Technology enthusiast, passionate about building great teams and scaling organisations
Work-life balance is always a struggle at every stage of our life. When we are just starting out, we put all our energy and waking hours into our career to prove ourselves, and then as we grow and take on more responsibilities, we continue to invest more and more time into our work.
Thoughts about unfulfilled personal commitments keep us distracted at work and when at home, our mind is still occupied with work. The desire to advance our career and the guilt of not pursuing other goals that add meaning to our life leaves us constantly conflicted between work and home.
This conflict can take many forms:
As we struggle every day to disconnect our mind from work and be present mentally and physically for the other special moments in our life, we feel our life is running away at a very fast pace and there isn’t enough time to get everything done.
Work really never ends. When we respond to one email, there are three more emails waiting in our inbox. When we solve one crisis at work, there’s usually another one lurking around. While resolving an issue, we uncover multiple other issues that need to be fixed as well.
Everything seems to demand our attention - a constant outpouring of the slack messages, a team that needs continuous feedback, some deadline in the near future, projects we never started, outcomes we did not achieve, planning the next big thing, handling difficult conversations, and so on.
We work hard to avoid the stress and anxiety that comes with not doing enough and soon the “always-on” mindset takes a toll on our body. Our health degrades, we feel exhausted, and may even experience burnout.
Erin Callan, the former CFO of Lehman Brothers writes in this 2013 New York Times article:
“Work always came first, before my family, friends and marriage — which ended just a few years later. I did not know how to value who I was versus what I did. What I did was who I was. I didn’t start out with the goal of devoting all of myself to my job. It crept in over time. Each year that went by, slight modifications became the new normal. First I spent a half-hour on Sunday organizing my e-mail, to-do list and calendar to make Monday morning easier. Then I was working a few hours on Sunday, then all day. My boundaries slipped away until work was all that was left.”
Looking back, she realized it didn’t have to be this way:
“I didn’t have to be on my BlackBerry from my first moment in the morning to my last moment at night. I didn’t have to eat the majority of my meals at my desk. I didn’t have to fly overnight to a meeting in Europe on my birthday. I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place with at least some better version of a personal life.”
Many people argue there’s nothing called work-life balance, it’s only life balance as work is nothing but a significant part of our life. Others call it work-life blend or work-life integration. After all, our work along with other aspects of our lives defines who we are as a person.
The point of this article isn’t to debate about what it should be called. That doesn’t matter. What matters is whether you find out what’s important to you and then create a balance around things that truly matter to you.
Work and life aren’t two opposites on some imaginary scale where you desperately hope to achieve a 50/50 or a 60/40 split. Work-life balance simply means being able to do things that you really care about. It’s taking responsibility for your life and not blaming it on your organization or your situation.
Do you look at others and wonder how they are able to do it all, how do they manage to get so much done and try to achieve what they have? But, your lives are not the same, and nor do you want the same things.
Life is inherently complex and doing it all isn’t the solution, it’s doing the right thing. It requires acting with intent instead of reacting to what comes your way. It’s knowing your goals well, defining your priorities, and then aligning your actions with those goals and priorities.
It’s asking yourself: “What kind of life do I want to have and what do I need to do to build that life for myself.”
The problem of work-life balance isn’t about more work, it’s about staying productive in what you are doing. If you keep working even when you aren’t being productive, you aren’t really adding value and simply doing work to please others or keep yourself busy.
Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post and the founder of Thrive Global who collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, broke her cheekbone and woke up in a pool of blood on April 6th, 2007 writes about her wake-up call -
We think, mistakenly, that success is the result of the amount of time we put in at work, instead of the quality of time we put in
Don’t push aside your life waiting for a magical day when it would all come to you, take control of it now. There will always be some obstacles, something more to be done to finally get the life you want, but knowing that these obstacles are also a part of your life can help you start now this very moment.
Work-life balance, work-life effectiveness, personal and professional satisfaction—or whatever you choose to call it—is not an entitlement or benefit. Your company cannot give it to you. You have to create it for yourself. You are personally responsible for living the best life you can - Matthew Kelly
Think about the life you are currently living and the life that you want. How are your actions in line with the life you want to lead? Acknowledge the limitations of life, accept that everything won’t fit perfectly but with continuous practice you can match up the bigger slices of your life to align with your priorities.
Follow these 6 strategies to reclaim your life:
1. Learn to deal with self-imposed pressure
Do you believe that you need to respond to emails as soon as they land in your inbox, attend the last-minute meeting even though you promised your daughter to attend her school play, keep checking your phone at dinner with friends and family, spend weekends trying to catch up on work because there isn’t enough time on weekdays and work late nights to meet deadlines?
