What a tricky thing to balance. On the one side, you want to work hard, advance your career and make a decent living. On the other side, you want to be with your family and friends, take vacations, golf, and heck, enjoy life. It's tricky because so much good could come from focusing all of your energy to one side. Focusing solely on your career could help you advance levels and pay more quickly. Focusing solely on life could drastically improve your golf game. The unintended consequence, however, of focusing on work alone is fewer precious moments spent with family. And focusing on life alone means no income. It's just simply unsustainable.
So, how does one find balance? Unfortunately, there is no shortcut here. No one else is going to appropriate your time for you. The onus is on you to test different ideas and find the right mix.
I would never be so bold as to say that if you copy the following list exactly, you too will find the right work-life balance because no two of us are alike. What I will say is that if you read through this list and apply for yourself where appropriate, you may discover a better work-life balance that is satisfying and sustainable. That said, here are 10 things I do consistently to balance work and life:
- I use my vacation days.
- When the day is over, I stop working.
- I actively manage my time at work.
- I actively manage my time at home.
I'm among the minority that actually uses each day of vacation I'm given. As painful as this is to share, the fact is 52% of employees reported having unused vacation days at the end of 2017. This equates to 705 million unused vacation days annually. I refuse to join the majority, and you should too.
I typically wrap things up around 5 pm. After that, I rarely look back at work email until the next morning. Evening work is reserved for critical deadlines only.
Managing the "work" end of the equation doesn't require significant effort, but it does require consistent effort. The irony. Taking time to consider how to best use my time so that I get things done on time. For me, I spend maybe ~10-15 minutes at the beginning of each workday noting tasks that need to be completed that day. I also take a bit of time to think through what's coming up in the days and weeks ahead. This helps me orient myself with everything happening now and later. Once oriented, I then shift priorities up and down as needed.
As far as managing the "life" end of this equation, my wife and I do two very simple things that are incredibly helpful for us:
- At the beginning of each month, we look at the calendar together and plan around significant events: holidays, birthdays, travel, etc.
- At the beginning of each week, we plan our evenings for the week ahead: date night, gym time, girl’s night, guy’s night, etc.
I talked about how I orient myself with all that needs to be done at work. Once I’ve done that, and once I’ve adjusted priorities, I meet up with my manager to ensure we’re aligned. Misalignment tends to create what would have otherwise been avoidable evening work.
Impossible to avoid completely, but I find my productivity increases when:
- I turn off Outlook notifications. Hearing the ding of a new message, or seeing the popup throws me off. I can’t help but stop what I’m doing to see what's up. Turn the distraction off.
- I put on my headphones and get focused. This makes me appear less approachable, which can also be a bad thing in an office environment, so I would recommend limiting this one, but still, when time is limited and work needs to get done, I definitely throw the old headphones over the ears.
I don't want people reserving every free minute of my day, so I reserve time on my own calendar to complete work. If anyone tries to schedule a meeting over it, I decline.
Instead of doing what I do most days, which is grab lunch in the cafeteria and head back to my office to eat and work, I’ll go to Starbucks and eat there. Some days I meet up with my wife and son at a nearby restaurant. I’ve even had lunch while heading to a nearby driving range to quickly hit a bucket of balls. Listen, do what you’ve got to do to get away from time to time.
Work travel can be cool, but excessive work travel, in my opinion, is the worst. Let the next person in line take the trip from time to time.
I realize this may be the least practical piece of advice, but if you have an opportunity to shave time off your commute, consider it. I’ve recently made an office transition that reduces my commuting time by an hour a day. I now leave 30 minutes later for work in the morning and get home 30 minutes earlier.
When I’m not thinking about these things, when I’m not managing my work-life balance, I tend to experience the negative effects of imbalance. During the workday, I jump from task to task without fully completing any one thing. In the evening I feel a bit of angst thinking about what I wish I would have completed earlier in the day.
The negative effects of imbalance aren't always immediate, but over time the friction will become more and more tangible. The only way I know to reduce this friction is to revisit the list above and think about how I'm currently balancing work and life. More often than not, I find areas where I've either started focusing too much or too little. And with a few slight adjustments, I reestablish a balance that works well for me.