How to Use Habit Formation to Achieve Work-Life Balance
Categories: Worker Wellness
September 21, 2022
Post-COVID Series: Re-finding Workplace Norms and Establishing New Norms
After a long, uneasy 2+ years of facing the pandemic, work is in flux. Workplaces are flustered to adapt to the expectations of employees who have lived and adjusted to unprecedented times, and where some industries came to a halt in the height of lockdown, they are now back in full swing and navigating a new normal. With change comes angst, and if the pandemic has not opened up new vulnerabilities, it has shone the flashlight on those pre-existing workplace gaps and pressures which, after so much suffering and uncertainty, seem less tolerable.
This is the first in a series of five spotlights on the experience of the worker and the employer post-pandemic, with an emphasis on mental health and wellbeing.
Are You in a Rut?
Maybe it’s a stretch to say that you’ll spring out of bed each morning, energized without the aid of coffee, fuelled solely by the passion you have for your job. But if the opposite is the case - you’re filled with dread, nothing cuts through the fatigue, you lose interest in the things you love, and nothing recharges you at the end of the day - it may be a red flag that you need a shift in your life.
Of course, your job doesn’t start when you clock in for your shift and leave your mind when the day is done. Thoughts of work likely trail dinner hour and creep into your mind while watching a tv show, or caring for a loved one. After a while, it’s hard to identify the problem with a clear mindset. Chances are—if you’re feeling this way, you need a fresh start. It may be a toxic work culture, a difficult boss, or simply the wrong fit, but you don’t need to suffer constant doubt and defeat. The good news is that you can make your move into a new industry, sector, or position, or you can start with something simple and reliable—habit change.
Finding Your Fit
You’re ready for a change, which makes it a good time to practise habit formation. Practising habits that align with your intent makes you more likely to find the role that reflects your interest and your skills, as well as to set parameters and routines that make you feel balanced while working your shifts. As habit expert Charles Duhigg points out, most of the things we do each day feel like a choice…but maybe it isn’t that simple. Think about your morning routine:
Ignore it again
Have a shower
Make a coffee
Take the dog for a walk
Just thinking through the start of your day gives you a glimpse into habit formation. And habits are more automatic than you might think. Habits are rooted in cognitive science, and we know the brain is malleable, so why are they so sticky? As Duhigg says, “we now know why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their mechanics. We understand how to make people eat less, exercise more, work more efficiently, and live healthier lives.” Sounds promising, right? It is. If we can change the way people eat, drink, sleep, and move their bodies, it’s possible to tweak your workday so that it’s more fulfilling and less stressful. This is the key to work-life balance.
So, why are habits so powerful? Well, they create neurological cravings. Since they’re acting on brain chemistry, they influence how you think, feel, and behave. If you want to change a habit, you must create an alternative routine. Even small changes can be difficult, but with the right approach, they’re achievable. If your work-life balance needs a bit of adjustment or support, you might be wondering where to start. You know that old saying, “if it doesn’t work, unplug it?” It has a lot of merits. Unplugging from your shift, technology, or a pesky workplace dynamic can help you reset. And you can use a break from technology, such as meditation, social connection, creativity or movement, as your quick fix. In no time, it will be a habit, but first, let’s take a look at how habits work.
How do Habits Work?
The basal ganglia is a golf-ball-sized lump of tissue nestled in the centre of the brain, and it’s responsible for the routines and complex habits we execute each day, such as brushing our teeth or backing up the car. And what better way to study how habits work than to implant electrodes and line up rats behind a partition to funnel them into a T-shaped maze, which is what M.I.T scientists did. There was a method to how these scientists introduced a new habit to the rats. It started with a cue, a click that happened as the partition opened, and the reward was chocolate at the end of the maze.
Like any habit, it didn’t come easily. At first, the rats were aimless. They wandered, sniffed, seemed to turn without much consideration of one direction or another, and scratched at the walls. When they got to the reward, the chocolate, it could almost be seen as an accident. But the probes in their head showed a different reality altogether. There was a spike at every sight and sound. They were working furiously to chart a habit. And then, there was a shift. They stopped working so hard to make sense of their new routine. They stopped making wrong turns and sniffing the air. They were purposeful in the maze, and importantly, their mental activity decreased, making room for activity in other grey matter. So what was going on?
How Do I Change My Habit?
Let’s take a step back from rats and look at it from the perspective of a human being again. If you decide that at the end of your shift, you will intentionally unplug, whether it’s through a session at the gym or a guided meditation, your thoughts may race and feel scrambled, like the rat that sniffs at every new sight. When we form a new habit, however, our brain downregulates, and we expend less energy. This is optimal. We can lift weights without thinking about what happened on shift or what’s going on on our phones. We get centred in a new habit. Your brain is looking to create habits because it means the brain is more efficient. Let’s get to the bottom of how you wire your new habit into the brain.
