10 Keys to Work/Life Balance

Today’s employers seem to want more of our time than ever. In the US, the average worker puts in 55 hours a week; in Europe and other places where short working weeks have long been the norm, workers are struggling to hold on to their reasonable schedules as employers look to the US model in an effort to increase their bottom lines. Email, text messaging, cell phones, and Blackberries keep us tethered to the office even when we’re technically “off-duty”.

How can you keep up with your always-on career and still find time to do what you need to do at home, spend time with your family, enjoy some kind of social life, and just plain relax? At risk are your personal relationships, your development as a person, your sanity, and even your life. Stress kills. You need downtime to help your mind and body cope with the demands of your job.

That’s the question I asked readers in the first installment of our Great Big Summer Giveaway. Some of the answers are below, along with a few of my own ideas about balancing work with the rest of your life.

1. Attitude is everything.

No matter how much you love your job, no matter how big a part of your life it is, ultimately you need to be able to “turn it off” and spend some time not working. This is hard for a lot of people, because their work is an important part of who they are as people. This can be admirable, especially when you accomplish great things in your work, but an always-on-the-job attitude can be harmful in the long run. At the least, the peope around you will get tired of coming in second to your work, causing damage to your relationships and eventually leaving you without them. What’s more, it might even reduce your effectiveness in your work — both the mind and body need a break from thinking about and doing the same things all the time to recharge and keep coming up with fresh ideas.

2. Keep a rational schedule.

The more you’re trying to juggle, the more important it is to make a good schedule and keep to it. Block out all your work and non-work commitments and make sure to allow plenty of downtime and non-work time. Treat non-work commitments as seriously as you treat working commitments — the time you’ve assigned to family, housework, and your own activities needs to be just as inviolable as the time you spend in the office, going to meetings, or meeting deadlines. This is especially true if you’re so busy that you can’t reschedule that off-work time.

3. Learn to say “No.”

If you’re having trouble keeping on top of everything going on in your life, it may be that you’ve committed more time than you have. If you’re like me (and just about everyone else), you don’t like to refuse favors, new responsibilities, or even casual requests, for fear of a) looking undependable, b) upsetting someone, or c) missing out on something. Make a point of seriously considering any request that comes your way, and double-check your schedule before taking anything else on. When it’s too much, don’t be afraid to refuse — you won’t be doing anyone any good by taking on tasks that you won’t be able to do well because you’re too overwhelmed to handle them, or by accepting social invitations that you’re too stressed out to enjoy.

4. Enjoy list-free time.

This tip comes from Sheree, who says she stopped making lists of things to do in her off-time because of the stress that not finishing the list brought to her weekends. While it’s reasonable to want to bring the skills you’ve honed at work into the rest of your life, if it starts to make your non-work time feel like just so much more work, then stop. Drop the list for a day or two, and take things as they come. This is really about attitude, drawing a clear line between your work-life and the rest of your life.

5. Keep it organized.

There’s nothing worse than finding yourself faced with overtime or extra working days because you didn’t get enough done at work. Kim suggests a whole set of organization tips at her blog, Cupalatte, such as:

  • Have as little out as possible: meaning nick knacks, decorating items. My desk has nothing except my computer and phone. Maybe boring but I get things done. My house has very little out also so there is less cleaning and less dusting. Less vision clutter makes me feel more zen anyways.
  • Give away what I don’t use “regularly”: I feel lighter and giving it to someone with a bigger need makes me feel less guilty for getting rid of good items.
  • Going paperless: my office is paperless. Need I say more? There’s no getting up looking for files, misfiling, paper waste, toner waste, buying folders, buying paper. Oh, and being able to fax and email documents in seconds saves so much time.
  • Use grouping: for everything. I “group” my medicine cabinet into “morning items” versus “evening items”. For example, morning items would be hair serum, sunblock, make up, deodorant. Evening items would all be “grouped” together too, face wash, floss, toothpaste. My cooking cabinet is grouped into “dry seasonings” & “wet seasonings”. My fridge is grouped into “breakfast” items and “lunch” using the clear plastic $1 container so that with one scoop, I have all the items I need and don’t need to revisit the fridge. As for cleaning up, everything gets put back in the plastic container and returned to the fridge “once”.

6. Batch it.

This was also recommended by Kim at Cupalatte, but bears its own mention. Batching tasks can be a great way to get more done in less time, whether it’s handling your work email or your mail at home. You’ll work faster and better because your mid is only on one thing, and when it’s done, you can forget it — so worrying about that bill you have to pay or that email you should respond to doesn’t “spill over” into the rest of your day. You know that your bill will get paid during your normal bill-paying time, and your email got responded to when you processed your email.

7. Clear your mind.

Dave Smyth finds making lists useful so he can stop fretting about what needs to be done, knowing he won’t forget anything.

I used to always have a dreadful list that was always running through my mind of all the things that I needed to accomplish, mainly work related. They would interrupt my family time causing me stress at just at the time that I am trying to reduce my stress. So the quicker I can get things into a list or email that I know I will work later, the better off I am.

On the whole, I agree with Dave — lists are crucial — but there’s something to be said for Sheree’s notion of doing without one for a day or two a week, so that relaxation time doesn’t start to feel like more of the daily grind. The key point here, though, is to do whatever it takes to confine all the things you’d be liable to worry about to a trusted system where you know they’ll get taken care of, so you can spend the rest of your time without worrying.

8. Get it wrong the first time.

Bon Temps at Le Bon Temps Roule offers this tip as a way to get last-minute projects and other time-consumers out of the way so you can get on with your life. The idea is to give yourself a set amount of time — say, an hour — to do the job, no matter how poorly. Let go of your perfectionism and just do as well as you can in the set time. You may have to go back and fix it up — but you’ll be charged up by knowing the “heavy lifting” is already done. Plus, by forcing yourself to cram the whole job into a short time period, you’ll give yourself a more “global” view that might help you see things you wouldn’t have otherwise. Obviously, this isn’t going to apply to every situation — if your boss comes to you with a last-minute report that has to be generated, this will work great; if your boss asks you to fill in for the other neurosurgeon, who got caught in traffic, a little perfectionism is probably in order.

9. Keep the lines of communication open.

I learned this the hard way when a rough patch of work started to alienate me from my family. Let the people closest to you know what’s going on in your work life when things get hectic, so they don’t feel like your lowest priority or worse, suddenly abandoned. And keep your ears open to hear what they tell you, too — if your spouse or partner, your friends, or your kids start complaining — or tell you straight out that you’re working too much — listen to them. They’re generally going to be a better judge of your behavior than you are.

10. Be honest with yourself.

This is the hardest one, but also the most necessary. Part of your weekly review — or at least every third or fourth one — should be to ask yourself “Am I happy with all this?” And to follow up by looking at how well you’re doing of balancing everything. Be honest — this is your life we’re talking about. If you can’t face the hard questions, all the lifehacks and organizing won’t mean a thing — you’ll just slide away.

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