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Debbie O'Brien
Debbie O'Brien

Posted on • Originally published at

Finding the Right Work Life Balance

Before you start reading this I want you to all know that I do not have all the answers and we do not all live with the same circumstances so these are just my views and experiences on how I have managed my work life balance. To many people it might look like I have it all worked out and to be honest I do think I have a pretty good work life balance. But it wasn't always that way. I am probably older than most people who will read this and therefore I have had more time to make mistakes and learn from them.

Burn out at 21

When I was 21 I had a great life, but a terrible work life balance. I was living in London and working in a post production company in the TV industry. You may already know that I always wanted to work in TV and at 21 I gave it a go. I had the perfect life. I loved my job so much. I would wake up in the morning dancing going to work. But I was getting paid 7 thousand pounds a year. In London that is not a lot to live on.

So I also had a another fulltime job in a bar. I was working 80 - 90 hours a week. I was also practicing Taekwondo and going for my black belt at the time. And I was out partying quite a bit. I was 21 after all. Perfect life balance. Only I didn't sleep much and I certainly didn't eat well. I had very little money and chose a bottle of wine over a good dinner. Free toast in the studio would do for food. My fridge was constantly empty and I lived on pasta and tomato sauce and if I had enough money for bacon well that was a real treat. Sometimes the production would buy us lunch and that's when I ate properly.

But I didn't care. I was happy. Until I burnt out and was made to realise that I could not live like this. That meant giving up my amazing job in London and moving home to live with my parents. At the time I felt like a complete failure but actually giving up something you love to improve your health is not a failure at all.

Stress of Office Hours

A few years ago while working in tech I had a timetable that was quite flexible so I decided I would start early and finish early. Get the job done and go home kinda thing. Don't get me wrong, I really liked my job but office hours and all that. So I used to get up before 7am and go to work and 3 times a week I would go to cross fit to train for an hour. Then I would come home and shower, grab my pre-made smoothie for my breakfast, my pre-made lunch, my laptop and put it all into my bag, got on my bike and cycled to work. I would then sit in meetings having my breakfast, my smoothie.

I would then do my job which consisted of meetings, leading my team, meetings, emails, jira, consulting, estimating and everything a Tech Lead has to do. I was always busy and always had deadlines and so my lunch, which was in the work fridge, would sometimes sit in the work fridge until I was so hungry I said I better stop and eat. Sometimes I would sit at my desk and eat and sometimes I would completely forget to eat and would work late and be completely starving when I came home. Sometimes I did things right and stopped for lunch but not always.

Always working after Hours

When I got home in the evening I would study a lot. I was the Tech Lead making big decisions and trying to push new tech forward such as static sites, JavaScript frameworks and headless CMS's. I needed to be confident when I proposed these solutions and I didn't have enough time in work to research and prototype all this so I would do it at home in my own free time. I would also have meetings, calls or emails with the CEO after hours and at weekends. I was also responsible for this as I would send emails too in evenings and weekends.

I was always working and when I wasn't I was mentoring for OpenClassrooms and Treehouse and teaching English at the weekend cause it was extra money and I just don't know how to say no.

I basically had a terrible work life balance but I felt it was necessary. As a female Tech Lead, and often the only woman in a client meeting, I had to prove myself in every situation. My ideas and thoughts always had to be given with huge confidence and backed up by POC's and I always had to have the answer to every question that was going to be thrown at me. I was determined to succeed and make the correct decisions with regards to tech.

Working Remote


I changed jobs and stated working remote just as were moved into lockdown. Everyone has had different and difficult experiences of lockdown and unfortunately some people are still going through this. We were locked in our apartment for 7 weeks with no possibility of doing any sport, no going for a walk, nothing.

I lived for my 8pm balcony party where we would clap for the healthcare workers and dance to two songs that we could hear from the massive speakers of one of the neighbouring blocks. This was the only moment in the whole day that I got to see people. Believe me there was many a moment when I just wanted to jump off the balcony. If this was life forever then it wasn't the one I wanted to live.

That's when I started doing sport on the roof terrace. I tried to run 10km round in circles, changing direction every kilometer to not hurt my ankles. 7 weeks of no sport. No way. I had to do something. I even did Taekwondo classes online. Not ideal but it was fun at the time.

me doing taekwondo on the roof with the computer showing the zoom call for training

During lockdown I just worked. Pretty much all day, every day. Even at weekends. I needed something to keep my mind off the world around me so I didn't look at the news until after 8pm. I just pretended the world was normal until then. And I literally just worked.

Freedom to do Sport

When we finally got let out to do sport, 7 weeks later, it was such a feeling of freedom. Only for 2 hours though. We could only do a maximum of 2 hours so I was out the door and on my bike at 8am and back at exactly 10am. And it was so nice to see life, people, smell things, hear things. It was weird as no children were allowed out. They had a different hour to us so it was like children didn't exist and the usual noise of children playing was not to be heard for at least another month until the time restrictions were removed.

