During challenging times, such as weeks of long work hours and deadline crunches, our daily routines often go out the window, and we go into some kind of survival mode. At this point, we may be merely enduring the situation, waiting for things to improve. This can kick-off a downward cycle, and next thing you know, your work-life is off-balance, and you fall into a funk.
Getting out of this funk can be a challenge, and perhaps on some level, you’ve come to embrace it. Falling off track and letting life pass you by can feel more manageable than pressing forward. However, this eventually leads to feelings of guilt and anxiety as you procrastinate on goals and deadlines.
Working your way out of this funk toward work-life balance does not merely take willpower; it will require making small and incremental changes to your daily personal and professional routines. The purpose of these changes is to shuffle your priorities and create balance so that you can tackle challenges head-on and get back on track.
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What is Work-Life Balance?
Most everyone probably has a general idea of what work-life balance entails. There’s only so much time in the day, so you need room for personal interests, work, and sleep. By doing simple division, you could allocate 8 hours to each of these sections of your day, and thus your work-life is balanced.
Now, we all know, there is no such thing as a perfect work-life balance. Work often demands more of us than we’d like. Our company has clients and customers to serve, and in a high-pressure environment, we often have to give 110% to make sure these clients and customers don’t go elsewhere.
So, 8 hours a day doesn’t always cut it. And if you throw in a commute on top of this, you end up sacrificing personal time or sleep (or both!) to keep up at work. As the weeks pass, stress, fatigue, and resentment add up, and you may find yourself on the edge of burnout.
Even though perfect work-life balance may not be achievable, it is essential to assess your priorities and reflect on your situation periodically. By doing so, you will buy yourself precious mental stability and energy.
Review your Daily Schedule
What time are you getting up and going to bed? What happens between?
Take some time to jot your daily workday schedule on a notepad or throw it into a spreadsheet. Perhaps it will look like this:
- 6:30 am – Wake up and prepare for work
- 7:30 am – Leave for work
- 8:00 am – Begin work
- 12:00 pm – Eat lunch
- 5:00 pm – Finish work
- 5:30 pm – Work out
- 6:45 pm – Eat dinner
- 10:00 pm – Go to bed
This schedule reflects an 8-hour workday with a commute and leaves 2-3 hours a day for leisure activities or hobbies. Given this, it is easy to see how working an extra hour or two per day can throw off your schedule.
When writing down your schedule, it doesn’t have to be perfect; the goal is to form a generalized framework to see where your time goes. So, don’t spend more than a few minutes putting this together.
Prioritize Your Daily Activities
With 24 hours in the day, you can only do so much. So list out these activities in order of priority, and keep it simple by grouping any dependent peripheral activities.
For example, you may only work for 8 hours in a day, but you have to shower, dress, eat breakfast, and maybe commute. So if it takes an hour to get ready and a half-hour to commute each way, then work takes up 10 hours of your day.
Your list may look like this:
- Work: 10 hours
- Sleep: 8.5 hours
- Meals: 2 hours
- Workout: 1.5 hours
- Leisure/Hobby: 2 hours
Breaking down your daily activities in this way makes it easier to adjust your schedule if needed. For example, if work takes up two extra hours in your day, you could either cut out leisure time, eat your meals while working, sacrifice your workout, or sleep less (not recommended!).
Having your priorities in order will help you hit the critical parts of the day while tweaking or skipping less essential activities. For more on this, check out our post on time blocking.
Assess Your Workday
Focus on being productive instead of busy – Tim Ferris in The 4-Hour Workweek
How does your work schedule look? Are you working fixed hours, or are they loosey-goosey?
Ideally, you will work fixed hours, and as few as possible. This doesn’t mean completing fewer tasks in a given week; it means getting more done in less time. For most of us, the bare minimum is a standard 40-hour workweek.
The idea is that given tight time constraints, you will operate with a higher level of intensity and work more efficiently as you scrap things that are irrelevant and don’t help you meet your objectives.
If that’s not enough, there are other reasons why it pays to minimize your work hours.
Extra Hours don’t Equate to Increased Productivity
A Stanford study has shown a correlation between decreased productivity and increased hours. There is a sharp decline in productivity after 50 hours, and at 70 hours, a person may as well have worked no more than 55 hours.
So this means that you are clocking in long hours for little return. Additionally, you are setting yourself up for a procrastination trap.
Imagine a scenario where you have resigned yourself to putting in extra hours on a project. Maybe you would typically leave at 5, but now that you are working later, you have all the time in the world to get around to the task! So this could lead you to check your phone or social media more frequently, and the job drags on for longer than it should have.
If you had instead committed yourself to leave at 5, then you would be scrambling to have the task completed by 5. If it did drag on a little later, then at least you would be a lot further along at that point in the day than if you had mentally teed yourself up for long hours in the first place.
So do more work in less time.
More Time Results in more Work
According to Parkinson’s Law, work will expand to fill the time allocated for completion. So if you can complete a task in one week but have two, it is very likely that you will still finish the job at the last minute.
This happens due to several reasons, including procrastination, scope creep, and inefficient use of time. It’s only natural that if we have more time than we need, we’re going to use it because there is no point in trying hard if we don’t have to. So, working extra hours doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get more done.
An example of this would be planning a family photo shoot. If you found a photographer who was available the same day, you and your family would put on appropriate clothes, meet at a local location, and the photographer does her thing.
Scheduling the photographer four weeks out changes the scenario. During those four weeks, you and your family shop for coordinated outfits, get haircuts, try to lose a few pounds, do location research, and ask the photographer a multitude of questions that may cause her to regret taking on the job.
