Many people struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance, whether they work a traditional 9-to-5 schedule in an office or work from home. Office-based workers often find they end up either spending more time than they’d like at their employer’s or taking work home with them. And although people who work from home are often considered lucky by those who need to go into a workplace, remote work can make it challenging to disconnect from the job’s responsibilities at the end of the day.
When a person has difficulty balancing the demand of work life and family life, it’s known as a “time bind,” according to a 2001 paper published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues. When you unbind your time, you achieve balance. For many, unbinding time can be easier said than done. It’s particularly challenging for parents to unbind their time and find balance. Those who work long hours also have difficulty balancing the demands of work and family life.
You don’t need to quit your job or hire a nanny to find work-life balance. Learning to set boundaries, create schedules, and make daily lists can help you make the most of your time and reduce your stress levels.
How to Attain Work-Life Balance
1. Set a Definite Start & Stop Time for Work Each Day
Whether you’re leaving an office or stepping away from your workstation at home at the end of the day, make it clear to your manager and your subordinates that you won’t be available until the morning. You might want to set up an autoreply for your work email for after hours. If you have voicemail, make sure your message states your work hours and that you’ll get back to callers during those.
Along with setting boundaries with your colleagues and clients, you might need to set boundaries with friends and family, especially if they regularly call or text you during the workday. Whatever schedule you decide to work, be clear with your family and friends that you aren’t available for social calls during that time. Unless you need it for work, switch off your cellphone or put it in do-not-disturb mode during the day to minimize distractions.
If you have an office phone number, only give it to people who truly need it, such as your spouse and your children’s school. Make sure people know to call your work number for nonwork-related concerns only in the event of an emergency.
If you work a flexible schedule, it can be both a blessing and a curse. You might not have to be in the office or in front of your computer at 9am sharp every day, which can be freeing. It can also be challenging if you’re the type of person who needs structure to get your work done.
If you don’t have a definitive start time set by your employer, create one for yourself to reduce the chance of getting distracted or procrastinating at work each day. For example, you can decide to start working at 9am daily. To make sure you get your day started on time, plan to have all other morning tasks, such as preparing breakfast or getting the kids off to school or camp, completed by then.
Also decide on a time to stop work at the end of the day. Pick a time whether you go to work or work at home. One way to ensure you actually stop work at the designated end time is to plan an activity immediately following your end time. If you decide to finish work at 5pm, schedule a phone call with your parents, a sibling, or close friend that begins at 5:30pm.
You might also want to give yourself a buffer so you’re more likely to end work at the appropriate time each evening. If you’re going to stop working at 5pm, set aside time beginning around 4:45pm to wrap up loose ends or make a plan for the next day.
2. Make Lists
It’s easy to feel stressed out when you have a lot of things to do and they’re all swirling around in your head. Write out what you need to accomplish each day, each week, and each month. According to Psychology Today, list-making can help calm anxiety. Making lists also helps to turn what were abstract thoughts or ideas into concrete actions and allows you to prioritize your tasks.
There’s more to making to-do lists than simply scribbling down everything that you need to do, although that initial brain dump can be a useful starting place. Once you have a visual guide to everything that’s on your plate, start sorting. Pick the two or three most important tasks to complete during your workday today. Then sort out your family, home, or personal commitments for the rest of the day.
As you sort through your tasks, you might find ways to combine them or delegate them, taking some of the pressure off yourself. You can pick up the kids from soccer practice on the way home from work, for instance.
When you decide what tasks to include on your lists, it’s better to be more specific than general. It also helps to break down big projects or tasks into smaller pieces. If you have a major presentation to work on for your job, “work on presentation” shouldn’t be what’s on your list. Tasks like “read first research and take notes,” “prepare slides,” and “practice in front of a mirror” are more useful.
Pick a time to complete every task on your list. For example, read the research paper from 11am until noon, take your lunch until 12:30pm, then prepare slides from 12:30pm until 1:30pm.
If you get off track, don’t use that as an excuse to toss out the entire list. Make adjustments for the rest of the day. Working some flexibility into your daily lists better enables you to separate work time from family time and can help you avoid feeling you need to keep working after hours.
Whether you make your lists on paper or use an app depends on your preference. Some people enjoy the feeling of physically crossing items off a list as they complete them. Others prefer the convenience of using an online app and always having their list at their fingertips. If you’re interested in using a task management app, some options include Evernote, Trello, and Google Keep.
3. Practice Setting Boundaries
It’s a fact of life: People want things from you. Your boss wants you to work as hard as possible to help the company succeed. Your family wants you to spend time with them or provide them with food, clothing, and shelter. Your friends want to socialize.
Feeling you are somehow obligated to do everything everyone else wants is going to set you up for a lot of stress and potential failure. That’s why you need to learn to set boundaries, even with the people you love the most.
What does setting boundaries look like? It can look like telling your boss and co-workers you’re leaving work for the day at 6:00pm and you won’t be available for questions or concerns until the morning. It can look like turning down an invitation to happy hour with your colleagues because you’d like to have a quiet evening at home by yourself, with your spouse, or with your partner and kids.
If you feel you must say yes to everything or always agree to activities if you don’t have something specific scheduled, setting boundaries can take some practice. But once you learn to politely decline social invitations to things you’d rather not attend and create a division between your work life and home life, you’re going to feel so much better.
4. Create a Separate Workspace
Working from home presents unique challenges when it comes to balancing work and family life. It can be tough to disconnect from the workplace when the workplace happens to be your living room.
