From the mountaintop to everyday life: how I embraced work / life integration

Saddle Mountain at dawn — photo by Natalie Keshlear

In June, I went on a 5 week sabbatical from work — I ventured out into the woods with my boyfriend and we hiked. We climbed mountains, slept in a tent and got dirty — we took showers infrequently and we had a hell of a time. We went all over Oregon and then onto the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. It was hiking heaven and the 5 weeks went by slowly — I felt fully rested and reenergized, daily.

During that time, I noticed things — small things; details. Slowly and then all at once. I noticed how my boyfriend’s beard seemed to grow more quickly in the wilderness — not kidding, beards grow more freely in the wild — they can’t be stopped. I noticed my legs and how they felt stronger after each day of climbing rocks and scrambling up mountain ridges. My attention and focus were sharpened — I felt a clarity after so many months of distraction and information overload. My mind in fact, became saturated with all the things I had failed to notice previously.

Out in the woods and on mountaintops, I was learning how to be quiet again and listen. I noticed so much more when I slowed down. The first week, it felt like coming off a drug — the drug of distraction. I could not sit still. I was jittery — I felt left out — I wanted to be connected. Then, it got easier to sit down and read — it got easier to avoid Facebook and Twitter and put down my phone and pick up a pen or my camera. The days felt longer — the hours stretched endlessly — I felt truly immersed in every bit of it and when it was time to sleep, I felt completely ready for rest. I felt incredibly fulfilled.

Over the last year and a half, my personal life has blossomed — I’ve learned new things — roller derby, I ran a 10K, started training for a half marathon and I hit the books daily — reading up a storm. I failed a lot too, but learned that failing does not make you a failure (I’m still working on believing that). I was challenging myself and it was invigorating. I learned how to say “no” more and build more healthy boundaries. I stopped asking “can I do it” and flipped the script to “how can I do it” — I was less afraid and more empowered to try new things. My mindset was changing from being okay with inner life complacency, to a more growth mindset.

As my personal life flourished, it sadly left my work life in the dust. I noticed a huge contrast in how I lived my life (weekends, evenings, vacations) versus how I felt and lived my work life every Monday through Friday 9am -6pm. I just assumed, “well this is how it’s gonna be — you can either thrive in work or life, but not both”.

But, something had been stirring for a while in me and having a break to really think, made me wonder if there was a way to apply the new ways of living that I was learning in my “off hours” life — to my work life as well. It was a whisper of a thought, but it intrigued me. Was there a way to integrate the two? Did they need to be separate? Was it possible to bring in more critical thinking, more self compassion, more growth, more vulnerability, a space for challenge and more mindfulness and use all those things to enhance my performance at work?

Then, I came back to work.

After 5 weeks of quiet and solitude and space to think, I tripped and fell headfirst into my old habits. Habits that left me feeling stuck to my computer, glued to my smartphone, email, Twitter & Facebook.

Falling into my old habits made me feel uncomfortable — like putting on clothes that are a few sizes too small. They didn’t fit anymore. The things that felt so normal before (rushing through emails, checking into work off hours to squeeze in more work, multitasking 5 things at once, distracted to the point of numbing, stressing, not taking time to respond to coworkers or talk to them because it was busy..etc), suddenly felt so wrong.

I had been doing an objectively “good job” every day, but looking back — I was in “low power or energy saving mode”— not really using my strengths or challenging myself to my full potential; saving my energy for something else — I’m not sure what. This is not in anyways the fault of my employer — my job is wonderful and we have amazing employee benefits — I am very lucky and privileged to work where I do. I recognize that daily. I am in the best work environment that I could hope for. I just did not have a very flexible mindset when it came to what kind of person I could be at “work”.

I was ready for a real change.

There are a few things that I think can help in the process of cultivating a healthy work / life integration. Consider this a guideline and not the only set of rules to follow:

Embrace mindfulness

Mindfulness is defined as “a sustained awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment.” This is the definition I identify with the most and what author Ellen Langer speaks about in her book by the same name. So, what does it mean? It means thinking more about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Langer expands upon how to bring mindfulness into work below:

“You can come to mindfulness in one of two ways. First, you can engage in noticing new things. It can be new things about a product you’re working with, your supervisor, your manager, about your family, whatever it is; you’ll come to see that by noticing them, they’re different. And when something is different it becomes naturally engaging. By having people notice new things it leads people to become mindful.