Is it the demands of the workplace that’s creating the imbalance or your own expectations on how you should behave? Think about it for a moment. Is it your own internal pressure that you have created for yourself? Do others really expect you to behave this way or is it all in your mind?
Evolution has shaped our brains so that we are hardwired to suffer psychologically: to compare, evaluate, and criticize ourselves, to focus on what we’re lacking, to rapidly become dissatisfied with what we have, and to imagine all sorts of frightening scenarios, most of which will never happen. No wonder humans find it hard to be happy - Russ Harris, an Australian psychologist
How to deal with self-imposed pressure
Watch your behavior and whenever you find yourself struggling to disconnect from work and in need to restore work-life balance, ask yourself:
Dedication to a job isn’t about being on all the time, it’s the commitment to be your personal best whenever you get down to work. It’s to add value to your life by creating meaningful outcomes and not simply produce.
Realistically speaking, you could be part of a work environment where people are expected to behave like machines. If you happen to be in one, you need to ask yourself if it’s the right place for you. Do you really want to be a part of this machinery in the long run? Know it’s a choice.
If you make decisions on the fly when there are competing priorities demanding your attention, you end up prioritizing your work. We have all done it. A few more minutes in the evening soon turn into an extra hour and a quick reply to an email over the weekend eats up into the time you need for yourself. Before you know it, it becomes a part of your lifestyle. You end up canceling your once-a-month dinner outing with friends, skip yoga classes, miss family events, and work late even on your birthday.
Without clear boundaries, it’s easy to fall into the trap of working all the time. When you don’t take time to define what it is that you really want, you don’t make an effort to do the right thing. The decision-making at every step acts as a big hurdle to help you prioritize what needs prioritizing.
On top of it, when you slip away from things that you actually value, you feel the constant guilt of pushing them aside and feel that you aren’t in control of your own time. The guilt impacts your work and the work impacts the life you want to lead. The work-life imbalance hurts you physically as well as mentally.
How to define boundaries
To achieve work-life balance, the first step is to define both your personal and professional goals. If you only define what you need professionally and think about personal goals as something to take care of the side, it will never get done. Trust me that if you don’t take time to define your personal goals, it’s easy to push them aside all the time hoping you will get to them someday while it’s your work that needs your attention right now and from experience, we all know that day never comes.
Next, spend time actually planning how you need to divide your time to achieve both these goals. When should you start your workday and when you need to end it to invest time in doing other things. What time you should go to bed and what time in the morning you need to get up. If exercising is your goal, what’s the best time during the day - early in the morning or in the evening after work. If eating healthy is your goal when to stock up the right inventory and do some prep work so that healthy food is available to you at the right time. Left unplanned, you will fill it with work and will fall into old habits of eating unhealthy food or skipping exercise.
When you first sit down to ponder your goals for the future, remember to have your core values and life priorities handy as points of reference. As long as your values and priorities remain valid, they should be the compass for directing your goals. Otherwise, you set yourself up for a future of frustration and unhappiness - S.J. Scott
Be serious about your boundaries, but don’t be rigid. Life is messy and you need to deal with the irregularities that life throws your way. You need to adjust at times, but be conscious about those adjustments. Soon exceptions can become the norm. Being flexible to attend to urgent demands of your work should be an exception and not the rule. Once you have a framework to make these decisions, it’s easy to know when you are making an exception and whether it’s for the right reasons or not.
Another important aspect of defining boundaries is to broadcast your boundaries. If people at work and in your life don’t know about them, they cannot help you in sticking to them. Speak to your manager about them, discuss it with your team, talk to your family and friends. This will help them understand how you prioritize and why you are saying no to certain things. Not telling them about it can lead to unnecessary conflict.
3. Stay focussed and manage distractions
Most of the time it’s not the work that eats away into your time, but your lack of personal discipline to stay focussed on the task at hand. Constantly checking notifications, browsing the internet, and replying to emails may seem like work. But, they really are a distraction. If you are constantly distracted, you will take longer to finish work and then blame it on lack of time to do other things in your life.
Learning to manage distractions is the biggest accessory to create work life balance. When you stay away from distractions and focus on your work, you are able to achieve the same output in less time leaving more room for other things. It’s an important step to restore the balance you desire.
“Distractions are not just frustrating; they can be exhausting. By the time you get back to where you were, your ability to stay focused goes down even further, as you have even less glucose available now. Change focus ten times an hour (one study showed people in offices did so as often as twenty times an hour), and your productive thinking time is only a fraction of what’s possible. Less energy equals less capacity to understand, decide, recall, memorize, and inhibit. The result could be mistakes on important tasks. Or distractions can cause you to forget good ideas and lose valuable insights. Having a great idea and not being able to remember it can be frustrating, like an itch you can’t scratch, yet another distraction to manage”, says David Rock.
