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Last Updated on June 11, 2019

9 Practical Ways to Achieve Work Life Balance in a Busy World

9 Practical Ways to Achieve Work Life Balance in a Busy World

When I worked in college housing, I found myself in a position that made me so uncomfortable, I had some big choices to make. I could continue to do things the way my supervisor wanted me to, or I could look for another job. In favor of more balance, I chose the latter.

This was a big choice for me. I was basically giving up a (rather) stable job that made me unhappy for the unknown.

And you know what? Focusing on balance was the right thing to do.

It was also the impetus that led me to FINALLY finish my book, Making ‘Work’ Work for You. I absolutely needed to take my work/life balance into consideration and make some drastic changes. I’ve done that. And I’ve found that this message is resonating out there in the world of higher education and many other fields.

I wanted to share some of the tips and hacks that I’ve developed and learned over the years. These are strategies I’ve used to make the work day more palatable and improve my attitude about balance.

1. Be Intentional on How You Schedule Your Time

You may have one of those jobs in which one could easily be in meetings for a full day, leaving very little time to actually get your work done. Staff meetings, senior management meetings, committee meetings, supervisory meetings (also called One-on-One’s), disciplinary meetings…this list goes on and on. Where’s the balance?

During my years as a Manager and Senior Manager, I was in meetings all the time and felt entirely too much pressure to stay late, work on the weekends, or god forbid you try to multi-task in those meetings! I’m blessed in my current position that I don’t have that problem – but I think a person can be much more intentional about time is scheduled during the work day.

In the first place, you know the saying, “if you don’t control your calendar, it will control you.” So control it (I have a great planner for that!). You need work time? Schedule it. Call it just that: WORK TIME.

I currently hold blocks of time as work-time and in the “location” section of Outlook, I write down what I want to get done during that section of time:

  • work on the science grant
  • clean up email box
  • web site changes
  • clean desk

And I try to do this at least one full week in advance so that I don’t get overwrought with meetings before I save time for me.

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However, don’t fill your entire calendar lest you get in trouble for not being available. I look at my recurring meetings first – which days are my busiest meeting days and which days are very open. I usually schedule a 2 to 3 hour block at a time, at least 2 to 3 times each week. My current supervisor actually really likes this strategy and has begun to try it for herself.

If you are working for a company who schedules a great many meetings, you may need to speak with your supervisor regarding your need to schedule more work time; especially if those recurring meetings are frequent.

Give yourself a month to get used to the meeting schedule, and then you can approach your supervisor about options you have to delegate or remove some of those meetings from your calendar.

2. Deal with Additional Priorities and Opportunities

Working in higher education, I haven’t always had the luxury of getting to decide for myself what’s important. But in considering how you are spending your time, think about the extra things you take on in addition to your regular work.

I’m going to be the first person who tells you that getting involved outside of your job is super important – for the professional development, making friends, networking, etc. But you may have to limit that involvement or consider that it’s part of your free time instead of your work time. And make choices that sustain this.

I was very active in my professional association once I moved to California, and I carried that with me a great deal. I chose to have much of my social life connected through that organization…and I chose to be involved rather than going to a movie or doing other social things on the weekends. When I became a runner, I had to further alter some of these choices of how to spend my time outside of work – I saw fewer movies and was less involved in my professional association. And then, during times when my volunteer work was really busy, I just was not training for races.

But sometimes you really do need to make a choice between the extra work/responsibility and your home life. Saying “no” means that you can say “yes” more often.

“Instead of saying, ‘I don’t have time,’ try saying ‘it’s not a priority’ and see how that feels.” –Courtney Carver

Figure out what projects mean the most to you. Which extra responsibility will you enjoy the most? Which project will aid in the advancement of your career, or help you to work with someone new and influential? Really consider this before taking on a new project or committee. It’s better to do a couple things really well than have mediocre performance in a ton of things.

