No matter how hard we try, the elusive work-life balance is just that, elusive. With the boundaries between work and life becoming increasingly blurred – thanks to flexible working hours, the ability to work from home, and always being contactable – it seems harder than ever to manage the two sides. But surely imbalance of some sort is inevitable, and maybe even a sign you're dedicating your time to what's most important?
Pretty much anything worth doing throws everything off kilter (having a baby, working for that promotion, moving cities), so perhaps we should forget about a true work-life balance and instead make peace with our chosen imbalance. Here's how to keep the relationship between work and life a healthy, if imperfect, one…
Accept Your Imbalance
The truth is, there’s no such thing as the perfect work-life balance, and by pressuring yourself to find it you’re probably doing more harm than good. If being fulfilled and successful at work is important to you, you can probably sacrifice some of your ‘life’ to do so. Try and reconsider what falls into each category – work and life aren’t separate entities, and putting effort into one doesn’t negate the other. Whatever your motivation – a career, money, a family, seeing friends – this is where to put your efforts. Being concerned about achieving balance will only add more to your plate. Give yourself permission to choose your ideal imbalance and leave any feelings of guilt at the door – it’s important that this is a conscious choice, however, and not something you’re feeling forced to do.
Clarify The ‘Life’ Side Of Things
At work you have clear goals, probably set work hours, reviews and promotion opportunities; at home, things can be put off and priorities can slide. Take the time to clarify what it is you think is important on this side of the equation – is it meeting up with your friends at least once a week, putting your children to bed every night, reading with your nephew before Sunday Lunch, making time for the gym? Although things won't always go to plan, you can strive to make these non-negotiables in your weekly schedule, and stick to them as you would a work meeting. Write a list of what you need to do each week in order to feel fulfilled in terms of 'life', and remember it probably won't be the same as anyone else's list.
Step Away From Your Phone
Whilst you don’t necessarily need to balance work and life, it’s still important to switch off. Your phone is always there, so you can always check emails, messages and phone calls. You can physically leave the office, but most of us never physically leave work, as we carry it in our back pockets. When you do switch off, even if only for an hour or so, try to be wholly present. Think realistically about what will happen if you don’t respond, will anything go horribly wrong? The ‘always on’ culture we live in can come at a heavy price, everyone needs time to recover, and writing a few emails each evening or just checking this thing or that probably isn't even a productive use of your time.
If the current relationship between work and life doesn’t seem to be serving you, make steps to change that. Start by tackling the most stressful part of your day. Does commuting in rush hour add an extra hour to your journey? Try and work out flexible working times with your boss. Does a certain responsibility always fall at the same time as another and leave you in the office until gone 10pm each week? Talk to your manager to work out an alternative deadline. Do you feel you should answer work emails on holiday? Let colleagues know in good time you’ll be unavailable whilst you’re away but are happy to sort anything urgent out before you leave. Most of the time, we place certain demands on ourselves because we think that’s what others expect, but once we let them know what’s causing us stress, they’re likely to make steps to change that – in all probability, they weren’t aware of it in the first place.
Choose three things you have to tackle each day and do the hardest first. If you get through these three things, anything else is a bonus. Chances are, those emails that go unanswered aren’t urgent, and if they are important, people will either email again, call or come and see you. Just because you think you ‘should’ do something doesn’t mean it’s a productive use of time. At the same time, make sure your colleagues are aware you might not get to their emails and let them know they can come and talk to you if they’re waiting on a response.
Let Go Of Perfectionism
Perfection is difficult to achieve and even harder to sustain. Being happy with something that's 'good enough', whether at work or home, doesn't mean we're letting standards slide, it simply means we're more likely to complete a larger goal well, than a very particular goal exceptionally well (and usually with less stress). Refusing to cling on to perfectionist tendencies also means we're more likely to embrace new opportunities, as the fear of doing something less than perfectly no longer holds.