How to manage distractions
We have already discussed goals and planning. Without clear goals and a proper plan to achieve them, you can be easily distracted to do work that does not add value.
The next step is to organize your work environment to keep distractions away. Turn off notifications, schedule time to check emails or browse social media, keep the phone away when doing work that needs your complete attention, find a quiet corner to do focussed work, take care of your body needs like eating well, sleeping well, and exercising. When you are tired or hungry, inhibition is hard and it’s much easier to cave into the distraction. By taking care of your health, you can leave these distractions at the door when you get down to work.
Once you learn to stay focussed, you will stop worrying about spending too much time at work since you will realize that you don’t really need that much time to achieve your goals. Meaningful creation doesn’t need more time, it needs time away from distractions.
4. Be realistic by prioritizing it right
A lot of imbalance happens because you try to make everything a priority and then aim to do it perfectly. Anything less than perfect means you are not doing the job well.
Time-management hacks, life hacks, sleep hacks, work hacks. These all reflect an obsession with trying to squeeze more time out of the day, but rearranging your daily patterns to find more time for work isn’t the problem. Too much shit to do is the problem - Jason Fried
Trying to squeeze too many things in a day and setting unrealistically high standards for yourself will prevent you from achieving meaningful goals, make you obsess about irrelevant flaws in your work, and prevent you from moving on to other tasks.
How to stay realistic
Identify the top priorities that are most meaningful to you. Align your mind and body to work on the top 3-5 priorities and avoid doing everything else on your list. Choose quality over quantity. In this article, James Clear explains Warren Buffet’s strategy for prioritization. He mentions the Avoid-At-All-Cost list which contains things that are your priority, but not your top 5 goals. He advises “No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5. Eliminate ruthlessly. Force yourself to focus.”
Once you quit the attitude to do everything and learn to say no to things that are not most important to you right now, you can achieve the work-life balance you desire and still be successful in your personal and professional goals. If it’s important for you to stay back and finish a project, then don’t kill yourself over skipping your friend’s party. If you cannot attend a company offsite due to your son’s exams, then make sure you tell yourself that it’s a choice you have made.
Another strategy to create balance is to learn to delegate well. Don’t try to do everything yourself. Ask for help when you need it. Having clarity around what you can delegate and what must be done only by you can help you stay realistic.
Instead of seeking perfection, learn to live with good enough.
5. Take care of your mind and body
I cannot stress enough the importance of this factor. You sleep less, skip meals and eat unhealthy food all in an effort to save time. The time that you believe will help you achieve more. While you may not see the negative effects of these choices in the short term, in the long run, your body will give up and slow you down.
A tired mind and body aren’t equipped to deal with the demands of everyday work and life priorities. Without paying attention to it, you may end up spending more time without doing real work that will advance you in the direction of your goals.
How to take care of mind and body
Saving an extra hour each day to increase sleep time from 6 to 7 hours, taking a few extra mins to prepare a healthy meal, allocating a small portion of your life to exercise daily will have benefits that will compound over time. With a rejuvenated mind and body, you will find it easy to achieve your goals with plenty of energy to dedicate to the tasks at hand.
Instead of relying on your willpower, make these decisions in advance, constantly remind yourself of their importance, identify routines to help ease out the task, and set schedules around your priorities.
Don’t make work-life balance extra complicated for your own good. Achieving a healthy mind and body is completely within your control only if you stop making excuses and start implementing the right strategies.
6. Use feedback loop to adapt
Work-life balance is not an item that you can mark off your to-do list and then never have to think about it again. It isn’t an end state, it’s a journey and you need to take your own journey. Using feedback from your past is the simplest way to make changes that will help you create a balance towards the things that are important to you.
If you do not make an effort to reflect on how you have done in the past, you cannot implement better strategies for your future.
How to use feedback loop for continuous improvement
Identify areas where you made the wrong decisions. Visualize those moments and think about why you made those decisions.
Ask yourself if you are really spending time doing things that are important to you or the list of priorities is only to help you feel good about yourself.
Set aside time to do this activity else it will also take a backseat much like other things on your list. Your priorities will change with time and an audit of how well you do against them will help you stay closer to reality than living with a false sense of illusion of achieving work-life balance someday.
Work-life balance is not a state you need to achieve, it’s a journey to make the right choices every step of the way:
Previously published here.
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