Manager’s Notebook: Is Work/Life Balance a Misnomer?

Image by Ryan McGuire on Gratisography.comI always find it amusing when people talk about work/life balance, because work is a part of our lives, whether we like it or not. I know, I know, people are really talking about balancing your work responsibilities and time with your personal responsibilities and time. But it’s still funny to think of work and personal life as coins to be added to two sides of a scale. Regardless of what we call it, the struggle is real – how do we handle the obligations in every area of our lives in a way that satisfies the people involved and keeps us from burning out? Answering that question is a tall order, but I’ve put together some tips that might help.

Recognize They Will Bleed Over from Time to Time

Some people prefer to let their professional and personal lives blend together, and some don’t. And neither choice is bad or good by itself. However you choose to approach this is fine. Just realize that sometimes you’ll have to take a call from your kid’s school at work, and sometimes you’ll have to send a work email during your evening at home. If you’re prepared for this to happen occasionally, it’s less disruptive when it does happen.

Schedule All of Your Stuff, and Use a Single Calendar View

If you don’t schedule things on your calendar, especially in the personal arena, they will fall off your radar. Time with friends and family, “me time,” exercise…all of this has to be scheduled. Everyday life sneaks up on you sometimes, and if you don’t have the visual reminder of coffee with a friend, a picnic with your kids, or dedicated time to your hobby, before you know it, weeks will go by and you’ll realize you’ve done all the things you had to do, but none of the things you wanted to do.

I prefer to keep all of my personal, professional, and volunteer events on a single calendar so I don’t double-book myself without realizing it (it’s happened). Even if you maintain separate calendars for each of these areas, find a way to view all of the calendars at once so you can see everything you have on a particular day. Most email programs and mobile phone calendar apps let you do this.

Have “Unplugged” and “Office” Hours

Technology can be a great thing that binds people across the world. Unfortunately, it also makes people feel like they have to be “on” and responsive at all hours of the day and night. If you work for a global company, like I do, you might feel the pressure even more intensely. Cut yourself a break. Choose some time each day that you deliberately focus on your family, your personal errands, or yourself, and resolve not to check email or do work during those hours. For example, once you arrive home from work, don’t check your phone or laptop from 6-9:30 PM to spend time with your family. And when I say unplugged, I mean truly unplugged. When you’re with your family, don’t check your phone for Facebook updates, Twitter notifications, or sales at your favorite online boutique. Really invest in the time with your friends and family – it pays off in spades.

On the flip side of the coin, consider setting aside specific time in which you dowork, if you find it necessary due to the nature of your job, company, or current projects. You might do a quick check of your email at 9:30 PM to handle anything pressing from around the world. Or you might not check email first thing in the morning, but wait until you arrive at your office to do so to allow yourself important personal time in the mornings. You might find that it’s no longer “necessary” to check your email or work nightly after your unplugged hours, unless you have a time-sensitive project going on or are expecting an important response from someone halfway around the world. The point here is to set aside a dedicated period of time where you do not work or check email so you can focus on the personal part of your life, then if the job calls for it, you have a specific time set aside for the work that needs to be done.

Reevaluate Your Errands

I hate going to the grocery store. It’s not like the store itself irks me, I just hate spending my time walking around it and buying groceries. Fortunately, there are now grocery-delivery services in my area, and you can bet I’m using them. The products are a bit more expensive than what I’d spend in the store itself, but the convenience and lack of irritation are worth it to me. What errands or chores are you doing that you can pay someone to do, think about in a different way, or do less often? Maybe a housekeeper or lawn service would free up valuable time for you. Maybe it’s okay to drop off the recycling once a month instead of every two weeks. Maybe you could order your stamps online instead of driving to the post office. Anything that carves out new time in your schedule gives you more time to put toward personal or work efforts.

Exercise

Exercise is one of the best stress relievers there is. Yet, we so often don’t take advantage of this free tool to help us care for our physical and emotional selves. I know lives are busy and it can be difficult to fit this in. But even if you’re walking for just 15 minutes a day, the benefit is enormous. Exercise releases endorphins that clear your mind and lift your mood. To me, this is an even better benefit than weight loss and maintenance. If your mind is clear, you can plan better and you can deal with difficult situations more easily.

Rest and Relax—Properly

Schedule down time into your days. A hectic schedule with multi-time zone conference calls, deadlines and after school activities is difficult. But putting even 10-15 minutes into your day to do something that lets you breathe deeply a bit can help you reset. Take a hot bath, walk the dogs, read a chapter or two of your latest book, or even sit on your back porch and watch the birds while you sip tea. Doing this consistently gives you pockets of time to recharge each a day that will get you through until you can get some extended time off.

Speaking of extended time off, take a true vacation from work every now and then. A day off here and there is fine, but eventually that won’t be enough to break through the cyclical stress. Take a week to recharge (even if you don’t go away). Studies have shown that it takes at least a couple of days to fully de-stress from work pressures and to let go from that pace, so you need multiple days to really reap the benefits of some time away from it all.

Learn to Say No

>Lots of us find it difficult to tell people no when they ask us to do something. Most want to be helpful, and we feel like we’re letting people down when we decline a request for help. However, overtaxing ourselves with too many responsibilities or in areas we’re not really interested in increases stress and less time to focus on the things we want to prioritize. So when you get a request to help with something, consider the following:

  • What is the time commitment? Is it a one-time thing? Recurring? For how long?
  • Is it in an area you’re truly interested in?
  • Does it align with your goals for your family, career, or personal time?

Set Expectations

Your life is yours to lead. The percentages of professional and personal in your overall “balance” are up to you. Just be clear when communicating to others so they know what to expect from you. I’ve experienced many work weeks with major deadlines that coincide with a significant amount of work for my volunteer obligations. At the beginning of a week like that, I try to let my family know it’s a really busy week for me with those things, but they should be wrapped up by Friday, and we can have some focused family time on the weekend. By the same token, sometimes your family commitments or happenings might distract you from work or require your leaving early a day or two. Nothing wrong with that as long as you let your manager and coworkers know so they don’t think you’re just disappearing for no good reason. Communication is key.

Achieving work-life balance isn’t a matter of splitting the two areas 50-50. It’s about finding the interaction of these areas that’s right for you, the way you communicate that to others, and continually assessing and refining how you handle them. Find the formula that’s right for you, and you’ll then find the sense of achievement and enjoyment flowing across all areas of your life.

Alyssa Fox

Alyssa Fox is Senior Director of Global Content Strategy at Micro Focus and is based in Houston, Texas. She is focused on increasing the value of content to create better customer experiences and meet business objectives. She is currently serving as the President of the Society for Technical Communication (STC). Alyssa speaks at numerous international conferences about various management and content topics. Find Alyssa on Twitter @afox98.

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