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Adulting 101: What trying to go on a run every day has taught me about achieving work-life balance

SINGAPORE — In November last year, I decided that I’d had enough of my inconsistent fitness routine and that I would attempt what fitness types call a “running streak”.

Adulting 101: What trying to go on a run every day has taught me about achieving work-life balance

TODAY journalist Justin Ong out on a run.

Adulthood is an invigorating stage of life as young people join the workforce, take on more responsibilities and set their sights on the future. But its many facets — from managing finances and buying a home to achieving work-life balance — can be overwhelming.

In this series, TODAY’s journalists help young Singaporeans navigate this stage of their lives and learn something themselves in the process.

 

SINGAPORE — In November last year, I decided that I’d had enough of my inconsistent fitness routine and that I would attempt what fitness types call a “running streak”. 

This meant trying to run at least one mile or 1.6km a day, every day, for as long as I could. Rain or shine, I would have to lace up and head out the front door. 

I chose to do this firstly because I have always enjoyed running and have been striving for years to be a better runner.  

But running was just a means to an end. 

What I really needed was to instil a routine, given the disruption to my work schedule that had lasted more than six months at that point. 

Of course, I am talking about the pandemic, which has affected each and every one of us to varying degrees. 

For me, it meant suddenly having to work from home, which brought with it an unsurprising blurring of boundaries. While my working hours typically end at 7pm, some assignments could stretch later into the evening, especially early on last year, when news of the coronavirus was still fresh.  

Back then, I was not able to keep up a solid running routine, and often took sporadic breaks that could sometimes last for weeks, when I simply could not muster the motivation to go out on a run. 

I felt like I was losing control over my fitness and health, and feared that I was falling out of love with a sport that I had always enjoyed. 

And this did not just affect my exercise routine, it disrupted my time with family and friends as well. I simply did not know when work was to end and free time with my loved ones began. I was just constantly using my phone around the dinner table, scrolling through work messages.

After months of stalling in this state, I hatched the "running streak" plan in November to make sure that I could run every day, no excuses. I wanted these runs to act as a “border” between work and my free time, the same way someone would commute home from the office to leave their work space. 

But this undertaking was not as straightforward as I had hoped. 

For one thing, I have had to work these daily runs around my personal commitments. I would occasionally arrive late at family dinners and meet-ups with friends, just because I have to clock my daily run before that. 

To save time, I would sometimes run from my house to meet my family for dinner and would ask them to pack for me a change of clothes. So, ironically, I sometimes find myself spending even less time with my loved ones as a result of this commitment. 

Several times, I even had to “work on the run”. 

Even after my assignments are over, I may sometimes receive calls and messages from news contacts, so I have made it a point to carry my phone with me when I run after work. 

I have even stopped in the middle of runs to pick up calls and reply to urgent messages. I convinced myself that I would do the same if I were taking the MRT home from work and running should be no different.

By doing this, and by having tremendous luck staying away from injury and sickness, I have somehow managed to sustain this routine of running every day for over five months so far.

Still, despite meeting the numerical targets for my goal, I could not shake off the feeling that the spirit of the goal remained elusive, with more work to be done in achieving better work-life balance. 

SEASONAL RHYTHM VS DAILY ROUTINE

Why was work on my mind on so many of my runs? And why, in going on these runs, was I having to sacrifice quality time with my family and friends? 

I put these questions to several psychologists and human resource (HR) experts, and found out that a running streak on its own would not necessarily help me achieve work-life balance. 

It could even worsen matters.

I could be tired and irritable if I overdo it and, in the process, this could be detrimental to those around me. 

I spoke to Dr Simon Neo, a psychotherapist at The Psychotherapy Clinic, who told me that rather than micromanaging my daily goals, it was more important to keep to a rhythm. 

“As much as you want to accomplish certain tasks as a means of self-care, there are certain seasons when you may not be able to do that,” Dr Neo said. “So think of it as a rhythm… some days are good, some days are not so good.” 

