What Being A Barista Taught Me About Work-Life Balance

Courtesy Kent Campbell/Mekita Rivas

I’ve always known that I wanted to be a writer, and I’ve always romanticized what life as a writer would be like. I’d have the freedom to travel the world and take my work with me. I’d write for the publications I grew up reading. As an undergraduate studying journalism, that dream was constantly top of mind. By the time I was a senior, I had completed several internships and was writing for the campus newspaper, The Daily Nebraskan. I was also slinging lattes in a green apron behind the counter at — you guessed it — Starbucks.

It seemed like I had a lot going on at the time. My barista gig was more demanding than you might think. Many service industry roles aren’t full-time, which often means you’re ineligible for most employer-sponsored benefits. (But even if you are working full-time, paid time off isn’t always offered.) Calling out sick can have negative consequences in the workplace, especially one where you can’t just “work from home.” In many industries — and definitely in the service industry — working from home isn't exactly an option (and it's a luxury I'm super grateful for now). Another downside to service jobs? And don’t get me started on the drama of trying to find someone who can cover your shift. As a barista, I frequently fantasized about having the flexibility to work a schedule of my choosing. It would be this wonderfully zen utopia in which I achieved that elusive, mythical goal of true work-life balance.

I haven’t gotten to that point just yet. Balancing a full-time day job, a growing freelance business, relationships with loved ones, and my own needs and goals is not easy. Did I mention I’m also engaged and currently planning a wedding abroad? People often tell me, “I don’t know how you do it.” The short answer is that I don’t get much sleep. Going to bed well past midnight is the norm, and I regularly wake up before 6 a.m. to start my day.

Yes, I’m better off financially than I was making americanos and mochas. But am I happier and healthier?

I may as well be my 21-year-old self, trying not to hit the snooze button when I had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to open the café. I envisioned that life as a full-fledged working professional would be less stressful because I would, in theory, be doing work that I was passionate about. Now at 29, I do, in fact, have more flexibility. Yes, I’m doing work I love. Yes, I’m better off financially than I was making americanos and mochas. But am I happier and healthier? That question is more complex.

If I don’t truly learn how to “turn off” and stop my career from taking over my life, those pay-offs and benefits might not be worth it, especially if it means compromising my sanity. So, my main priorities for 2019 are to rest and refocus. I will identify what my limits are and be okay with the fact that I have limits.

That was a lesson I first learned back in my barista days. When I left Starbucks after nearly four years, it was bittersweet. I loved the job, but the schedule ultimately became too much to balance with attending school full time and juggling a campus internship. I thought I could do it all, but my grades and well-being were suffering.

Fast forward to the present day, and I face a similar struggle. When is it OK to take something off my plate? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that for the first time in a long time, I’m making a conscious effort to prioritize me instead of my work and my productivity levels.

Courtesy Kent Campbell/Mekita Rivas

In her own way, that’s exactly what Lana Leazer did when she left behind her corporate career in hospitality management in search of more creative freedom in 2008. “I’m pursuing my creative dreams right now,” Leazer, who works as a bartender and freelance publicist in Southern California, tells Bustle. “That was the main reason for me getting out of management and semi-retiring. It’s easier [as a bartender] — my schedule is not set in stone, and I make about $40 an hour, so $60,000 a year for part-time [work] is not so bad.”

She has a point. While service industry jobs are often considered not as flexible as their corporate counterparts, if you find the right one with the right employer, it could pay off — sometimes literally. In Leazer’s case, making full-time money at a part-time gig has enabled her to focus on the work she actually wants to do.

“You may serve, but you have your own life,” Leazer says. “Just stay focused on your real agenda. Don’t forget about you — embrace and celebrate yourself.”

Of course, what Leazer found is not a possibility for everyone. Working in the service industry is often a crapshoot. The revenue stream, the flexibility, the benefits can all be unpredictable from job to job. High turnover rates suggest that employees experience more dissatisfaction in these jobs. What’s more, many people are closed off from the “better” opportunities due to lack of education, inexperience, immigration status, among other factors.

Courtesy of Mekita Rivas

Although working my way through school was challenging, my hustle is what got me my degree. In turn, I was afforded all the privileges that come with a college education. Most notably: the ability to choose my own career path with a certain level of mobility. Since graduating college, I've worked in TV news, higher education, and nonprofits. I even had a five-month stint back in hospitality, working as a cocktail waitress at a resort.

I’ve been fortunate — most of my experiences in the service industry have been positive. Whether I was a barista, a hostess, or a cocktail waitress, the service industry taught me the value of work-life balance, of being able to leave your work at work and not take it home with you. More importantly, those jobs helped me understand that “work-life balance” means whatever you want it to. It’s whatever makes you feel comfortable and in control. I am still trying to decipher what that looks like for this chapter in my life, but I know I’m on my way to figuring it out.