The second way to become mindful is by learning the importance of uncertainty and understanding the power in uncertainty. When you approach things with the mindset that you no longer think you know everything about it, you bring a different kind of attention to it. This respect and understanding for uncertainty leads people to become more mindful. “— Ellen Langer

For me, a way to bring mindfulness into work is by recognizing why I feel the way I do — when I’m angry, sad, frustrated, happy or any one of the many emotions humans have — I like to think about the “why” behind it all. Yes, I’m a person who likes talking and thinking about feelings and I’ve embraced that. For example, during the day, if I feel overwhelmed (if it’s a really busy day or I am doing a lot of things) I slow down and make sure to breathe and consider why I am stressed out. I know if I’m feeling flustered that I need to ‘put on the brakes,’ take a walk or just stop for a moment to recover a bit.

Define healthy boundaries

Defining healthy boundaries at work is really important. So what does it mean and look like? People who have developed healthy boundaries are described as:

“People who had very, very clear boundaries about what they were willing to do, what they were not willing to do, what they were willing to take on, and what they were not willing to take on.” — Brené Brown

Brené goes more in depth into this in the video below:

I like defining boundaries. When I’m going on vacation, I communicate clearly what my boundaries are while I’m out. I communicate that I’ll be out and define who can help in my absence. I politely say “no” if someone requests that I take on a new project the day before my vacation and I maintain consistency while “out of office” — by not checking emails or work stuff — so then, my colleagues know my words line up with my actions. Work can wait and being tired is not a badge of honor, but sometimes you’ve got to remind yourself and others of that — even when you work at Basecamp.

Care less and let go of control

Care less about situations that you cannot control — it might sound like not caring, but it’s not. It can be a much needed shield when working in emotionally draining jobs/environments. Chris Gallo from Highrise wrote about caring less in customer support:

“When I care too much, I’m putting the other person in control of a relationship I shouldn’t even be in.

You have to have thick skin working in customer support. You have to let some things go. One person being upset isn’t a reflection of you or the majority of people that use the product.

It sounds backwards, but you’ve have to care less. Not more.”

I agree with Chris. I also work in customer support and I used to get really stressed worrying about people’s replies. Something that’s helped me a lot is to know that I can’t change how someone reacts to a situation. I can do my best and be my best in an interaction, but it’s not a guarantee that an interaction will go well. Even if I reply and you can practically hear a smile or the aura of a rainbow colored mini goat dancing the tango, shining through an email. It does not matter sometimes. I can’t control how someone reacts to me. It’s not the end of the world and I can move on more easily.

Communicate openly and directly

Having the space for open lines of communication and the ability to directly communicate without fear of retribution is very important at work.

“People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool–even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs. Now, obviously they don’t agree with every idea; they simply do their best to ensure that all ideas find their way into the open.” — Joseph Grenny

A safe space for open communication is key. This is given and I believe cultivated from the top. If team leads/managers, senior employees and CEO’s aren’t demonstrating that it’s okay to disagree or give constructive feedback without getting publicly snubbed, it’s hard to to believe it’s really okay. This can lead to silence and silence is a noxious gas. Claire Lew from Know Your Company, offers her perspective on how to create a space for more open communication:

“If you’re a manager, business owner, or CEO, the most important thing you can do is act on the feedback your employees give you. After all, that’s why an employee is giving you feedback in the first place — they simply want action to be taken.

Now I’m not saying that you should blindly appease every request that an employee makes. But you have to start somewhere. If you want an open, transparent work environment, you can’t just talk about being open and transparent. You have to act in an open and transparent way.” — Claire Lew (source)

Having open communication channels and being able to directly communicate, helps me to feel more connected with my teammates and bosses. If there’s a misunderstanding or miscommunication between myself and another teammate, I bring that up and prefer to talk through that — rather than leaving things unsaid. It’s uncomfortable — it does not feel great while it’s happening and it can be scary, but afterwards I’m always glad to have had those tough conversations.

My sabbatical is long over, but the lessons I’ve learned during it are still fresh in my mind. I don’t claim to know all the best practices surrounding how to integrate work and life and I’m learning as I go. My “real life” is something I’m more happy with now and it combines all parts of my life (work and life and everything in between). It’s nowhere near perfect — but, I don’t think “perfect” is a state that can be reached. My “out in the woods & on mountaintops” experience has continued to grow at my work desk, inside my apartment, on a busy street in Berlin. I now find comfort in the belief that I don’t need to be thousands of miles away to experience a fulfilling life — it starts at home — wherever that might be.

How do you maintain a work/life integration or balance? Is it important to you and how do you achieve that? Tell me in the comments below or tweet me here.

If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness, communicating more openly, setting healthy boundaries, self preservation and more, I recommend the books and blog posts below:

Mindfulness by Ellen Langer, Daring Greatly & Rising Strong by Brené Brown, Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless by Laurie Penny, Crucial Conversations: tools for talking when the stakes are high by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler and Humble Inquiry by Edgar H. Schein.

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