One thing the lockdown thought me is that I literally spent my days just working and living for those 2 hours of freedom, those 2 hours of sport. This was so important to me and something I needed to continue to do. When I look back at the diary I have kept where I wrote down my goals, One of them was simply to do more sport. Why in the past was I not able to achieve this. I needed to better manage my time so that I was working less and doing more sport.

I really wasn't that good at running so putting on my shoes and going for a run took a lot of effort. But when someone takes your freedom away from you and then gives it back you realise that you had something all along and it was actually you that was stopping yourself from being free and from doing the things you love to do.

Putting Sport First

So that's when I decided to change how I live. I decided to do sport in the morning, every morning for at least an hour but on average for 3 hours. As much as I love sport if I sit on the computer for long enough I will forget to stop and then it's too late to do any sport. Many people say, wow 3 hours. But I don't feel like it's a lot. We spend so much time in front of a screen mainly sitting so being active and on my feet for just 3 hours a day really isn't a lot of time.

I work much better when I get up in the morning and go for a 60km cycle or a 15km run or play a few padel matches. The morning sun helps me appreciate things, clears the mind and sets me up for the day. My sport is normally outdoors and surrounded by nature. Then I know I can go to work and not have to try to stop work to do sport. Cause for some reason I simply keep saying 5 more minutes to myself and then hours pass and it becomes too late to do sport. There are days when I can enjoy an evening run but it doesn't always happen. Morning just works so much better for me.

me cycling with other female cyclists

In order to make sure I kept to my routine I would block time in my calendar for these activities, either the cycles or padel matches etc. If it is set in my calendar then I won't forget to do it even if it's something I love. Once it becomes routine it becomes a new habit that you are simply used to doing.

Morning Routine

I start my day at 7am but I will pick up my phone and start reading through emails, slack, twitter etc. I know this is a terrible habit but actually sometimes it just sets me up for the day so will see if I keep that habit or not.

I then make my breakfast which is a smoothie of almond milk, almonds, chocolate, cocoa powder and bananas. I make enough for 4 days so most days I just grab one from the fridge and then go to my office, (the room next to my bedroom) and I sit on the sofa having my smoothie and writing in my 6 minute diary about what I am grateful for, how I can improve and how I am going to make today great. I then write down my dreams and goals and things I want to achieve. Yes I do this every single day.

I then either study, or work for an hour if there is anything urgent, but normally I try to use this time to study, do a course, watch a conference talk etc.

Then at about 9am I head to the gym, sometimes a bit earlier or sometimes a bit later depending on if I have a class or match or a cycle. I run to the gym every day and run home which is only a 1km run but it was a habit I made and have kept for almost 2 years now. I can't believe I used to drive to the gym.

me running in the forest

I then stay in the gym for about 3 hours. I play padel which is similar to tennis and we play outdoors and as a team so not only am I in the fresh air but I am also mixing with people. People and sport give me energy. Sometimes I might go for a 3-4 hour cycle with the club and sometimes I might just go for a 10-15km run.

Afternoon Routine

At about 12 o'clock I am back home and normally work for an hour. I then start to cook lunch which I actually really enjoy. I get to have lunch with my husband which is something I could never do before. Lunch in Spain is more like a dinner as in a hot meal so it's really nice to cook for two and eat together. At 2pm my husband goes to work and so I head back to my office. I will then work straight through until 9pm or 9:15 rather when my husband gets home and makes sure I am not on the computer.

me in my home office with all my screens

In the summer it is a lot easier to take breaks cause it is so hot and we have a community pool, so I will often take a 15 minute pool break which is really nice. But outside of summer I am really terrible at taking breaks so I try to do things like stop for a few minutes and empty the dishwasher or hang out the clothes or clean the kitchen. Just taking 5 minutes away from the screen is extremely beneficial.

Although I say this I am still working on improving this. Now that the days are getting nicer I also try to work some hours on the roof terrace. Sometimes changing scenery helps and even just getting up and going to the roof is at least some form of movement. I do have a standing desk though and try to do all my meetings standing so that I am not sitting in the same position for too long.

me in my egg chair with my laptop on the roof

Evening Routine

At 9:15 we start to prepare dinner which is normally some bread and ham and olives or some form of salad or sandwich. Then I am forced to watch 45 minutes of Netflix which is sometimes ok and sometimes just bores me and I find myself reaching for my phone and scrolling through twitter until my husband gives out to me. And at 11pm or just after 11 I go to bed. Then get up the next day and do it all over again.

Obviously sometimes things change. I might not have a match and therefore I might spend less time at the gym in the morning and perhaps go for a cycle or run in the evening. Also, not often, but sometimes it rains in the mornings and when it does, I just work and then go running later when it's dry. Or sometimes I will do an extra long day of working and the next day do an extra long day of sport. The fact that I can easily change my work hours based on the rain is really amazing.

