How to produce your own work-life “balance”

The other day “M”, a client of mine asked, “How do you work so much and retain a work-life balance?”

dilbert-work-life-balance1

Well, first of all you should know that I don’t believe in the work-life balance myth. I’m a workaholic, and I’m quite comfortable with my insane work ethic. With this work ethic I’m making my very lofty dreams come true on a time scale I didn’t imagine. But even so, I do have boundaries that divide “work” from other parts of “life”. Here’s how you can to in 3 steps:

Step 1: Develop boundaries.

We all need certain things out of life to keep going our strongest. For example, I need regular meal intervals, a good night’s sleep, and a certain quantity of down time every day. So, I schedule my day around these very important things — even if that means packing a lunch and taking it with me or answering a client the next day instead of in the evening when I’m browsing through the fun parts of my inbox.

When M heard this, she asked, “Aren’t you afraid that if you aren’t there for your clients, you’ll lose them?”

Look, don’t be afraid to set your personal boundaries. Having them keeps you performing at your best for them. Besides, if you had a client that disrespected you so much that they expected you to be at their beck and call when your hours are posted, you really don’t want that relationship. It’s poisonous, and it will cause more harm than good in the end. This is so important that it bears repeating.

Don’t be afraid to set personal boundaries.

Got it? Good. Write down your boundaries. Put them on a sticky note and put it where you will see it every day. Why? This will help you break the cycle of unproductive behaviours that are causing you to seek a work-life balance in the first place. No one else is going to do this for you. You have to do it yourself.

Step 2: Learn to quit.

When you are looking for a work-life balance it’s often because something is upsetting the apple cart. Take a step back, then look at your life objectively. What is that is really bothering you? What is it that is really causing the stress?┬áMake a list of what’s bothering you, then take it a step further and say why. Details are important so you can really take a look at each thing and suss out the true reasons behind your anxiety.

If, like M, you wailed, “Everything!”, it’s time to seek an outside option. Ask a trusted friend or expert to give you an outside view of what they hear is wrong. They can help you pinpoint what, exactly, needs to go in your life. When you find the true reason, learn to quit.

Here are two examples:

M and I worked on her reason for having mixed feelings at work. It turns out that she and another colleague love chatting about everything their kids are doing to gossiping about TV shows and celebrities. This gets them into trouble at work because they spend so much time talking that they don’t get as much work done as their managers would hope. So, I took a look at M’s goals and had her combine her hourly 5 minute break into a walking-gossip break with her friend. I also told her to see how meeting up twice a week for coffee and once a week or more for lunch in the break room would work. A month later and they have both started to feel healthier, they’ve upped their productivity so their bosses stop yelling at them, AND they have more time to develop a relationship.

Now, I, however, had to take a different route to solve one of my own woes. I was stressed from over loading my plate. It happens. So, I took a look at the things I had committed to, and decided that one should go. I let go of blogging for the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences Member Central just yesterday because I didn’t have time to peruse the news for inspiration, research things, and write up pieces that they wanted. When I tried, the editor sent them back with sharp comments. It was clear to me that I couldn’t give my best to this particular job, so I manned up and confessed to them that I overloaded myself with things. I confessed that these things were more aligned with my dreams, and I had to stop writing for them. (I’m sure the editor that always reviewed my work is much relieved; she didn’t like a single piece of mine anyway.)

Quitting the harmful habit, a project, or stop working for a client can be difficult. Thus, you should take your time at this step and figure out what outcome you are looking for, THEN what to do about it. Like M it can be as simple as changing a pattern, other times you might have to make some tough confessions to yourself and others then quit all together. Only you can make that decision based on your personal situation.

Step 3: Learn to say no.

You know your personal boundaries, you’ve cleaned up your life, and now it’s time to keep it that way. Remind yourself of your boundaries with your note daily until it’s habit. Then, when you have a new proposal, client, or task think about if it will push those boundaries too far. If the answer is yes, then say no. Politely.

This is tricky for people, but it’s necessary. You don’t have to say yes to every opportunity that comes around. You can say things like:

  • Thank you for thinking of me, but at this time I’m afraid I can’t commit to that project.
  • This is a wonderful opportunity, but I’m afraid I will have to pass it up due to a prior commitment.
  • [Smile.] How thoughtful of you, but this is not a good time.

Note there are two themes here:

  1. NEVER apologise. You don’t owe them an apology for either currently being perfectly balanced with commitments or simply not liking the project enough to say yes.
  2. Don’t give details. That’s right, there is no need to tell them your life story. Just say no and move on. If you want to sweeten the deal for them, add to the end someone who you know they could work with.

If it’s your boss at your day job, simply say, “This is a great project, and I’d love to work on it. However, one of these other projects you’ve given me will have to take a back seat. Which one would you like that to be?” Place responsibility back in their lap! After all, that’s what they get paid for, so they should be able to do it. And, a good manager is also a good leader, and they will be able to make those decisions. If they can’t, go to their manager and ask for some input.

That’s work-life balance in 3 simple steps.

I never said it was easy. It takes constant work, good communication skills, and being able to step back and objectively look at your life. However, when you learn to set up boundaries for yourself and respect them, you can still have “balance” no matter what you’re doing in life.

This is true. If it’s worth it, it will unbalance your life, and you’ll have to fight for it. Embrace it and go for life with all your heart.