So tasks at work can follow a similar pattern. Sometimes all you need to do is get the job done with little fanfare. But having extra time gets in the way of doing that.
Unfortunately, it is not simple to merely work fewer hours, especially if office expectations don’t align with that. So how does one go about doing this?
Talk to Your Boss
If you’re working to improve your work-life balance, you’re probably going to have to talk to your boss about it at some point. This conversation could go many ways, so it’ll be your decision on how much you want to press the idea of working fewer hours because this conversation could backfire.
Many people are still old school when it comes to working long hours, and the average American worker puts in 47 hours a week. So proposing a work schedule with fewer hours may not be received well, and your boss will start thinking about how he or she is going to make up for the loss in “productivity.”
Unless you view your boss as reasonably open-minded, I would advise against pressing the science and statistics too much. Even though you may be convinced, you may not be able to answer some of your boss’ tough questions, and he or she may view the whole argument as bs.
So consider your words wisely, be respectful, and try to frame the conversation in a way that assures your boss that efficiency and productivity are your highest priority. It’s helpful to propose a specific schedule and follow through with any commitments to ensure trust.
Make sure that whatever you propose fits within the office norms too. Don’t request four 10-hour workdays or a 32-hour workweek if no one else is doing that. If the company relies on employees to work every day, asking for one of these schedules may cause you to appear out of touch.
So take baby steps and don’t expect to get the perfect schedule right away. You can tweak your schedule over time as you build trust, so don’t feel like you need to settle for the long haul. There are also other things you can do in the meantime to help cement your work hours.
Develop an After-Work Routine
Having an evening routine is a surefire way to get out of the office on time. People who have nothing going on are easier to keep in the office for long hours. Your boss will feel more inclined to ask someone to miss out on some tv time versus asking someone to give up an after-hours scheduled activity.
Having a routine will also be helpful in schedule discussions. This could include having a scheduled workout, picking up the kid(s), or a class of some kind.
Request Schedule Flexibility
Perhaps traffic sucks during certain hours of the day, or you feel more productive in the mornings or evenings. In either case, you could have a legitimate reason for requesting schedule flexibility.
If you can trim time off of your commute, this adds up to more time for personal endeavors (or sleep). So this could be an easy way to make an immediate difference.
Inquire about Remote Working Options
Many people are already working remotely due to coronavirus. However, working remote cuts the commute out of the equation altogether. Additionally, you will spend less time preparing for work, which means you can sleep in a bit later!
There are drawbacks to working remotely, so be sure to keep these in mind.
Mind Your Personal Life
Work-life balance extends itself into your personal life as well. It’s easy enough to crash on the couch and settle in for a Netflix binge or some social media doomscrolling. But having things to look forward to in your free time will get your mind off work and provide a release for stress and anxiety.
Have Regularly Scheduled Social Interactions
Make regular plans with friends or family after work. This can be something simple, like a phone call, happy hour, or dinner. With coronavirus impacting our lives, you’ll have to weigh your options against local ordinances and social distancing requirements. But there are a multitude of ways you can continue to socialize.
As an added benefit, when you have plans with other people after work, it forces you to wrap your day up at a specific time. So your efficiency and productivity will increase as you scramble to wrap up loose ends before the end of the day.
Nurture Your Hobbies
If you have a hobby, try not to lose sight of it. It’s easy to drop a hobby temporarily while you try to keep up with the demands of your job. And sometimes, it may be necessary to do just that. However, it would be best if you don’t abandon it for too long.
Hobbies provide an outlet for stress, give you a feeling of accomplishment, and allow for a mental escape. So pursuing your hobby will truly help provide work-life balance.
Read Books and Grow
Sometimes it isn’t easy to find people within your support network who understand the challenges you face with your career. But the odds are, no matter what challenge you face, someone has written a book about it.
Books can provide a lot of insight and inspiration. There is also an assurance that comes from knowing someone else has faced similar problems and found some measure of success.
Give up on Perfection
There’s a spin on an old saying floating around on the internet that goes, “don’t let perfection get in the way of good enough.” Don’t be tempted to use this as an excuse to half-ass a job and produce sloppy work. But at some point, you have to accept that you’ve hit the critical marks and you’ve done a good enough job.
People spend countless hours fruitlessly chasing perfection. This results in lost time, lost opportunities, and lower productivity. Perfection is unachievable, so don’t waste time pursuing it.
Final Thoughts – Don’t be a Boiled Frog
Consider the old urban legend about putting a frog in water and then bringing it to a boil. The way the story goes, if you put a frog in hot or boiling water, it will immediately jump out. However, if you put it in cold water and then bring it to a boil, the cold-blooded frog will not notice the change in temperature and will be cooked alive.
Science has proven that this is false; however, the story still makes a great metaphor.
If we go with the flow on a day to day basis and don’t stop to take note of what’s going on around us, we may very well end up being cooked alive (metaphorically). But instead of being boiled alive, we wake up one day and find that our work-life is out of balance.
So consider where you are at right now and visualize where you are going. Maybe ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you feel like your work-life is out of control and dread every day you walk into the office?
- How long has work been crazy, and do you expect that to change any time soon?
- Are your extra efforts helping you meet your goals?
- Is management taking steps to improve the situation, or does this seem to be an issue with the company culture?
- Do you like your boss, or does your boss suck?
Answering these questions will help put your situation in perspective. You may be just going through a temporary rough patch, or it may be time to update your resume and explore other options. In either case, it will be on you to decide how to move forward and achieve work-life balance.