How to Find the Right Work-Life Balance

How to Find the Right Work-Life Balance

Creating a Healthy, Rewarding Life

People have debated the concept of “life balance” for decades, and it means something different to everyone.

One person might think he’s achieved balance when he can leave work early enough to eat dinner with his family. Someone else might view it as having a flexible schedule, so that she can study for a part-time graduate degree. Yet another person might feel fulfilled by spending her “free” time advancing her career.

In short, you achieve life balance when you have enough time to pursue both work and personal interests that you love. However, when you feel as if one side of your life is using up too much of your energy, you can become stressed, your productivity can fall, and your personal relationships can become strained.

What Is Life Balance?

The concept of achieving a balance between personal and work lives can be traced back to the late 18th century, when both the U.S. and the U.K. enacted legislation to limit the number of hours that people could be made to work each week. Throughout the 19th century, both countries passed more laws to limit working hours and enforce mandatory leave for certain events, such as childbirth and illness.

Life balance gained more prominence in the 1970s, as occupational therapists began to write about the need to distinguish between work and play. The term “work-life balance” became increasingly popular in the 1980s as more women began to enter the workforce.

Many women lobbied for support from their organizations during this period, asking for flexible schedules and a shorter working week. Although the concept of work-life balance initially focused on women, it quickly became more inclusive and accounted for the needs of both sexes.

Today, work-life balance is an evolving concept but, put simply, it’s about achieving the mix of business and personal life that’s right for you. We’re all unique, and the term “personal life” means something different to everyone: it can include spending time with your friends and family; resting; participating in hobbies; engaging in personal, spiritual or educational development; exercising; or care giving. It can even include your work!

Life balance is a perceived state: only you know when your life is or isn’t in balance.

Effects of Poor Work-Life Balance

Research shows that, when we don’t feel in control of our time, illness and burnout can quickly follow. For example, this study shows that a failure to achieve life balance leads to higher stress and absenteeism, and lower productivity at work. Another found that poor balance is a major cause of job dissatisfaction.

It’s well known that working long hours can increase stress and anxiety, which can have a number of serious effects on our health. These include:

  • Frequent headaches.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Persistent insomnia.
  • Clinical depression or anger-management issues.
  • A weakened immune system.

When you think you’re spending too much of your time and energy on one area of your life at the expense of another, you can also feel guilt, regret and frustration. This can have a negative impact on your personal relationships and self-esteem.

How to Achieve a Good Work-Life Balance

It can be challenging to achieve a good work-life balance, especially when organizations downsize and people are expected to take on additional tasks, or when your responsibilities at home conflict with those at work.

The strategies below can help you achieve balance. Some of them may suit you better than others, so pick the ones you think will work best for you.

1. Conduct an Audit of Your Time Management

Start by keeping a daily Activity Log ; this will help you track how you use your time at work and at home. You could be surprised by how you spend your time, for example you may find that you’re taking longer than you expected on certain tasks, dealing with minor issues, or in unproductive meetings. If you limit these activities, you may find more time in your day for other things.

The same is true in your personal life: you might watch far more TV than you think. By reducing your television time, you could free up your schedule to include activities that you find more rewarding.

Once you’ve completed your Activity Log, use this information to determine how valuable these activities are to you. Apply the Action Priority Matrix  to your personal and work lives to take stock of what’s important to you.

Start by using the matrix to list the activities in your personal life. Identify the commitments that are vitally important, and that you have time for, as well as the ones that aren’t. Be specific here. How much does it matter to you that you’re home by 5:30pm to be with your children? Do you still want to spend every Thursday volunteering at that charity? Look at your log and add the most important activities to the matrix.

Next, look at your professional commitments. What non-negotiable needs, activities and goals are there in your work life? For example, you might have a conference call every Monday evening that you can’t miss, or a monthly presentation to the executive board that requires eight hours of preparation.

Once you’ve added this list of “must-haves” to the matrix, write down the activities that are less important, but still necessary. Your goal is to identify gaps between key tasks and those that you can potentially delegate , outsource or stop doing. This will help you prioritize the activities in your life. For example, you might attend a weekly staff meeting, which lasts almost two hours but adds little value to your work. You could cut this out by asking a colleague to take notes on your behalf.

2. Improve Efficiency at Work

The more efficient and productive you are at work, the easier it is for you to go home at a reasonable time.

First, try to limit distractions  during the day. When you can focus on a task, you will be more productive over a shorter period of time than if you are frequently interrupted. Next, make sure that you’re working on valuable tasks that help you make a real impact with your work.

Although it’s important to maximize your productivity, keep in mind that continuous, long hours can lead to burnout. Take regular breaks throughout the day so that you work more effectively – these give your mind a rest and leave you feeling refreshed.

If you think that you might be at risk of exhaustion, take our self test . Our article on Avoiding Burnout  has many tools and strategies that you can use to keep to a healthy work schedule.

3. Add Flexibility

Flexibility is an important part of maintaining a good work-life balance. One study shows that people who believe they have flexible jobs look more favorably on their work-life balance than those with the same workload but with no perceived flexibility. It also found that team members who think their jobs are flexible do longer hours before their workload has a negative effect on them.

Another study came to similar conclusions: you’re more likely to stay and feel satisfaction in your job if you have access to flexible working arrangements.

Ask your boss to allow more flexibility in your schedule. Perhaps you could work from home one day a week, come in and leave earlier, or have some flexibility with your hours. Job sharing, when two people split the responsibilities of one role, is another popular option.

4. Feel More Rewarded

You may not be able to do much about your workload or schedule, but you can make changes and improve your job satisfaction . When you feel engaged in your job, the hours pass quickly and you leave work feeling happy and satisfied at the end of the day.

5. Find Time for Yourself

We all juggle many responsibilities and roles in our lives. At work, you might be a boss, a colleague and a mentor. At home, you might be a parent; a caregiver for an older family member; a sibling; a spouse or partner; and a friend. When we neglect one or more of these roles, we can quickly feel out of balance.

Use the Life Career Rainbow  and the Wheel of Life  to identify your current roles, and chart how much energy you devote to each one. Which are commanding more of your time? How can you shift the balance, so that you don’t neglect the others?

Remember, life balance means having time for yourself as well. If you spend all day attending to others’ wants and needs, you won’t have the energy and strength to achieve your own dreams. Set aside time every day for exercise , meals, sleep, and quiet time for contemplation, brainstorming or just daydreaming. The people and the work that you love deserve your best, and you can only give it when you’re staying healthy and looking after yourself.

This article first appeared in Mind Tools

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