I’ve been thinking a lot lately about work/life balance and what boundaries look like and how we draw them. I’m finding though that I come a bit unstuck when trying to apply a rhetoric that is based in neurotypical constructs to myself. I say neurotypical to highlight the contrast with neurodiverse brains – I am autistic, and I’ve also recently learned that I’m likely ADHD too – a double dose of neurodiversity. And trying to force my weird brain into a strict taxonomy and temporal defining of what Is Work and Is Not Work is something I’ve struggled with a lot.
As one example, the way I manage my email is via a system an old boss of mine taught me years ago, that I have implemented religiously ever since. It gives me the structure and chunking I need to manage executive dysfunction a and overwhelm. The system requires applying the system to every single email as close as possible to the time it arrives on your inbox. The system is simple and only takes a second (it doesn’t involve actually actioning any of the email content), but if I don’t apply it every single waking hour of my life, I descend into a pit of distress and can’t manage.
The problem is this flies in the face of the rhetoric around work/life boundaries. Checking email when you’re not at work is generally considered A Bad Thing and Poor Boundaries and Means You Are Overworking. I’ve really internalised this and mostly this just ends up as implementing my system anyway because I like functioning and not being distressed, but feeling ashamed about it. I tried once to do the correct thing – I took a week of leave and I deleted outlook from my phone and did not check my work email for the whole week. What this resulted in was me spending an extraordinary amount of energy trying to manage my impulses and anxiety, feeling quite distressed a lot of the time and then having a horrific first day back at work drowning in an unmanaged inbox. Which is…not better? That was my first lesson in having to define boundaries that fit me, not the rhetoric or the rules.
As another example, I’ve recently been learning about the role stimulation and dopamine play in helping my brain function well (and notably, perform things such as actually sleeping). I came across the concept of a dopamenu and I’ve been considering what the design might look like for me. The trouble is a lot of the things that really excite my brain, that make me excited to engage in them and trigger a dopamine response are work-related. I’m writing this on a Saturday evening, and the reason I’m writing this post specifically is because I thought it would be slightly less work-related (narrator: it was not) than the two other post ideas for our work blog I had that I had already been drafting in my brain during my shower but was deliberately stopping myself from writing because that is Bad and Doing Work On The Weekend. I tried really hard to think of non-work-related items but thanks to hyperfixating that was not going to happen so I ended up with this compromise post instead. But surely – actively engaging in effective dopamine/generating activities, even if they don’t fit the Work Life Balance rhetoric, is better than what I would have been doing which is bouncing back and forth between 10 different apps on my phone. I don’t yet have data on whether this strategy will result in me actually being able to sleep or not but even without that, focus and engagement are better quality of life indicators than a pile of scattered not much.
I think we need more nuanced discussion about what work/life balance means and what boundaries look like for a wider range of people. There are some situations where applying rigid neurotypical constructs just doesn’t work for me, and ends up resulting in worse outcomes. There are many other neurodiverse, disabled and chronically ill people who also need a more nuanced discussion, and probably also many people who just have Various Life Circumstances too. There’s a whole other conversation on the temporal construct of the work day here too but that’s a post for another time.
If you’re a weird brain type – how do you navigate your work/life balance and boundaries?