Getting Real About “Work-Life Balance”

Aug 18, 2020 | Stress

The juggling act

The term “work-life balance” is a bit misleading. It suggests that we should be able to balance our attention equally in both areas.

In reality, although we can weigh the time we devote to work and life, we can’t properly balance our attention on both.

It’s less of a balancing act and more of a juggling act. You can’t pay equal attention to all the balls in the air, and there’s always the risk of one being dropped.

This work-life juggling act can feel like an extreme sport during the pandemic. Many of us are working from home alongside partners and children who are also home more than ever. And it can be exhausting for our brains.

New information, competing priorities

In this time of Covid-19, each day we’ve got new information to process about the changing state of virus, the status of schools, work, sports and other activities.

We’ve also got competing priorities. In addition to the outside world and work, inside our own homes, many of us are wanting to pay attention to our own needs, our relationships, and our children’s needs.

All the juggling is exhausting and strains our ability to hold our focus and attention. And if we know the neuroscience, perhaps we can stop feeling like failures and instead support ourselves during this challenging time.

Energy needs of the brain

The brain’s principle job is to monitor our body’s energy and to decide how to allocate it. As Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett puts it, the brain is in charge of our “body budget.” This includes the functions of the brain like making decisions, processing information, and focusing attention.

All of the brain’s processes require energy the way lightbulbs require electricity. Even when the mind is at rest, the brain is said to use about 20 percent of our body’s energy.

As I once heard Feldman Barrett describe it, the brain’s body budget is like a food budget when going to the grocery store. Some items will take priority, and others may need to drop off the list in order to keep within the budget.

The amount of energy in the body is limited at any point in time, so the brain needs to prioritize functions. In the “work-life balance” juggling act, this means some balls are going to be dropped due to the brain’s energy needs.

Energy levels affect brain processes

Our body’s current energy levels affect the brain’s processes such as decision-making. For instance, in a study of parole board decisions, researchers found that when hearings officers made decisions later in the day or before a food break, when the body’s energy was lower, the likelihood of granting parole dropped from 65% to nearly zero (other case factors being equal). In denying parole, they effectively deferred the possibility of parole to a later hearing date.

When we are tired or overwhelmed, the brain becomes what some researchers term a “cognitive miser,” and we will either try to simplify a complex decision or task or defer it in order to conserve energy.

We can’t pay attention to everything

The brain requires additional energy to keep our attention focused on any particular task, especially one that is complex.

So it’s not surprising that a recent study from University College London found that as the brain uses more energy to process information or perform a task, it allocates less energy for paying attention to anything outside of that focus even if that other information may be important.

This explains why when we’re focusing on a work-related email or task, we can definitely miss the sound of a timer going off in the kitchen, or a child calling our name.

It’s not that we don’t care about the pot on the stove or the family member needing attention. We are not consciously choosing to ignore those messages. But our brain is focusing on something that is taking significant energy, and is not processing what is happening outside of that task.

Because of the brain’s energy needs, we simply cannot pay attention to everything when working from home, even when the information outside our current focus is important.

5 ways to support the work-life juggling act

The more you keep trying to “balance” everything, the more overwhelmed and tired and less capable you’re going to feel. But you can help yourself – and your brain – in several ways:

1) Give yourself a break. Realize that you are not the Energizer bunny. You have a body and a brain with energy needs. A constant juggling of various tasks and information on a regular basis will deplete the brain’s energy and lead to shortcuts and missing information. Be realistic in what you can accomplish in one day. If it feels like you’re failing at the “work-life balance” thing, you are likely running on empty and first need to give yourself a break.

2) Plan for breaks. Like a car that runs on gas, when you’re low on energy, you need to stop or replenish the supply. Don’t skip meals, try to eat healthy food that will give you a good supply of energy (e.g. complex carbohydrates), and take snack and water breaks. (Dehydration can cause brain fog.)

3) Structure your time. Instead of trying to pay attention to everything, schedule your time according to your focus. For instance, before 9am, focus on self and/or family, 9-12 focus on work with a short personal break or two, etc. While you might need to be flexible on particular days due to work projects or family schedules, it’s important to set boundaries and keep them to ensure that the brain can properly focus without feelings of guilt or inadequacy for information that it’s not able to process.

4) Schedule important tasks accordingly. Given the energy needs of the brain, try to schedule complex tasks and important meetings or decisions at the beginning of the day, or at least after a food break. Avoid leaving challenging thought processes for the end of the day or when you are stressed or overwhelmed.

5) Enlist support however possible. While you might not be able to hire professional support (e.g., a sitter, tutor or housecleaner) – if you can, do! – you can widen your circle of support with the people already in your life. Share your work-life juggling challenges with those who share your space. Let them know it’s not intentional but that your brain shuts down to outside information when you’re working, especially if you’re already overwhelmed or tired.

What might your family be able and willing to do to pitch in more on some household tasks? For example, I recently enlisted my kids to do more household chores. They track them, get some extra allowance, and I have fewer balls to juggle.

What’s your juggling act like lately? What will you do to create some structure and support for yourself (and your brain)?

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

1 Comment

  1. Maria G.

    Thank you Jen,
    I really needed to read this! I need to make myself get some “BRAIN BREAKS” I will need to set a timer for myself because i get into what i am doing, that when i realize it’s time to go home!
    Thank you for the reminder!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Jen Riggs Blog

Meet the Author

Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

Free Audio Download

free download

6 minutes to greater presence

A guided practice for calming and clearing the mind, body and nervous system. Sign up to receive the monthly newsletter & free audio file.