I certainly agreed with him. Over the course of my work, there have been several peak periods that have stretched me thin, the most memorable being the General Election last year, with back-to-back walkabouts by political party members and online rallies for three weeks straight. 

However, there were also lull periods when the Covid-19 situation was under control here and community cases were lower. 

One piece of advice Dr Neo gave was to envision a “hard work bank account”, which one should build up with one’s company and “deposit” hard work into it during these peak periods. 

“So when you need to withdraw due to a family emergency, for example, you will be able to do so, as there is some goodwill there,” he said. 

In other words, should work get in the way of my fitness or family commitments, I don’t have to see it as a failure on my part, but acknowledge that I can make up for these busier seasons by spending more time on my interests on days when my workload is lighter. 

BEING PRESENT

Dr Neo added that while we are entitled to do what we desire in our free time, there are also unhealthy coping mechanisms such as binge eating, alcoholism or any activity that could be detrimental to one's well-being. 

Could I have been literally running away from my problems all this time? While running has undeniable health benefits, could I have been overdoing it to the point where it has compromised the relationships with my family? 

That I’m even having to look out for phone notifications during my run is already problematic — my runs are not a time to destress, but rather a time when I am still anxiously anticipating possible work calls. 

If I am not running, I am also often distracted by thoughts of work when I am with my family and friends. I am simply not present and not focused on the “why” behind what I am doing. 

In other words, I am merely going through the motions, fulfilling my duties as a son or friend, or telling myself that I must run without knowing what I am running for. 

So, how do I overcome this? 

Mr Kenny Liew, clinical psychologist at psychological consultancy Mind What Matters, said that during my personal time, I should aim to focus on activities that I value and that bring meaning to me. 

“We have to take note of our intention in doing the activity. When we are doing it to distract ourselves and to not think about something, then that might not be so helpful,” he said. 

Instead, I should aim to be present, in the moment, and engaged in the activity. 

Mr Adrian Choo, founder of career consulting company Career Agility International, emphasised the importance of drawing clear lines between work and leisure. 

“Make sure that the time that belongs to you, belongs to you,” he said. If the work week is hectic, Mr Choo advised me to keep weekends, days off and leave “sacred” and untouched by work. 

When I am on leave, I should also strive to stay away from all email and work messages, the same way I would if I were on an overseas holiday. 

TODAY journalist Justin Ong working from home. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

I also spoke to Mr Ivan Chan, a father of two who has managed to keep up an even stricter fitness regime than I have, where he does a combination of running, high-intensity interval training sessions and gym sessions about five times a week. 

All this, while juggling his demanding job as an administrative head at a tertiary institution. 

To manage his time, he would go for runs with his wife early in the mornings, and even does his workouts in the few hours when his teenage daughters are at enrichment lessons, he told me. 

“No time is wasted,” he said. “I get my workouts done without sacrificing family time… parenthood is definitely not easy, and I see (staying healthy) as a responsibility to my children.”

I noticed that Mr Chan is very clear about the reasons behind his endeavours — he wants to be there for his children. 

And I want to be clear about why I am running or why I am spending time with my family, too. 

The “why” for me is simply because they are people who matter to me, and that I should be there for them when they have put their time aside to be there for me. 

Taking this advice, I will aim to be more present by keeping time with my family “sacred”. 

Mr Liew from Mind What Matters said that this could mean tweaking my environment to signal to myself that I am no longer at work. 

For instance, when I am at the dining table, I could turn off my work notifications on my phone, or put my phone away, and only deal with these calls and messages after a short half-hour meal. 

The same can be said for my runs. I should run as a way to spend some time alone away from work and not to immerse myself further in it. 

To do this, I could plan my longer runs during less hectic periods such as weekends and early mornings, when I don’t have to take my phone along. I could also go on 15-minute runs away from my phone just to spend some time with myself. 

That way, it will truly be just me and the road, and (for the few kilometres, at least) not a worry in the world. 

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Justin Ong is a journalist at TODAY, where he covers transport, manpower and sports.

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