). People started to respect that I would leave for my yoga class. I got an employee award that first year. I then hired someone who loved to work for 12 hours. Our working styles clashed. I don’t think anyone can be efficient for 12 hours every day. There is a culture of appreciation for the person that does that, even if they are playing solitaire or anything irrelevant. We need to revise this culture of staying forever in the office. Work smarter and efficiently, get things done and then go have a life.  

3) Prioritize

What are the things that are important to you? I don’t know the answer to this question but I can tell you mine. I need time to work, to parent, I love cooking healthy food and I need to exercise. Sadly, I can’t do it all. So the house is NOT as clean as I want, laundry doesn’t get done on a regular basis. Instead of talking about balance we should be talking about your priorities. List them. Do them. And make peace with what is left out.

4) Don’t normalize and glorify business

How are you? Pay attention how many times people will say? Sooooo busy, its crazy. In other words, we all live in perpetual business. There is an implicit sense that if you are busy you must be important. At times of your life, you will be busy. Like when you are moving to another country (it’s happening to me). What to do? Plow through your busy times and make a pledge to NOT be busy ALL the time. What ever happen to doing nothing? And wasting time? What is wrong with slowing down? Unless you are doing brain surgery, can you leave things for the day and go and read Harry Potter to your child or call your mum or go for a walk? Work will be waiting for you the next day, I will assure you.

5) Eat (well), Move (a lot), Rest (7-9 hours)

Finally, take care of yourself. I can do a lot more. Like meditate, I don’t reach my 10k steps every day. But I try to the best of my ability to nourish my body, which is the only instrument I have to carry out my life. No health, no work, no life. Eat well (most of the time); I exercise at least 3 hours a week and try to walk and move every day as much as possible. I sleep. This means, less screen, going to bed early.

A lot of social change work is done in front of computers and in sedentary job. That is a bad folks. Say you seat down 8-9 hours a day, commute 2 hours and arrive home to sit down and watch TV. Newsflash: your body was designed for movement. With such a sedentary lifestyle coupled with office cakes, biscuits you are creating a path of illness for down the road. All of this is preventable. Start creating changes for working standing and having walking meetings. Count steps, walk to the office. In other words, go out of your way to move on a daily basis, not only your 1 hour at the the gym following by 14 of sitting down. It’s CONTINUOUS movement throughout the day.  

So there you have it. Thanks for reading this and hope you build your own work-life balance tips.

By Dr. Catalina Rojas,  Director of Innovation, PCDN.global 

Bio:

Dr. Catalina Rojas is Director of Innovation at PCDN.  She  helps lead strategic development, partnerships, content development and programming to engage over 37,000 academic members around the world.

Dr. Catalina Rojas is a noted expert on gender, development and conflict resolution. As director of Global Partnerships at Women Thrive Worldwide, she created a worldwide women’s network and led training and consultation processes to increase the advocacy capacity of women’s NGOs and CBOs in Central America and West Africa.

Prior to joining Women Thrive, Dr. Rojas was a consultant on gender, conflict and development issues with various international organizations including the IIS, OAS, USAID, UNIFEM.

Dr. Rojas has a Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University. Originally from Bogotá, Colombia, she has over two decades of experience working with civil society organizations in the Global South, including working in the peace movement in her home country.

Dr. Rojas has taught, trained and conducted research in Latin America, South East Asia, West Africa and the U.S. including Georgetown University.

Catalina Rojas

Catalina Rojas

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