Weekend Routine

At the weekends I don't work. Or at least I try not to. I tend to get up in the mornings and do sport, normally cycling for about 4 hours or running or I may have a padel tournament.

padel tournament

Then I have lunch and then I normally spend a few hours studying or just programming for fun, improving my site or trying out new things.

In the summer I do tend to go to the beach or sometimes go for a long lunch with a few drinks which means that studying doesn't happen but thats ok. I can always make up for it during the week. I do try to have non computer days sometimes at the weekends but I really just enjoy learning too much.

Creating Routines

For me creating these habits and this routine has helped me have time to study and get so much done. It is not always set in stone. Sometimes I will have a mentoring session during my so called work schedule and that means then the next day I will just make up the time in the morning. Being flexible helps as it causes less stress. Having time to do the things you love, which for me is sport, really helps me be more productive.

I feel I have a great work life balance. But everyone is different and really you have to find your own that works for you. Do more of what makes you happy. If you want to do something but don't seem to be able to, then create a new habit to make sure it happens. It could be sport, spending time with the family, reading, whatever.

Notifications Turned Off

As for my phone and receiving messages due to time zones I don't think this will be an issue and hasn't been in the past. Although I will admit I did use to answer all slack messages on Sundays and it was hard to change this but simply turning off slack notifications on a Sunday really helps. For context, I worked for a company in Israel whose weekend is Friday and Saturday therefore it was normal that they send messages and emails to me on Sundays.

But in general my phone is always on silent. All day every day. My apple watch gives me notifications and if its important I get my phone and respond and if its not I just ignore it till I finish work. Sorry mam.

All notifications are also turned off always on my computer. I do have a screen open just for slack and discord so I can easily see if there are any messages that need answering without them actually popping up and disturbing me. And when working on the roof with one screen, my watch tells me if there are messages that I need to answer. And if I really need to I can turn on notifications just for certain messaging apps and close non important ones like email etc.

Things I am not good at

A couple of things I am not good at. I am terrible at cleaning and I actually pay a cleaner to come twice a month to deep clean the apartment, windows etc. The rest of the time we have a robot hover that does the job. I don't remember the last time I cleaned a floor.

I am terrible at bringing the bins out including the recycling. I always forget this. The bins can only be done at a certain time which is rather annoying and the recycling, I have no excuse, I just haven't created a new habit for it yet.

I never make the bed. I think it's just pointless. I never iron unless there is a top that can't be worn without ironing but then you can be assured I will wear it only a few times a year.

I'm no good at remembering to water plants. They normally all die on me. It takes seconds I know but I just seem to forget about them. I really should improve this and go back to growing the veg and herbs on the roof again.

I'm not a big fan of food shopping but it does have to be done so I find time. Normally at weekends or last thing in the evening if we are really short of something I make a quick trip to the closest shop just before it closes.

Do I have it all figured out?

And that's pretty much my day to day, my work life balance. It took me a long time to figure this stuff out and you will too. Just try to do the things you love and prioritise them and then create small habits to make sure you get them done. I am not really sure I am doing things right or if this will change in the future but for now this really works for me.

me in a swimming pool

I used to start work as early as possible and try to finish as early as possible but always end up working more. And now I do the complete opposite and the only time I work later than 9pm is when there is football on the TV. Much prefer to work than watch football.

I very much prefer this schedule, especially in winter. I get to do sport in day light which is so beneficial. I personally love my routine. It doesn't work for everyone but it certainly works for me. So find the one that best works for you, especially if you have the freedom to choose your own hours. Find the right balance and believe me you will be so much more productive and so much happier.

Things to Note

As much as routine is important it is also ok to break it every once in a while. Right now I am injured so can't take part in my normal routine. Stopping also makes me appreciate how much I get done because if it wasn't for routine I would get lost in the computer and not get anything done at all. Not just work but the computer in general, social media etc can really consume us and we can just loose so much time and when we do, that's when we loose our productivity and wonder why.

I do check Twitter quite a lot and sometimes I have to stop myself from scrolling and scrolling and when I catch myself it normally means I need to just get up and walk around. You have to snap yourself out of the moment. I very rarely use Facebook and I don't have Instagram or TikTok simply because I don't want to dedicate more time to social media.

If you ever wonder where your time is going start writing down what you are doing for a week and then look back and see what things you can easily cut out. Take away 2 hours a week of social media and you could easily write a blog post, study something or create a YouTube video. We all have the same 24 hours in the day just some people use their time better than others.

And of course some people who use their time wisely and also bring up kids at the same time are my real heros and I would love to hear how they do it. I feel I have it easy to be honest. I'm also very grateful for where I live and having nature so close to me.

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