Despite evidence that proves working long hours can be harmful to both employees and employers, many women professionals still struggle to overcome assumptions and acutely ingrained habits that they must work harder, produce more, put in more hours than their male counterparts and maintain their obligations outside of work.
The Harvard Business Review recently conducted a study in which participants described their jobs as highly demanding, exhausting, and chaotic, and they seemed to take for granted that working long hours was necessary for their professional success. The research showed that achieving better work/life balance boils down to increased self-awareness and intentional role redefinition. And importantly, the study also suggests that this is not a one-time fix, but rather a cycle that must be continuously engaged in and updated as circumstances and priorities evolve.
What does it take to free yourself from these unhealthy patterns and reach a more sustainable, rewarding work/life balance? Here are some tips:
1. Pause. Then proceed. Stop and ask yourself, “What is currently causing stress, creating unbalance, or dissatisfaction? How are these issues affecting my job and my personal life? What am I prioritizing/sacrificing/losing?” After you take a mental pause and acknowledge these factors, you can begin to tackle them. When you start to feel like you’re not doing enough, remind yourself that everyone faces challenges, and no one is perfect. Keep a collection of motivational quotes and compile a list of your favorites that include plenty of humor. Then, the next time you begin to self-doubt, chase those gremlins with a good old deep breath, a hearty laugh, and phrases that will uplift you.
2. Pay attention…
- To your emotions. After you’ve paused and assessed, examine the feelings you have around the situation. Do you feel energized, fulfilled, satisfied? Or do you feel angry, resentful, sad? As important as a rational understanding of the decisions and priorities driving your life is the capacity to recognize how you are emotionally affected, which is essential in determining the changes you want to make in your work and in your life.
- To your calendar. Many successful professionals say it’s easier to create personal balance when you can see the whole picture. A desk calendar helps because then you can track everything, whether it’s a business meeting or a birthday. Get yourself one that fits your personality, color-code it, and use it to update your phone. Most importantly, block out one weekend every month for doing nothing except recharging.
- To the seasons. You already know your company’s and your home’s busiest seasons. For example, just before the holidays, things might get hectic at work and that coincides with school breaks. Notice seasonal changes that might undo your best laid plans for organization and be ready for when your personal and professional lives collide. Be prepared to delegate.
3. Share the load. Work/life balance demands delegation. Plus, it’s good for everyone. Delegation streamlines everyone’s schedule, makes a positive difference for customers, and helps everyone get back to their families or other obligations sooner. As well, delegate at home. Remember that you routinely delegate assignments at the office and in the field. Apply that same professional talent to organizing your family. Build a strong home team by showing them how they can pitch in.
4. Reprioritize. Increasing cognitive and emotional awareness puts things into perspective and allows you to adjust priorities. What are you willing to sacrifice, and for how long? If you have been prioritizing work over family, for example, why do you feel that it is important to prioritize in this way? Is it necessary? What regrets do you already have, and what will you regret if you continue the current path?
5. Consider your alternatives. Before jumping into solutions, consider different ways you can better align with your priorities. Are there components of your job that you would like to see changed? How much time would you like to spend with your family or on hobbies? Here are some ideas to start:
- Network with purpose. Track your attendance of luncheons, conferences, and awards ceremonies, then add up the time you spend. Think about your long-term personal and professional goals. If an event does not serve your professional or personal long-term goals, then forego it. Learn to say no. Doing this will allow you to attend events that are important without losing time in your personal life.
- Work out at the office. You know that physical activity reduces stress and improves health, yet it can be a challenge to make it to the gym or yoga studio. Why not work out in your office? Do some chair yoga or take 10 minutes to walk up and down the stairs in your building.
- Take real time outs. Relax once you’re home. As aforementioned, delegate household chores and keep things flexible. Maybe cook four nights a week, then serve leftovers or let the kids order pizza. Schedule a date night, an evening with friends, or take some time for self-care.
6. Implement changes. Once you’ve defined priorities and considered options for improvement, act. This can mean a “public” change—something that explicitly alters your colleagues’, customers’, or employer’s expectations, such as taking on a new role that’s less time-demanding or allowing for a shorter work week—or a “private” change, where you unceremoniously modify your work patterns without necessarily trying to change the expectations of others. Both types can be effective if they’re sustainable.
7. Quit trying so hard. Finally, realize that trying to harmonize your personal and professional life isn’t supposed to be a full-time job. Allow that one bad day doesn’t define you; give yourself permission to be perfectly imperfect; and internalize that finding work/life balance is easier when you stop worrying. It really is okay to relax and stop trying so hard.
Work-life balance is a cycle, not an achievement. Notably, the steps above are not a one-time activity, but rather an eternal and ever-evolving cycle of continuous re-evaluation and improvement. For many professionals, it can seem impossible to find that sweet spot between work and home. Remember that you’re likely already doing your best, and that’s always enough.