I’m not really a fan of the term work-life balance because who says that work isn’t a part of our life? It’s rarely that black and white. However, especially if we live with other people, there’s a reality that we can feel torn between doing our best with our work, and spending quality time with those we love.
This might be because you feel you have to bring work home with you, or it might be because you work at home- which can make it even harder to get the right balance.
Trying to do the impossible
When this comes up with clients- which it does all the time- the first thing I get them to do is to actually record for a while how they are spending their time. The idea is to see to what extent they feel stretched because they aren’t using their time as efficiently as they might, and to what extent they simply have too much to do.
It’s really easy to be wildly over-optimistic about what we can fit into a day, and then be disappointed with ourselves when we don’t achieve it. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, suggests that we can only do about 4 hours a day of ‘deep work’, where we are really focused and in flow, and my experience would bear that out. That doesn’t mean we can’t work 7 hours, but much of that will need to be shallower work, such as dealing with admin.
If you’re not actually trying to do the impossible, then the next step is prioritising.
When we’re overloaded, it’s really easy for us to end up running around like headless chickens, jumping from task to task. We’ll tend to pick the easy tasks first, and end up wasting our prime energy on those, and then running out of time and energy to get that big task done before it’s school pick up time, or dinner time or whatever.
So, we need to set aside some time to plan how to use our time, and to reflect on how we’ve used it, and what the next steps should be.
We also need to make sure that we also prioritise important non work related stuff, whether that’s time with the kids or a partner, or time with ourselves, getting out for a walk, or just resting.
All too often those things get put into the category of stuff I’ll fit in around work- and often there just isn’t the time or space left for them. So, schedule them in first.
This leads me to the next step in creating a better balance: setting boundaries. This might be with your clients or employer, making it clear (nicely) that you’re not available after 5pm or at weekend and so on. But it could also be setting rules and boundaries for yourself- that you won’t just pop back into the office and do a few emails after dinner, for example.
Of course, sometimes we do go through times when we have to break those rules. I’ve talked before about the four burners theory. The idea is that we have four gas burners, like the top of a stove: work, family, friends and health. It’s impossible to keep all of these burning on full. At any one time at least one of these burners will have to be turned right down, or off.
This sounds depressing, but it’s actually quite liberating to recognise this..and it means we can make informed choices. So, maybe the friends burner gets turned down for a while when you’re busy..but you’re aware of that and let them know it’s just temporary (and mean that).
And we can also turn down burners by asking for help, rather than soldiering on in silence. Talk to your family or partner about the situation, find out how they feel about the balance, and, if needed, enlist their help.