Of course…there’s always the “other duties as assigned” clause in many of our job descriptions. You know what I’m talking about, they’re usually at the very bottom of the page, that “catch all” which seemingly gives your supervisor or other managers the option to throw extra projects at you. This can be tricky to navigate, especially during times when you are short staffed and surviving budget cuts. Be honest with your supervisor if you feel overwhelmed. Remember that you must communicate with peers and committee members who are sharing the workload with you.

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It should also go without saying that you ask permission to take on professional association committee work before you volunteer. It’s a common courtesy. It gives your supervisor the chance to assist you with skill sets and/or connections that could assist in your new project or committee work. If they’ve been in your field for some time, they could even have great suggestions and recommendations for you.

3. Find Portals for Flexibility

If you have the luxury of a flexible work day, then you can make room for longer breaks. You can be creative with your lunch hour or come in later/leave earlier when you need to.

Do you have the ability to work from home now and then? Will your supervisor allow that? Are you lucky enough to have one of those gigs? Make sure you keep it in perspective and get your things done. Don’t take advantage or take for granted, because you might lose it!

The flip side of this is having no flexibility – zero, zilch, none. Your work day is rigid and you have meetings, meetings, meetings. That’s tough. You may need to build in buffers between your meetings. Don’t schedule back to back meetings. Start a meeting at 9am, and if it’s over at 10:30, don’t schedule another meeting until 11am.

Don’t go back to the office and work before the next meeting. Take a walk, get a cup of coffee, and breathe. Control your calendar, or it will control you.

4. Put Your Work Day into Perspective

You know what? It’s just work. It’s meaningful for you – you put your heart and soul into it. But it’s just work. If you can’t draw the line between where your job ends and you begin….that might be a problem.

The big thing for me was being able to realize that I was no longer going home angry. That was a beautiful thing. I took my work home – in an emotional manner – for such a long time. I would be so frustrated with the tough day and/or negative students and/or a rotten staff meeting…I’d internalized so much of it and it made me angry.

So I needed to draw that line and say, “I’m going home and I’m going to be me.” That’s it.

5. Find a Buffer

You may need a buffer from your work day into your home life. If you are a live-in professional, this can be difficult. I’m lucky to have figured this out for me in my current vocation.

For two years, I was a walking commuter and listened to podcasts on my walk to and from work. Currently, I commute by car but the travel time is about the same. I still listen to podcasts but have been on a mad audiobook phase for the past three months. Jen Sincero just rocks. This usually clears my mind from any daily funk and puts me in a lighter mood when I get home.

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Some of you may have very long commutes and so, time in traffic further complicates your transition time. Loud music may turn into road rage, so I recommend podcasts (again – I’m a big fan), audiobooks, comfortable/slow music. Even something that you are familiar with and can sing along. But any drive home can feature these things, and you really only need a few minutes to make it happen.

During that transition time (otherwise known as your commute home), let go of everything that happened at work that day. The work day is over. What are you looking forward to once you get there? Spouse or significant other? Family, kids? Dogs? Someone making an amazing dinner for you? A very nice glass of wine and a fire?

Focus on one of those things to think about while you let your work day go…and SMILE — even if you have to force yourself to smile. Because even just smiling will brighten your mood.

6. Unplug from Technology

Even as I’m writing this, I know good and well that I struggle with this myself. My husband and I have smart phones and tablets, and I often bring my work laptop home. So I myself am not the model of unplugging. Writing for The Bulletin, Sarah Comstock addresses the fact that technology has been a double-edged sword. Advances are helpful and convenient but “have placed an enormous burden of relentless pressure on people as expectations rise in parallel with the speed of technological progress.”

Computers and gadgets are suddenly able to do just about anything; as human beings, we need to recognize that we can’t do everything. Being able to get away from our devices and technology is paramount to finding work/life balance.

In the first place, the main reason we add our work email to our phones is for convenience and flexibility. Having that connection allows us to respond to certain requests maybe between meetings, or while otherwise occupied. It’s most certainly not meant to keep us from our families or friends or to occupy our down time. You pull out the laptop with the intention of doing some personal research or maybe you are checking your bank account, and the next thing you know you’re opening Outlook and responding to emails. Suddenly a 15-minute task turns into an hour, or two. Next, there’s the itching desire to “quickly check email” while you are at a restaurant with your significant other or friends and there you go again – you get caught up in an email chain of crap that clearly could wait until the next day.

