With our email inboxes living in our pockets, colleagues and clients clamoring for instant answers and competitive workplaces judging employees based on the length of their workdays or the size of their project lists, the archetypal 9-to-5 workday has become all but a distant memory. For working parents, the struggle to juggle family obligations and professional duties can often seem futile. In the never-ending quest to impress the boss and pad the paycheck, personal passions and hobbies tend to get shoved to the back burner. Lopsided priorities—say, logging 12-hour workdays while sacrificing exercise, recreation and relationships—can even lead to weight gain, poor health and depression.
Is it really possible to achieve that elusive "work-life balance?" Although life isn't a pie that can be neatly bisected into perfectly equal segments, there are some steps you can take to make sure you're not filling up on too much of a work slice and that you're leaving enough room for other, more important pieces of the pie.
- Schedule 30 minutes of relaxation time each day. It’s up to you how you spend it: reading, meditating, cooking—whatever helps you unwind and decompress.
- Don't bring your laptop with you on vacation.
- Set a specific time when you will leave the office every day, and then do it. Remind yourself throughout the day that all essential tasks need to be wrapped up prior to your designated departure time.
- Eat breakfast at home before leaving for work, instead of eating at the office or during your commute (or skipping it altogether).
- Pare down your projects. Is your workload overwhelming or unrealistic? See if you can delegate or downsize some of your assignments to create some breathing room.
- Limit your internet browsing at work. All those scattered minutes of reading news stories and surfing social media sites add up. The less time you spend on recreational web use, the more efficient you'll be, and the earlier you'll get back to your non-working life.
- Each day at the end of your shift, make a list of the most important tasks you need to work on the following day. This will help ensure that you start the next morning on a productive and efficient note.
- Turn off email notifications. That steady stream of beeping, flashing messages makes it difficult to focus on tasks and ultimately lengthens your workday. Instead, check your messages only at certain times of day, such as the top of every hour.
- Make a short list for each day. Instead of staring at an overwhelming catalog of dozens of items you want or need to do, select only three to five important daily tasks. Chances are you'll end up branching out to do more, but starting with that core list will make it seem more doable and keep you motivated.
- Focus only on your strengths, and outsource the items that aren't your forte. If you struggle to balance budgets, delegate them to someone who's good with numbers so you can spend time in areas where you shine.
- Ask your boss about a flexible schedule. More and more companies are getting on board with employees working from home all or some of the time, or creating their own schedules to accommodate family obligations.
- Try not to check your email when you're not at work. There will always be messages clamoring for your attention. Unless they're absolutely essential, they can wait until tomorrow.
- Join a group that interests you. Whether it's a pottery class, a book club, a running group or a community volunteer project, getting involved in a meaningful and interesting endeavor will help keep your personal life separate from work.
- Stop rolling over vacation days. Even if your company allows it, make it a point to use them every year, even if you don't go anywhere. A quiet staycation can be just as restorative as a trip to the beach.
- Make time for exercise. Staying active won't only help you maintain a healthy weight and improve overall wellness, but it will also keep your mind fresh so you'll be more productive when you're back at work.
- Set aside a “fun” savings account for small or big trips, or even fun things to do on a staycation.
- Schedule your most important tasks at the time of day when you typically feel sharpest and most productive.
- Block out personal commitments on your calendar. If you schedule your anniversary or your child's birthday as you would a regular meeting, you won't inadvertently book something else during that time.
- Use a time-tracking tool. Just like food tracking, keeping a log of your daily tasks will help you pinpoint patterns of wasted time so you can prioritize your to-do list.
- Find something you truly love to do, and try to set aside an hour each day or evening to spend on it. Doing what you love will have a refreshing and rejuvenating effect.
- Take breaks. Even if you can't leave the office, make it a point to at least stand up, stretch and take a short walk around the building once an hour.
- Set up automatic payments for your monthly bills so you won't have to spend time manually sending them.
- Say "no" more often. It's amazingly easy to promise away too much of your free time out of politeness. If there's a good chance that a request or invitation will tip your work/life balance out of whack, decline with a smile.
