Here's what you need to know to achieve the work-life balance that works best for you.
While most of us come to success in unconventional ways, there's a constant and dynamic struggle to find that perfect balance between our work lives and home lives. I tend to think of life like a basket that you're continually trying to balance evenly. If you don't have balance, your soul won't be complete.
Here are a few tips to help you find the middle ground and be successful both at work and at home.
1. Let go of the work-life balance myth.
You've probably heard that the potential of perfect work-life balance is a myth. This idea that you can be 100% present at work and 100% present at home – regardless of what's happening in either place – is nearly impossible to achieve. Studies have found that striving for it can actually be detrimental to mental health and happiness. After all, we only have so much attention and awareness to give, right?
That doesn't mean that finding what the Buddhists call "the middle way," or a place of balance between two opposites, isn't worth working toward. In fact, seeking a balance between your work and your home life is healthy and can significantly improve both your professional success and your private life. You just need to have realistic expectations.
A 2016 study discovered that employees with firm boundaries, both physical and mental, between work and home, experience more stress and depletion in both realms than those who have a more fluid set of rules around home and work. This is a result of what is known as cognitive role transitions. This is essentially when your mind wanders to something outside of the current situation you are in and you think about something unrelated. Say, for example, you're sitting in a late-night meeting at the office, and your mind starts to wander to what your kids are watching on television at home. Or you're getting dressed for work, and you start thinking about what you need to pick up at the grocery store.
The first step in work-life integration is to know who you are and your strengths. Never try to be someone you are not, because that will just cause strife – both mental and physical. Come to terms with where you may lack, and ask for help from loved ones, trusted mentors and friends.
The next, and probably the hardest, step is to reframe the idea of work-life balance. Cognitive role transitions, or your thoughts switching from work to home life, are totally natural and happen all the time. But when you try to put hard boundaries on them and stop certain thoughts from happening, you can cause a lot more problems than good.
The researchers from that 2016 study concluded that people who allow personal things to come up at work and business things to come up at home – those who have less strict boundaries – are more resilient and able to recover emotional balance faster. Allowing fluidity (at least some) between home and work provides for better work-life integration.
That's not to say that you should let your work life take over your home life or vice versa. We all need boundaries. So how do you know what limits to set? How do you know which ones will help you and which will hinder you? Follow the four tips below to get an early start on setting these work-life boundaries, and you can be sure to reach that elusive balance.
2. Get to the heart of what matters most.
First, you need to determine what work-life integration looks like for you. Does going to a yoga class once a day or making it to your daughter's swim meet each week make you feel fulfilled? Is a spin class once a week your path to being a saner person? Identify your core needs, make those decisions, and don't look back.
The things that help keep you going every week and make you feel balanced and whole are going to be what sustain you throughout your life and career. Once you know what matters most, you can work on setting boundaries around those activities so that when you are at work or at home, you can be more fully present for those who need you.
Whatever those things are, make a list of them and figure out which items are negotiable and which aren't. When you have a more complete picture of what you are willing to flex on, you can start to work toward a better work-life integration.
3. Be connected, but with limits.
Let's face it – we're all connected all the time thanks to electronic leashes like our smartphones and work computers. In fact, a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018 found that more than 24% of workers do a majority of their work at home or during off hours. While it can be aggravating to have to answer emails at your son's lacrosse game, it can give you an advantage too, and not in the way you might think.
The trick is to be connected but somewhat unpredictable.
It seems counterintuitive, but by changing up the timing of your responses (and work), you keep your boss and your co-workers from expecting responses at set intervals on specific days. Vary your response time – sometimes answering back immediately and sometimes waiting a few hours or day to respond to an email. It keeps your contacts on their toes and lets them know that you are still being responsive, but that they can't have a set expectation of when you'll get back to them.
Responding in this way will allow you to take a break from work emails without worrying that something needs your immediate attention. Those wanting an answer will just have to wait until you are ready to respond.
4. Guard your downtime.
It's really easy to fall into the trap of being always connected and always on, but research has shown that the best way to be successful both in your work and your home life is to find time to rest, restore and unplug. Downtime helps the brain integrate what it has learned or done, and it inspires creativity. It's also vital in nurturing close relationships and building strong bonds with people outside of work.
It's crucial to schedule downtime and ensure that nothing infringes on it. A hard stop from work offers your brain and your body time to come back down from stressful events and situations, and you become better equipped to deal with life outside of the office. By protecting your downtime, you can become happier and find that elusive middle path between work and home life.
It also pays to do tiny digital detoxes when you can. Whether that just means putting the phone down for the evening or going a whole weekend without looking at work email, unplugging from devices allows our brains to rest and be more present with the world around us.
5. Don't stress about work-life balance.
Finally, it's essential that you try your best to take the pressure off of striving for the ideal work-life balance. Adding another thing to worry about on top of an overloaded to-do list isn't going to help you be a better parent or a better employee. Realize that the perfect work-life balance doesn't actually exist. Instead, strive for a work-life integration that suits your needs both as an employee and as a human being.
Following these suggestions will send you down the right path toward finding the balance you need between your work and your home life.