Does any of this sound like you? It’s me too, much of the time. Some different strategies to consider include…

7. Do a “Detox” from Some of the Apps on Your Phone That Suck up Your Time

These apps could include social media, games, fitness, or sports viewing. Based on a challenge I learned about on the Rich Roll podcast, for the entire month of June 2015, I took all social media off my phone. I did not check in anywhere, I did not tweet or post on Facebook, there were no new Instagram shots in my feed.

That gave me some balance when spending time with family and friends – it was nice to just be with them and not otherwise occupied with distractions.

8. Tackle Your Cell Phone Stuff

Consider whether your employer requires you to have a department-issued cell phone; and if your institutional culture dictates that you have access to your email all the time. One of my previous institutions did require a department-issued phone with work email intact. I received compensation for this, but it was expected that email notifications be turned on and the focus be on staying up to date with all communication.

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Thankfully, that is not the current culture for me. I do have work email on my phone, but notifications are turned off; and, in fact, from time to time I think about removing work email from my phone because I’d just as soon not have to worry about it. But given that my boss has work email on her phone, I model that example. And our classified staff members are not required to have email on their phone.

If the culture of your institution or your department requires this – don’t be a rogue employee for the sake of balance. But consider other ways that you can insure that your work email doesn’t dominate your device. Are you able to turn off the work-related phone on the weekends or at night? Can you talk to your supervisor about expected response times?

No one can check email 24 hours a day and still expect to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the office. That is NOT work/life balance.

9. Set a Time You Spend on Checking Emails

Try to keep your email at the office from dominating your day. I’m doing the best I can to open, read, and respond/delete to my emails as soon as I get into Outlook, and then close the application until the end of the day. I try to be at “Inbox Zero” before I go home. This insures that I’m not wrongly multitasking during the work day (which, by the way, there is no such thing as multitasking) or spending too much unnecessary time on email when there are projects to complete.

A new strategy I’m employing is to not open my email until I return from my lunch break. This was something my current supervisor read about in an article, and I really love the reasoning behind it. When you start the day with email, you are letting others dictate your priorities rather than controlling these yourself. If the email truly is an emergency, that person will call you or come find you.

Hit up your main priorities in the morning, and then settle into the questions after you get some food. I’m enjoying the productivity of my morning and the peace of mind I feel because I’m not letting others dictate my work day.

Essential to unplugging and finding balance is the notion of separating. Don’t multitask your work and your life. Unless part of your job is posting to social media daily, leave all that stuff at home during the work day. Do you need Facebook and Twitter open on your computer while you try to write that report (or get your email to “Inbox Zero”)? In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport suggests “the overuse of social media unwittingly cripples our ability to success in the world of knowledge work.”

Social media is lots of fun, but in the office it’s just a diversion that’s keeping you from finishing your vital tasks. The sooner you get your stuff done, the sooner you get home.

If you must make a personal call, check in with your significant other, or connect with your family; you can do so by taking a quick break and making your call from the break room or outside.

The Bottom Line

You’re probably scratching your head by now because most of these tips seem SO easy. They are! You just need to make the commitment to yourself, make the effort, and then go for it. You can do this!

More About Work Life Balance

Featured photo credit: Simon Migaj via unsplash.com

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Kris McPeak

Educator, Author, Career Change and Work/Life Balance Guru

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Last Updated on March 25, 2020

How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques

How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques

Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes effectively.

I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

What to Write Down

Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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1. Dates of Events

Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

2. Names of People

Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

3. Theories or Frameworks

Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

4. Definitions

Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

5. Arguments and Debates

Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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6. Images

Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

7. Other Stuff

Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

8. Your Own Questions

Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

1. Outlining

Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

2. Mind-Mapping

For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

Here’s the idea:

In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

3. The Cornell System

The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

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Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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