- Look for shorter versions of the passions or hobbies that may be too time-consuming to pursue in their entirety.
- Adopt an animal, or make the time to care for, play with and unconditionally love the pet you already have.
- Try to make weekends—or at least a good chunk of them—screen-free zones. Instead of scrolling through your phone, surfing the web or watching TV, find other ways to engage and sharpen your mind.
- Turn on your automated “out of office” email reply when you leave for the day.
- Plug your phone into the charger when you get home and do not touch it for a set number of hours.
- Plan at least one fun outing or event each week, whether it's watching a musician perform, walking at the park with a friend or taking a cooking class.
- Wake up 30 minutes earlier every morning. Use the extra time for an activity you've been wanting to do.
- Don't be afraid to ask for help. If you're drowning with work, social or family obligations, call for a life preserver. This might be in the form of a housecleaner, a babysitter, some extra hands at work or a colleague to attend an event on your behalf—whatever you need to make your load more manageable.
- Tackle personal chores while in transit. If you ride the bus, train or a shared carpool, use that time to order your groceries, make appointments or send personal emails, so you can be more efficient when you get to the office.
- Find ways to overlap things. For instance, if you've been wanting to try yoga and also need to spend more one-on-one time with your teenage daughter, take a weekly yoga class together.
- Guard your free time fiercely. Don't hesitate to block out an hour here and there on your calendar for…absolutely nothing! Just because you have time available doesn't mean you have to fill it with events and obligations.
- Make it a point to leave work during your lunch break, whether it's to meet a friend at a restaurant, take a walk, browse a favorite store or just read a book on a park bench.
- Schedule a regular social event each week, month or quarter, such as a recurring dinner, a book club, a cooking group or a walking/running group. By making it an automatic thing, you'll be less likely to skip it when work gets busy.
- Instead of trying to impress your boss with how many long shifts you put in, impress her with how efficiently you can get your tasks done within a standard workday.
- Spread out your household chores over the week and do a little each day, so you'll have more time for yourself on the weekends.
- Don't sacrifice sleep. While it may seem smart to burn the midnight oil to get ahead, starting the day tired, cranky and foggy will just end up setting you back.
- Set up automatic shipments of the staples you know you will need on a regular basis, such as water, toilet paper, pet food and fresh produce. You won't have to manually order them and won't ever run out.
- Schedule everything, not just meetings and appointments. Instead of keeping a running to-do list, put your tasks on your calendar.
- Think about what you'll do after you retire. If you can’t come up with an answer, you're likely spending too much time focused on work and not enough on other parts of life.
- Pick a "stop work thoughts" landmark. For instance, on your commute home from the office, select a landmark and commit to not thinking about work anymore after passing it.
- Do your least favorite (or most difficult) tasks at the beginning of the day or the week, before your mind gets fatigued and frazzled. You'll be sharper and more equipped to knock them out, and the sense of accomplishment will create momentum to keep you going.
- When planning meals, choose recipes that only take 30 minutes or less to prep and get on the table.
- If you do have to work late, do it on your own terms. Kick off those uncomfortable shoes, turn on your favorite music, order in your favorite food—chances are you'll end up being even more productive when you embrace a relaxed mindset.
- Don't be a martyr. When you try to do everything "perfectly" and resist help, you'll end up creating more stress not only for yourself, but also for your family.
- Each Sunday, schedule all of your workouts for the upcoming week. If you go to fitness classes, book them all at once so you'll be less likely to skip.
- Lower your standards of "clean." When you're juggling work, family and personal pursuits, you might have to accept the fact that your floors won't always be sparkling and your beds may not always be perfectly made.
- Understand the meaning of "balance." Achieving a healthy work/life balance doesn't mean that your work and personal lives will always be neatly bisected down the middle. There will be days when you need to devote more time to work, and other days when family and home matters demand more attention. The key is to achieve a healthy balance over time, and to not let one of them consistently monopolize your time.