An established part of the mental health and wellbeing lexicon, the elusive work-life balance tends to fall into the territory of time management: the way we compartmentalise the demands of work and home to prevent one encroaching on the other. And there are numerous apps to help you schedule, diarise and co-ordinate the way you spend your working hours and beyond.
However, the world has changed and the way we use our time has too. The term work-life is couched in the notion that the two live in separate places. When one finishes, the other neatly begins. But with remote working on the rise and mobile phones always within reach (making us reachable 24/7), we don’t leave the office like we used to. Our day-to-day lives are more nuanced and intricate.
In the words of Dr Patti Fletcher, HR Futurist, author and VP, Brand Marketing at Workhuman: ‘[L]ife is complex and ever-changing. What works for us today probably won’t work for us tomorrow. The global pandemic that has caused a seismic shift in the way we juggle our professional and personal lives has only illuminated this further.’
To address that shift, here are six powerful ways to establish equilibrium and bring more life into your work-life balance.
Focus on what really matters and pursue those things in small doses if you have to
For many of us, the pandemic has shone a light on what’s genuinely important – the people and experiences we value the most. It’s likely we now have a clearer sense of what we need to be happy. These should be our priorities – and the good news is that, according to author and time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders, it’s not about the hours we spend pursuing them.
‘You don’t need to have long stretches of time to do activities you find satisfying. But when you make time for what you truly enjoy, it gives you back energy and enthusiasm for the rest of your life and work.’
Notice how — and where — you’re spending your time
Our overall quality of life relies on affirmative experiences across the board – at home and in work. Merely spending time doing something doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily feeding us intellectually or emotionally in the way we want or need it to – or giving us the satisfaction of a job well done. It pays to be mindful about how we’re doing something to avoid slipping into routines that leave us unsatisfied or restless.
Having a clear sense of purpose helps keep our energy and enthusiasm high for the task at hand. In their book Boundaries, Jennie Miller and Victoria Lambert suggest being ‘intentional’ about what we do – and where we do it. ‘Home is great for some of your work, but not for other types of tasks. Likewise, being in your workplace might be better for certain types of efforts. Give thought to whether you need to focus, collaborate, learn, socialize or rejuvenate, and plan accordingly.’
Learn how to apportion energy and when you can afford to take your foot off the gas
Dr Fletcher suggests that, rather than time, our emphasis should be on the energy we’re putting into an experience, remembering that not everything requires our 100%.
This involves focusing on why we’re doing it and who we’re doing it for and with. ‘Gather your information and prioritise,’ she advises. ‘Time is finite. You can never get it back. But energy is different. Energy is a force that you can turn up and down. By identifying how much time you have and how much energy you need to dedicate to a certain topic, you can approach tasks … in a way that does not leave you overworked and depleted. Instead, you’ll actually feel more powerful. You’ll be harmonizing your energy with your goals.’
Know your wellbeing ‘bottom line’
Many of us have a tendency to put everyone else before ourselves and call it ‘selflessness’, when self-neglect or a lack of boundaries might be a more accurate description of what’s going on.
When we get depleted, our physical and emotional resources start diminishing. This makes us more prone to anxiety, depression and unhealthy stress levels. It’s harder to remain positive — and our ability to fully support others dwindles.
We know this, but in the quest for a full life that ticks all the boxes, self-care can go by the wayside. It takes a concerted effort to reinstate it, particularly as the pay-off may not necessarily be immediate or obvious.
This is where self-discipline steps in — and knowing what you need to stay healthy. This could involve the amount of sleep you get, having quality time to yourself, taking a lunchbreak, or exercising regularly.
‘Yes, these activities take time,’ says Saunders. ‘But in my experience, they keep you from falling into burnout, and they make you much more productive. When you take care of your body, your mind is sharper, you can get things done more quickly, and you’re less likely to succumb to the urge to escape into a social media rabbit hole.’
Set strong digital boundaries
While our digital lives have come into their own as a way of staying connected while remote working, in a world of ubiquitous tech, limiting your screen time is one of the biggest steps you can take towards a better work-life balance. And less time on social media platforms opens up a space for other activities that can be more fulfilling and self-expressive.
‘Would van Gogh have created so many of his 2,000-odd paintings, sketches and drawings had he also been checking his Facebook page several times each day?’ ask Miller and Lambert. That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.
‘Many people find it difficult to switch ‘off’,’ they add. ‘They know the answer is to power down the computer but are full of excuses. The truth is many of us have lost the will or just don’t think about how to use the ‘off’ switch which will help us turn ‘off’ too.’
Bottom line: the only way to press the ‘off’ button is to do just that.
Remember you’re not alone
When we lose our balance, as we inevitably will from time to time, it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective.
‘Sometimes you’ll spend more time on work and sometimes you’ll spend more time on home-related responsibilities,’ observes author Tracy Brower. ‘Longer term, the proportions will shift over weeks, months and years. This is appropriate and healthy. So avoid stressing about whether you have the balance just right, and focus on your fulfilment, considering it over an extended view.’
And you can always ask for support. ‘Nobody gets to the finish line alone,’ notes Dr Fletcher. ‘You need to be willing to build a tribe of people who can not only dispense advice on how to navigate work, but actually help get that work done.’
As a leader, you can play a vital role in helping your team maintain their work-life balance too. For example, ensuring they take holiday, don’t feel obliged to answer emails out of hours, have access to training, mentoring and flexi-time (when possible) and are part of an ongoing dialogue about mental health. Not only will it improve their productivity and performance, but it creates a mutually supportive working culture with benefits that extend far beyond the 9 to 5.