Select Your Focus
There's nothing wrong with choosing to work exceptionally hard, or not to. In order to choose your own focus, which might be completely different to that of your friends and colleagues, consider the worst outcome – what will you most regret? Not reaching your potential in your career, not maintaining strong friendships, never starting a family? Once you've identified this, select your perfect imbalance to match it. Sacrifices and trade offs are necessary, but if it's all in the name of your main goal, ultimately, it's worth it. However, it's important to keep in mind that this focus can change and should be regularly re-evaluated. If something you decided on three years ago is no longer making you happy, perhaps it's time for a change.
Alter Your Perspective
If you try and balance each and every day you'll probably only end up disappointed that you fail to fit everything in you had planned. Equally, if you plan on working incredibly hard for years and wait until you retire to start truly living, you're likely to burn out. Neither perspective is helpful, you need something in between – for example, knowing that three days a week you might be working late, but you’ll always give yourself Saturday and Sunday off, or accepting that when things are particularly busy throughout the year you might go a month or so without much of a break, but come Christmas you always go away for two weeks. On the other side of things, understand that if you have your weekends totally free, working 9am-5pm in order to fill them with things you want to be doing isn’t such a bad compromise. Don't try and achieve the perfect work-life balance every day, try and achieve a good balance over a longer period of time, say, a year.
Walk away from work and have set hours. These may not be the set hours in your contract (when you're working for that promotion, a few late nights might be necessary), but the hours you set yourself. Be strict and try and stick to them. Giving yourself time off means you're less likely to experience burnout and you’re more likely to be able to make better decisions at work. Also, you needn't set boundaries at the end of the day – do whatever's best for you, perhaps creating smaller spaces throughout the day to unplug, during your commute or lunch hour, for example, rather than in a block each evening.
Remember What’s Most Important
Ultimately, your priority needs to be your health and wellness, but looking after this can manifest in many different ways. It could be that you derive a great deal of satisfaction and happiness from your job or that 6am spin class, or it could be that you feel much healthier when you’ve walked to work or spent half an hour talking to a friend on the phone. Treat these little kindnesses to yourself as vital instances of self-care, but don’t confuse self-care with self-indulgence. Caring for yourself is feeding your body tasty and nutritious food or working hard because you enjoy the rewards whilst also recognising your own limits, not having a fifth slice of cake because you feel like it or taking the day off because you’re tired.
Do Everything 100%
This means when you’re working, work 100%, when you’re eating, focus on eating 100%. Doing everything to the best of your ability forces you to do two things: be fully present with whatever is important in that moment, and be productive. If you’re having to work late, accept that and work your hardest until you leave the office. Similarly, if you’re missing an important deadline because you need to support a friend or family member, accept that and be there for them to the fullest extent you can be. You’ll get the job done quicker and spend less time wondering about why you’re at your desk when you should be with your friends or vice versa.
Learn To Cut Corners
So that cake for the school bake sale is from Marks & Spencer’s, so what? And you’ve failed to get through the ironing again? Never mind. Let the little things go – after all, they don’t really matter. Finding your perfect work-life imbalance doesn’t happen during the small, minutiae of your day, it’s a much bigger picture. If you’ve decided to dedicate every Sunday to family time, this might mean you don’t always have time to triple check a report or respond fully to every email. Cutting corners is necessary sometimes, so don’t berate yourself for it.
Realise You Do Have Time
In Shonda Rhimes’ (award-winning producer and screenwriter) TED Talk about her year of saying ‘yes’, she discusses the fact that when her children used to ask her to play she would say no because she was too busy and had too much work to do. However, when she committed to a year of agreeing to everything asked of her, she would have to stop working and play. Rhimes says she realised a few things after doing this; that her kids would only ever ask for about 15 minutes of her time – and who doesn’t have 15 minutes to spare? – and that whenever she played with her children she would still get her work done. In fact, having a break and some mental space from the problem often meant she would work more efficiently in the long run. Mostly, we get things done in the time allotted, if you’re given three weeks to plan a project it will take you three weeks, if you’re given two days it will take you two days. We all have time to do what is important, it’s just a matter of sacrifice and a willingness to be flexible.