Even before we have demanding families of our own, juggling our busy working lives and our leisure or ‘me’ time is something that lots of us struggle with. Work-life balance really is the holy grail; many of us are seeking it and finding it all too elusive, but we know it must be out there, somewhere.
All work and no play…
When you’re starting out in your career, ambitious and working in a corporate environment, it’s easy to get carried away by a competitive, long-hours working culture. And what’s so wrong with that? You want to succeed in your career and when you’re young and unencumbered by family commitments is surely the best time to give it your all? Well, of course, there’s a lot to be celebrated and admired about being driven and working hard. It shows determination and focus and can be personally rewarding or even exhilarating. But if the time has come when you have started to feel that work has ‘overtaken’ the rest of your life and that you are craving more time to spend with loved ones or on relaxing and having fun, you need to read on.
I made the mistake so you don’t have to.
I remember the feeling well. As a diligent and ambitious lawyer in a top London firm, I found myself working very long days (and nights!) – not just once in a while, but regularly. I quickly learned that 8pm dinner reservations and theatre outings were a pipe dream. Cancelling meet-ups with friends or romantic weekends with my other half in order to work on closing a deal became usual.
It was exhausting and stressful. Any free time I had was unpredictable, brief, and overshadowed by the near certainty that any minute, I would get a call or email that would quash all hopes of a life outside work for the next few weeks. My life had become all work and no play. I recognised this – but had no idea of how to go about redressing the balance.
It wasn’t until I stepped away from my corporate role after the birth of my second child and began my mission to help others with the same experience, that I discovered and developed effective tools for achieving a good work-life balance. If I had had this knowledge BEFORE starting a family, I would have been able to implement a work-life balance strategy that would have made me much more resilient to the challenges of working motherhood when the time came. Don’t make the same mistake; be prepared!
5 tools for achieving work-life balance.
1. Remember your ‘why’.
You will only ever find real motivation and satisfaction for your work/life/family projects if you are being authentic and staying true to your core values – those things that matter most to you. These are your ‘why’, and are as unique to you as your fingerprint or your life story (Have a look at my blog on how to discover your ‘why’). When you know your ‘why’ and use it to guide your decisions and actions at work and at home, the line between these two becomes blurred. Work becomes more rewarding, life more fulfilling and this can greatly reduce the imbalance.
2. Get up early.
Getting up early is a work-life balance tool that has been serving me well for years. It also happens to be a habit commonly found in successful people, and for a good reason. It reduces overwhelm (one of the 5 Pitfalls of Working Parenthood) by putting you back in control. (Have a look at my blog with tips for achieving it – even if you’re not a ‘morning’ person!) Dedicate the extra time to yourself. Reflect on how you’re feeling, your goals, or read something motivational. Perhaps you’d benefit from meditation or yoga, or writing a journal? It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it’s for YOU and it isn’t ‘work’. Ditch the frantic rushing and juggling – use the time to have a calm and relaxing start to every day. This aids work-life balance.
3. Plan your free time.
When you’re working long hours, your free time becomes a precious commodity. Start treating it that way. Learn to be more conscious, deliberate and decisive about what you do with it. Start being mindful of your free time and you’ll soon discover that you have more of it than you thought. If you invest your free time proactively in activities you find fulfilling or in pursuing your goals, you’ll feel happier, more in control of your life, and feel less cheated and resentful of the time you have to give to work. Have a look at my blog on planning your free time here.
4. Say ‘no’ more often.
Eliminate the unessential from your life. Your resources are finite; you cannot do everything or keep everything in your mind. Many of us find saying ‘no’ an uncomfortable experience – we want to please people and show that we are capable and strong. But exercising choice over what demands you meet will help you avoid overwhelm and stay in control.
If you’re not used to saying no, practise doing it little and often. After the initial discomfort you’ll soon notice how empowering and liberating it feels. If that doesn’t work, go ‘cold turkey’ on saying yes. That’s right. Try to go a whole week without saying yes to anything or anyone. I know it’s tricky. But it’s a brilliant way of disrupting a pattern of behaviour (saying yes too often) that is ruining your work-life balance. You’ll be more more careful about what you say yes to in the future, freeing up not just your time, but your emotional and physical energy too.
When the computer goes glitchy or an appliance stops working – the first advice is often to ‘switch off and switch on again’. The same applies to people! When you’re feeling overwhelmed and out of balance, you can wipe the slate clean by rebooting yourself. Here’s how:
- Save a copy of your calendar and to do list for the next month – make sure you can access this later by saving it to your cloud account or if it’s a hard copy, keep it safe. You’ll need to come back to it.
- Now go into the real calendar and delete anything and everything that isn’t necessary for your safety (like paying the mortgage) and survival (like getting food and water).
- And breathe…..Take a moment to relish and savour the white spaces and lack of clutter and the freedom they represent.
- Now go back to your saved calendar and to do list, and evaluate every entry with the critical suspicious eye of a red carpet doorman with a velvet rope policy and strict rules about who gets let in (ie. what gets put back on the calendar or to do list) and who doesn’t. Do all the entries have to be there? What would happen if you removed some of them? This ability to regularly assess the phantom ‘have to’s’ that creep into our schedules and into our lives is a key work-life balance skill.
Practice makes perfect.
So why the need to practise?
Well have you ever tried getting up early when you’re used to pressing the snooze button 50 times before getting out of bed? Ever tried planning your free time when you don’t know how much free time you’ve got, let alone how to go about organising it? Ever tried saying no when you’ve spent a lifetime pleasing others and worrying about letting people down? Or best of all, have you ever tried deleting everything, EVERYTHING! from your diary and to do list without having a panic attack about the world ending?
These 5 tools for achieving work-life balance may seem simple, but they are each asking you to change habits and behaviours you’ve accumulated over years, maybe even decades, which means you may not master them first time. Changing old habits and adopting better practices is hard enough when you’re young free and single with only yourself to think about. Now imagine you’re a new parent returning to work, preoccupied with how you are going to manage your old job with the not inconsiderable task of raising another human being, and how much harder it would be to change old habits. The good news is that, as with any other new skill or tool, practise it and you’ll become great at it. As I often say, don’t wait until you need a skill before you start learning one! Now’s the time to get really good at the art of balance, so that when the time comes, you’ve already got the skills you need to have it all and make it work.
You’ll find lots more help for implementing an effective work-life balance strategy in our new Babyproof Your Career online course which combines resources, coaching, exercises and group and tutor support. Register your interest in the course here and we’ll send you details.
Know anyone else struggling with work-life balance issues? If so, share the love and share the post!
Caroline Flanagan is a Keynote Speaker, Babyproof Coach and Author of Babyproof Your Career, The Secret to Balancing Work and Family so you can Enjoy It All. Caroline believes passionately in the dream of having it all, and founded Babyproof Your Life to train and prepare ambitious career women for the marathon of working parenthood so they can find their own way to #enjoyitall and #makeitwork. You can reach Caroline at email@example.com