If you have room in your home, creating a workspace that is mostly separate from the rest of your living area can be useful. You don’t have to designate an entire room as your workspace, though it’s helpful to have a room with a door you can close. If you have a guest room and don’t have guests often, setting up your office there can make sense. The same is true of an out-of-the-way corner in a finished basement or a section of a den or living room you can isolate with a room divider.
To make the division between work time and family time clear to yourself and other household members, only go into your workspace when you’re working. Try to avoid getting in the habit of hanging out there to read personal emails or browse the Internet. Just because your office is in your home doesn’t mean you always have to be on the clock.
And don’t worry too much about the cost. It’s easy to set up a home office on a budget.
5. Negotiate With Your Spouse
Miscommunication between partners is occasionally a cause for one person to feel like they have an unbalanced life. You might feel under a lot of stress if you’re working 40-plus hours per week and have somehow become responsible for all the household chores or lots of unpaid emotional labor. If that is the case, talk to your partner to see if you can come up with a way to divide household responsibilities more equitably. Choose a time for the talk when you’re both calm and relaxed to help avoid having tempers flare.
How you divide up the chores really depends on you. It isn’t always an equal split, especially if one of you works longer hours or outside the home. Sometimes, it’s also the case that one partner enjoys a more time-consuming or frequent chore, such as cooking.
In some cases, finding a way to split housework equitably is easier said than done. You and your partner might agree to a division of labor only for one person to slack off or fall behind. If that happens, the other partner shouldn’t feel they need to pick up the slack. Working with a couple’s therapist through the website Talkspace can improve communication and negotiation skills.
6. Create Personal Routines
Just as setting a definitive start and stop time for work each day can help you set limits and define boundaries with your paid job, creating routines for chores or personal activities can also help you find a better balance.
You can start small. For example, many people like to start by creating a morning routine. Think about what you’d like to do first thing in the morning to get your day off to a great start. You might want to take a walk around your neighborhood, by yourself, with your dog, or with your partner. A 30-minute stroll can help you sort through your thoughts and allows you to make a plan for the rest of the day.
Some people meditate first thing while others spend the first hour of their morning sipping coffee and reading a physical book or newspaper. Find something to help you clear your head for the tasks and responsibilities of the day ahead.
An evening routine is also useful, as it allows you to prepare for the next day. You might carve out an hour or two for relaxation each night. You can also set aside time to prep for the next day. For example, spend time making lunches for yourself and the kids, pick out your outfit for tomorrow, and pack up your work and school bags.
7. Limit Screen Time
How many hours a day do you spend staring at a screen like your smartphone, tablet, or laptop? A 2018 Nielsen study found that the average American adult spends over 11 hours a day engaging with media, such as TV, Internet, and video games. As the Mayo Clinic notes, spending so much time each day staring at a screen can negatively affect relationships, disrupt sleep, and increase the likelihood of obesity. A 2017 study published in the journal Preventative Medicine Report noted a connection between the amount of time people spent using screens with depression levels.
If time spent aimlessly browsing the Internet or staring at the news on your smartphone is cutting into quality time with your loved ones or preventing you from doing the things you want to do, it’s time to find a way to take a break. You can put your smartphone in a drawer after work and only take it out if you get a phone call. It can also be helpful to designate one or more days per week as screen-free days. Turn off the laptop, stash away your phones and tablets, and power down the TV to keep yourself from getting distracted by the screens.
8. Make a List of What’s Most Important to You
When people have a lot on their plates, it can be easy to lose sight of what really matters to them. Take a step back and recenter yourself.
That can mean making a list of the things you genuinely care about. High on your list might be spending time with family, pursuing a hobby that matters to you, or moving up the career ladder.
Limit the size of your list to three to five things so it doesn’t become too long and unwieldy. Once you’ve made your list, ask yourself how much time you’re devoting to the things you love. If the answer is “not enough,” look at what you can trim from your life to make it reflect the things you really value.
9. Learn to Let Things Go
You don’t have to be perfect. In fact, it’s absolutely impossible for you to be perfect. Striving for perfection or trying to cultivate an image as the person who’s the most put-together with the cleanest house, the best-behaved kids, the best-looking spouse, and the dream job is causing you way too much stress.
If things don’t go as planned, let it go. For example, if you wanted to make cupcakes for your kid’s bake sale, but it’s now 11pm and the last thing you want to do is turn on the oven, go ahead and buy a baked good from the grocery store instead. If you and your spouse agreed to split chores and they’ve fallen behind on their responsibilities, don’t nag them or do the work yourself. Trust that they will get to the tasks eventually.
In her book, “Drop the Ball,” author Tiffany Dufu shares a story of trying to get her husband more involved in chores around the house. It was her husband’s job to sort the mail that arrived each day. Except, he didn’t do it. Instead of jumping in and sorting the mail herself, Dufu let it sit. The family missed out on some events because of the lingering mail pile, but eventually, her husband noticed it and got to work.
The lesson for her husband was that the mail needed to be sorted and paid attention to regularly. The lesson for Dufu was that she didn’t have to do everything herself and that it was sometimes worthwhile to, as the title of her book suggests, drop the ball.
If your work life is encroaching on your home life or if your home life is making it difficult for you to succeed at work, you can change things. Identify the source of the imbalance, whether it’s too many work-related demands or an inequitable division of labor at home, then learn to set boundaries, communicate with your partner, and define your schedule.
Achieving work-life balance won’t happen overnight. But if you learn to carve out time for yourself and for what you want to get from life, you’ll find that it becomes easier to say no to things that aren’t important to you.
Have you struggled with work-life balance? What did you find helpful?