Habits start with a cue, similar to how the rats associated the search for the chocolate in the maze with the click of the maze’s partition. This puts the brain in automatic mode. So, for instance, you feel stressed at the end of your shift, bothered by something your boss said, and your brain is reeling. To cope with the unpleasant thoughts, you search for a distraction, and the closest one at hand is your phone. You scroll through your apps and open up social media, say Instagram, but the latest posts remind you of your unhappiness compared to all the gloss and glamour on the app. It’s a negative cycle, but you don’t have the chance to assess it that way because your brain has made it automatic.
Cue—discomfort, boredom, fatigue, overwhelm. Reward—flashy, stimulating photos and ads. The result—you spiral. You probably don’t have to think about opening your phone after a shift. And your cue and reward work together to create a powerful sense of anticipation or craving. There you have it—a habit. But it doesn’t have to define you. You can rewire or replace your habit, and you can override a bad habit. So why not give it a try? Replace doom scrolling for a new habit, mental rest, and unplugging. The reason is simple—it’s a first step to creating space from your shift to decompress. While kissing Instagram goodbye for an hour or two isn’t easy, it’s the start of work/life balance.
Time To Unplug + Reap the Benefits
Technology cultivates a sense of constant accessibility, and always being “on” is challenging for many managers and workers. Taking a break can give you the creativity and calm to make the most of your time on and off shift. If this blur between day and night, shift and rest is something you’re facing, consider one way you could go back to basics. Take a moment and jot it down. Now, identify two times in the day when you will give yourself this rest. Take note of how you feel before you unplug and how you feel afterward, and experiment with integrating it into your workday.
How Do You Set Mindful Habits @ Work
You may have used the FindWRK platform to find your best fit or, with some reflection about your work-life balance, found the right way to move your career forward with good habits and healthy boundaries. As you take on your next shift or role and build the skills to excel in your career, here are some habits to set the tone:
Chunk your day
Think about the tasks that you need to get done while on shift. On your commute, take the time to visualize these tasks, mentally preparing yourself for your shift and your day. It’s true and often ignored that the brain can do one thing at a time, and completing a task brings a sense of accomplishment. Breaking down your day into parts causes you to be realistic, and it helps you set goals for your shift, along with boundaries that you might discuss with your manager if things get hectic. Every shift has a curve ball, but thinking it through can give you the strategy you need to keep things calm.
Use your breaks well
When your break time comes along, activate an intentional mindset to stop yourself from falling into habits that may not give you proper rest or recharge. Instead of reaching for your phone, tune into what will fuel your energy. Take a walk, stretch, drink water, and have a conversation. Design your break so that it clears your head, which can help you avoid burnout on the job.
Trust your teammates with your vulnerability
When you bring curiosity, openness and authenticity to your relationships, you allow yourself to learn, make mistakes, admit struggle and connect more meaningfully with your colleagues. If you don’t know how to do something, don’t be afraid to ask. Chances are that your teammates have felt the same vulnerability and trust you more for your honesty. The more you connect honestly with your team, the better you can meet personal goals and offer your best on the job.
Start and end your day with a cue
What sets your mood for the day? Is it music? A podcast? A phone call with a family member? Make this a ritual, and it will set the tone for your shift. Similarly, find a wind-down routine. It could be cooking, walking the dog, going for a jog… Find something that helps your brain and body transition from work to relaxation, and you will actively create separation in your day.
The fact is that work-life balance isn’t just a nice-to-have; it’s essential. Lack of work-life balance perpetuates chronic diseases, vastly diminishes the quality of life, and may result in stress, anxiety and depression. But without getting too heavy, having some separation between work and your personal life will just make you happier and give you a greater sense of well-being and accomplishment. Amid a culture defined by stimulus overload, the advice of Tina Varughese, a professional speaker and trainer who focuses on improving work environments through diversity and well-being, counts now more than ever: “people need to check in before they check out.”
We’re just getting started on our deep dive into the worker experience, so stay tuned for the next part of our series: How to Get Ahead of Burnout. FindWRK is on the front lines, listening to the stories of workers and employers, tuning into your needs, and innovating the next-best in all things hourly employment. We’re here for you, so check back with us any time for resources, support, or to find your next role. We think it should be simple, so we’re on a mission to make it that way.
Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House Trade Paperbacks.
How to improve your work-life balance.Business News Daily. Retrieved September 14, 2022 from https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/5244-improve-work-life-balance-today.html
Work Life Balance. Mental Health America. Retrieved September 14, 2022 from https://www.mhanational.org/work-life-balance