What 4 nights in Kakuma taught me about work-life balance

Work-life balance is one of those elusive concepts that is easier on paper than in real life. It sounds good in principle – have an equilibrium between the time and energy you put into your work, and the time and energy you devote to other parts of your life. Putting it into practice is another story. There are so many factors that push for us to work longer than we should – heavy workloads, organizational culture, a sense of duty, and depending on your post, not a lot to pull you away from work.

I experienced that last one when I was in Kakuma a couple of weeks ago. Kakuma is a town in Northern Kenya that hosts a camp of 179,000 refugees. The staff compound is more than adequate in terms of comfort and safety. It doesn’t, however, have what you could call an active nightlife. Like most remote duty stations, it’s a make-your-own-fun kind of place. And that means it's all too easy to spend more and more time working, and less and less time on the rest of your life.

If your work-life seesaw weighs heavily in the favour of work, here are three tips for getting closer to a healthy balance.

1)  Set your computer to shut down at a certain time.

I had the best of intentions to stop work at a reasonable hour but most nights I stayed later than I planned, succumbing to the “just one more email” or “just another 15 minutes” thinking. Not surprisingly, one more email turned into 20, and 15 minutes into an hour.

When you’ve got a ton to do, it’s always going to be tempting to work longer, even when you’re becoming less productive by the second. So don’t rely on yourself, let technology do it for you.

Set your computer to shut down at a pre-determined time each evening. (Here are instructions for Mac and PC users on how to do just that). You can always override the automatic shutdown if you’re in a real crunch. But it will serve as a reminder of your commitment to work-life balance and help you resist that “just one more email” mentality.

2) Get a life!

Your computer has trained you to leave the office, now what?

When I finished grad school, I often stayed late at the office because I wasn’t used to having free time and didn’t know what to do with myself.

If you want work-life balance, you actually need a life outside of work, right?

And in places like Kakuma, that means finding things you can do in that kind of environment. Be creative – exercise, book club, meditation, taking an online course – there are tons of things you can do. One of the staff I met there had her own garden and used the fruits of her labour to make amazing meals. Pretty impressive in the middle of a desert.

Your choices for recreation may be more limited than at home but there is always something you can do to keep yourself busy and engaged in life.

3) Schedule your free time

If you’ve done the first two steps, you are well on your way to a better balance. If you really want to solidify it, start scheduling your free time.

Having hobbies and interests outside of work is a great step. But if it comes down to a vague plan to “do something later” versus a concrete pile of work to get through, which one do you think will win out?

Most of us schedule our work commitments and social engagements. Go a step further and schedule all your free time, yes, even the hour you want to spend watching the latest episode of your favourite TV show. You don’t have to be rigid about it, but having a concrete plan of what you’ll do when you leave the office makes it much more likely that you will leave the office.

Write it down. “Family time”, “skype call with Natalie”, “relaxing on my couch”, “reading”, “dinner with friends” – those things are as important as the meetings, emails, interviews, counselling sessions, and other tasks you do in your work life. They deserve to be scheduled and observed in the same way.

So that’s it. Three tips for bringing more balance into your life: Set your computer to automatically shut down so you’ll go home when you mean to, build hobbies and interests to keep you busy and engaged outside of work, and schedule your free time the same way you schedule your work hours.

I'd love to hear how you work towards better work-life balance in your life. In the comments below, let me know your best tips.

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