There are times that balancing the demands of work and personal life feel impossible (even laughable!).
When we work with individuals and companies, we often hear from folks that they’re struggling to find a way to try to balance these demands, let alone actually achieve balance!
Advances in technology have changed workplace culture. I read an article in Time magazine that said from 1986 to 1996 there were only 32 references to work-life balance in the media. Fast forward a decade and it was a very hot topic (mentioned nearly 2,000 times in 2007!). Unfortunately, here we are another decade later and it feels like we haven’t done much to address the challenge.
But just because you can be reached 24/7, does it mean you should be available at all hours? If layoffs have decimated your team, does that mean you have to give up any claim to your personal life to stay employed?
As we delve into the idea of achieving work-life balance, remember to:
Think big picture: What are your longer-term family goals and work goals? What do you want at this moment in life and what do you want at this moment in work? Sometimes our short-term goal isn’t necessarily aligned with the long-term goal. For example, this week or month our family may need more from us even if our longer-term goal involves a strong focus on career. Conversely, this month I need to really contribute a lot at work, even though I have strong goals of family time while my kids are young.
Be flexible: It’s good to have goals, ideals, and values, but sometimes we have to remember that it’s big picture balance as well. Don’t beat yourself up if you feel you’re not giving enough to your family this week. Look at the big picture balance: The kids are going to remember the time you spent with them in summer. Will that be negated if you get home at 7:00 p.m. instead of 6:00 p.m. for a little while? (Honestly, that’s a question for you. Maybe it will, but maybe it won’t).
Consider this a process: When we try to balance work and life, it may feel like we’re not giving enough to anything. It may help to think of managing towards the goals instead of balancing. Or maybe balance needs to be week to week or month to month and not necessarily day to day.
Be open to changing expectations: Remember, too, that where we are in life can determine what balance means. For example, our stage of life can make the right balance very different. The right balance when you’re single with no kids can change greatly when you marry or have children. Similarly, an unexpected illness or the death of a loved one can impact our priorities. Let your plans and goals morph when they need to. In some of these situations, it might come back to that question of short-term vs long-term goals.
Why balance is important
The old adage that all work and no play makes Jack (or Jill!) dull has some truth to it. Living to work is not going to build meaningful relationships with friends, life partners, and family. And we all know the other adage, “no one ever lay on their deathbed and said, ‘I wish I’d worked longer hours.’”
Achieving balance is when we work to live – we’re busy, but have time for things both at work and in our personal lives. As satisfying as work can be, we need time to relax and rejuvenate. Some folks will feel their best when they volunteer in the community, play sports, spend time with loved ones, or pursue a hobby.
Finding time to nurture your personal life is good for the soul. Finding a mental and emotional balance helps us to be more present when we are at work. Failing to do this usually ends in burnout or breakdown.
Our health and wellbeing also benefit from movement. Sitting all day can damage our health. Being active and practicing yoga or exercising also helps to manage stress and anxiety in healthy ways (and yes, for those who know me well, you’ll know this is an example of me looking out for you by saying “do what I say, not what I do.”). #bestintentions
It’s okay to define some aspects of how you use technology. There are a number of ways to set boundaries without being unresponsive. Think of it as establishing rules for when you’ll reply quickly and when you’ll be away from work.
When you are given a work cell phone, for example, you can leave your office hours on your voicemail (just remember to keep it updated!). If you work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., you can let them know when you’re in the office and that you’ll respond to messages left after hours within one business day. If it’s an emergency or you’re on holiday, let callers know who to contact in your absence for urgent matters. Otherwise, you’ll get back to them on X day.
Similarly, you could let your coworkers know that your home is tech-free certain times (perhaps the dinner hour or after 7 p.m. and on weekends). When people know they’re not going to reach you immediately, it’s amazing what can wait until you’re back in the office.
Do you always reach for your phone and check emails the moment you wake up? Instead, try to leave that for the first 30 minutes of your workday or the 15 minutes you’re on transit to get to work. One of the best moves I made was to stop charging my phone in the bedroom but rather to charge it by the front door. It means I’m not taking it up to bed with me (and running the risk of being on it til the wee hours), or checking it even before I’ve brushed my teeth. Keep mornings for exercise, eating well, getting ready for your day, and seeing your loved ones off. Putting your personal life first can be extremely gratifying and leave you ready to tackle work during actual office hours.
Further, if you do check voicemail messages, texts, or emails from home, consider choosing which ones are a priority and which ones can wait. You don’t have to jump to reply to each and every point of contact – and you certainly don’t have to reply straight away. The “mark unread” feature on email helps a lot, or create a folder “stuff to do first thing in the morning.”
If you’re on holiday, protect your time off by leaving your work cell and laptop at home (or at the office!). If you don’t have someone who can fill in for you and you have to be reachable on holiday, set certain hours to check messages and handle replies. Again, your personal time is important and your wellbeing is, too.
In many ways, as work culture has evolved into this constant contact, some of us have accepted the intrusion into our personal lives without question. Start setting some small limits and enjoy the freedom of unplugging regularly from work demands.
How to say no
It’s hard for some of us to say no. We might fear repercussions if we don’t take on more work, or guilty that we’re letting the team down.
It’s possible that saying yes all the time has become a habit (and it can feel so good to be needed!).
There are, however, times that you can and should say no. It’s okay to decline to serve on another committee or head to the pub with the team after work: “I’d love to but unfortunately I can’t make that fit in the schedule” is conciliatory but firm.
The thing many of us fail to realize is that personal life can be every bit as important as work. And what is urgent at work may not be important in the long run. We have to determine what deserves our focus and make some judgment calls about priority.
Tune in to our next blog in two weeks to learn more about ways you can say no without losing respect at work.
Keeping commitments to yourself
You don’t have to justify wanting to carve out uninterrupted personal time for yourself. It can feel odd not to give reasons why you need time unplugged from work, but do you really have to give details?
Focus on working efficiently, not slogging away for excessive hours. If you can meet your deadlines and work goals (for yourself and the company), then clearly quality is more important than quantity. Top performers typically face less resistance negotiating flex time or telecommuting.
Too often, employees (particularly women), can be judged harshly when childcare demands conflict with work demands. If you are able to telecommute or have a flexible schedule, you could request a day to work from home or flex your hours without announcing that your youngest is sick or your aging parent needs to go to the doctor.
Some folks share many details about where they’re going on vacation and how they spent their weekend. You are under no obligation to share all the details of your personal life with your work colleagues. Vague statements like, “We’re getting off the grid and away from it all!” are friendly, but send a pretty clear message that you won’t be reachable during your time off.
In short, you are entitled to live a personal life separate from your work life. Educate yourself regarding your company’s policies around personal days, flex-time, leaves, and telecommuting. Then, when you wish to exercise these options, build your case based on how this accommodation will help you achieve your work goals rather than the personal commitments demanding your time.
Changing the paradigm can be very freeing. You’ll feel more in control of your time and enjoy having time to focus on your family, friends, or what matters to you in your personal life. When you model this in the workplace, you may also witness a culture shift in time as others follow your lead.
What matters most to you? Where would you like to draw the line between work and your personal life? What’s stopping you from feeling balance in your life? And what is your plan to address it?