Mindfully balancing work and life

The buzzword of modern America seems to be “work-life balance”. While some have stepped forward to say that we’re thinking about the relationship between work and life all wrong, they are still a minority whose voices are drowned out by the thunderous advice from the news media, therapists, and even some employers about how we need to keep those scales even, to remain productive without becoming workaholics who neglect family, health, and hobbies.

Image from emyth.com

Image from emyth.com

As usual on a Monday, I’m here to tell you that mindfulness can help with that.

How could mindfulness help you achieve a sense of work-life balance? One possibility is the direct route: when you are mindful, you keep your attention on what you are doing now, so when you are at work you mindfully do your job, and when you are home you mindfully pay attention to family or other pursuits. Mindfulness also encompasses being non-judgmental about your mistakes, so when your work and life are out of balance you might be less likely to make things worse by beating yourself up about what you should be doing.

Another possibility is the indirect route, where mindfulness improves some specific qualities of your life, and it’s those improvements that make you feel more in balance. Tammy Allen and Kaitlin Kiburz of the University of South Florida thought of two aspects of living that might be improved by mindfulness, and in turn improve work-life balance: sleep quality, and vitality.

“Sleep quality” is that elusive ideal of simply falling asleep and staying asleep, instead of lying awake with thoughts racing through your head. Bad sleep quality leads to poor health, touchiness, and inefficient work, all of which will put you on the fast track to staying late at the office and snapping at your friends. Mindfulness might be an aid to rerouting those racing thoughts, falling asleep faster, and then being better able to maintain some semblance of work-life balance in your well-rested state.

“Vitality” is the sense of feeling alive. (If you’re of a certain age, you will have a certain disco song running through your head right now. You’re welcome.) Mindfulness may make you feel more alive, because you will be paying more attention to your experiences and they will seem more vivid – an extension of the finding that food tastes better when we aren’t distracted.

The evidence so far is on the side of mindfulness helping us sleep better and feel alive, which then leaves us with the impression that our work and (the rest of) our lives are in good balance. Allen and Kiburz asked over one hundred college alumni with children to answer an online survey including the Mindful Awareness Attention Scale, along with a half-dozen questions each about their sleep, vitality, and work-life balance. People who reported being more mindful were more likely to think they had achieved work-life balance – but they were also getting better sleep, and feeling more alive. Mindfulness predicted sleep quality and vitality, and those in turn predicted work-life balance.

The value of this finding is hopefully obvious. Many of us may know that maintaining a good work-life balance and getting enough sleep are very important things, but they are easier said than done. Mindfulness may give us a path to these important goals; with a little training and practice being mindful, good sleep and quality of life may follow on their own.

Allen, T. D., & Kiburz, K. M. (2012). Trait mindfulness and work–family balance among working parents: The mediating effects of vitality and sleep quality Journal of Vocational Behavior, 80, 372-379


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