Perhaps the defining feature of work-life balance is its tenuousness. For too many people, avoiding job-related burnout takes some combination of smart career choices, constant vigilance, and dumb luck. But it shouldn’t really be this way.
One of the reasons work-life balance may feel so elusive–and so at risk of sliding through your fingers the second a new project lands in your lap, or when your personal life takes an unexpected turn–is because certain preferences or habits in our lives inevitably shift without us realizing it, creating internal conflict. So the key to regaining balance isn’t necessarily to overhaul how you manage your time or to automate everything you possibly can (though sometimes that can help, too).
Instead, you need to resolve that hidden conflict–and you can start by asking yourself these three questions.
1. Is My Work (Still) Fulfilling Enough?
If you’re constantly worried about spending too many hours in the office, it may not just be because you suddenly have gobs of work to do. Indeed, many people feel confused about why they feel so overworked when not much has drastically changed in their work lives.
Rather, you might feel like you’re working too hard because your job isn’t sufficiently rewarding–monetarily or otherwise. As a result, your work experience becomes more emotionally and physically draining than it used to be. Or alternatively, you might actually be spending more hours at the office than you need to for much the same reason: because your lack of fulfillment and passion is making you less productive.
Indeed, many people–from executives and entrepreneurs to artists and law-enforcement officials–spend long hours working without ever feeling like their work-life balance is a problem. Sure, it might be easy to dismiss these folks as workaholics with unhealthy obsessions, but that doesn’t change the fact that working long hours doesn’t negatively affect them. On the contrary, it fulfills them.
So rather than immediately looking for things you can cut out of your work life, try asking yourself a bigger question: “Does my job truly hold meaning for me?” Maybe it used to, but your interests have changed. Or perhaps the job has changed in a way that no longer squares with your sense of purpose. Whatever the reason, be honest with yourself, and consider whether it’s time to explore new opportunities or even a different career altogether.
2. Why Am I Staying So Connected?
Admit it: You check Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and (yes) even your work emails a lot more than you probably need to–and not just while you’re in the office. It’s way too easy to continue to respond to your coworkers’ Slack messages from your smartphone even after you’ve all headed home for the night. Your family and friends are bound to feel ignored if you keep checking your phone every few minutes during dinner, while watching TV, or in the middle of your kid’s baseball game. But these bad habits are likely to throw off your own sense of work-life balance, too.
Needless to say, most of these work messages don’t require an immediate response. You may think that the reason you feel so compelled to reply is pretty benign–simply because of convenience and sheer habit. But chances are that that habit is built on top of an unexamined anxiety: the fear of appearing insufficiently committed to the job, fear of not being “visible” enough, or even just the fear of missing out on information. Over time, you might not even be conscious of these underlying fears–you just stay connected to your coworkers when you don’t need to because, well, you just do.
So ask yourself, “Why am I so connected to my work conversations after hours?” Think about the reasons and motivations that cause you to rattle off an email reply at 10 p.m. Your mind needs a chance to relax and rejuvenate outside of work, and the people who are closest to you deserve your full, undistracted presence, too. But your first step is ridding yourself of the fear of not staying in the loop all the time. Simply disabling notifications from your phone can help, but you need to acknowledge that inner anxiety first in order to reduce it.
3. Are My Expectations Too High Across The Board?
We want to believe that we can spend the right amount of time at work and with our families and friends to make us happy and successful in both spheres. That isn’t always the case, though. To excel in anything, you need to commit to certain goals while sacrificing in other areas to achieve them.
In other words, if you have big career ambitions, you may have to curtail your social life. If you want to devote more time to your kids, chances are you’ll need to dial back on the amount of energy you’ve been pouring into professional growth until now. Moreover, our lives (in- and outside work) go through different stages. You can grow and succeed like crazy in one realm and then pivot to do the same in another later on. Balance is as much about that “when” as the “what.”
So if your work-life balance feels strained, pause to ask yourself whether your expectations need to come down in one area in order to keep the bar high in another. After all, it’s always up to you when to move the bar again–and at what height.
Peter Banerjea is cofounder of SuccessIsWhat, a productivity blog. He has coached several entrepreneurs and leaders from Fortune 500 companies to become more productive and achieve their goals faster.