As an astute student of productivity, my quest for work-life balance started in college. I was determined to be that person who could get good grades, have a social life, exercise, and be on committees of campus organizations. Oh, and work 12 to 15 hours a week.
Despite following and sticking to systems set out in time-management books, I never managed to do everything well at the same time. It also took me a long time to realize that I can’t train myself to need less sleep (believe me, I tried.) Somewhere along the line, I learned the concept of opportunity cost and the importance of focusing on one thing at a time. Yet, I convinced myself that when I graduated from college and started working, I was somehow going to be magically better at time management. I started adulthood with a heavy dose of overcommitment and quickly faced a dose of rude awakening. College-age me didn’t quite grasp the concept that building a career entails significant time commitment, or that getting older comes with the unfortunate reality that my body can’t tolerate too many late nights followed by early mornings.
I eventually realized that striving for work-life balance is a losing battle–because everything worth doing usually comes at a cost. And the more I spoke with psychologists, business leaders, executives, and entrepreneurs, the more I realized how futile (and unattainable) the concept is. Rather than try to achieve some sort of perfect equilibrium, I’d get much more value by asking myself the following questions.
1. Am I spending my time the way I want to?
Here’s the problem with the word “balance,” according to sociologist and Fast Company contributor Tracy Brower: it sets up the idea that “work” and “life” are separate, even though success in one can help success in the other. For me, prioritizing sleep, exercise, and healthy eating helps me perform better at work, and being engaged and committed to my work gives me the energy to invest in personal relationships with my friends and family.
Rather than thinking about the concept of “balance,” Brower suggested that it’s “more useful to think of life as always evolving and changing from day-to-day or year-to-year, rather than a high-risk enterprise where things could go wrong with one misstep.” This means assessing what is important for you at any given time and thinking about whether you’re spending your time in accordance to that. There might be days when you want to stay late at work and miss your monthly date with your college best friend, because you’re in line for a promotion and you need to nail a project. Alternatively, there might be times when your choose to step down the career ladder, because you want to spend more time with your family.
2. Have I set boundaries to protect the most important part of my life?
While it doesn’t make sense to make artificial separation between work and life, it does make sense to set boundaries to protect the important things that you do want to spend time on. For me, that “boundary” right now is making my workouts a nonnegotiable part of my day and structuring my week so that I can keep my Saturdays free from obligations (whether it be work or personal).
Setting boundaries, Jane Porter previously wrote for Fast Company, can help you feel more control of your time, and lack of control over one’s schedule is often what leads people to feel like they’re falling “off balance” in life. As Craig Chappelow wrote in a 2012 piece for Fast Company, “Control, in my view, is what we’re really trying to get to with all the chatter about balance. We need better ways to manage work-life boundaries, understanding that we are subject to phases, often dictated by events out of our control, in which our work lives and personal lives ebb and flow in their demands. The more we assume actual leadership of our own lives, instead of waiting for someone else to do it for us, the better prepared we are to deal with this unending juggle.” One of Chappelow’s suggestion? Say no strategically and early on. If you start a new job, for example, make sure that you set the parameters that are acceptable to you before you before you sign the contract.
3. Are my habits and routines in line with my priorities?
Taking control over your life requires you to identify your priorities and set boundaries around the things that you want to be doing. But it also requires you to set the right habits in the first place. Without the right habits, protecting your boundaries becomes extremely difficult.
Fran Hauser, author of The Myth Of The Nice Girl: Achieving A Career You Love Without Becoming A Person You Hate, figures out her priorities by drawing four squares that represents the important aspects of her life–which she labels “Me,” “Friends/Family,” “Career,” and “World.” She allows herself no more than three priorities per square, and she uses those priorities to guide her decisions and routines that she decides to adopt day-to-day.
Entrepreneur Peter Banerjea suggested, in a previous article for Fast Company, that you can use this question to help you change your bad habits. One unintentionally bad routine that is common, for example, is staying digitally connected even when they don’t need to be. Banerjea wrote, “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.”
4. Have I communicated my priorities to the people closest to me?
The decisions you make around your working life and your personal life rarely affect just yourself–they also impact the people close to you, particularly the ones you share your life with.
Author and podcast host Neil Pasricha previously wrote a piece for Fast Company about the contract he he wrote with his wife when he received a promotion that would mean more money, more hours, and more travel. Eventually, they came up with bullet points around having a certain “cap” of nights away, scheduling one family day every weekend, setting nights where they each get time to do something for themselves, and making vacation days sacred. For Pasricha, that involved applying for an extra couple of weeks of unpaid leave–a policy that he was able to take advantage of with his employer at the time.
5. Do I have a system to identify and prevent burnout?
Sometimes, asking these questions will still leave you feeling overwhelmed and not in control of your time. In addition to understanding (and sticking) to your boundaries and priorities, it’s crucial to have a system where you can identify when spending time on one thing might really be making life harder for you.
Psychologist Dr Jacinta Jiménez advocated a four-step process that one can follow to identify burnout and prevent it from happening. First, you should recognize its symptoms so you can identify the roots. Second, you can practice “effective energy management” by auditing your energy for a week and writing down how every activity makes you feel. Third, you can practice “resetting your thoughts” to help you make those daily choices. Fourth, you can identify the behaviors that make you feel like you’re thriving and assess whether or not you’re exhibiting them in your day-to-day life.
Burnout, as Jiménez points out, is a “natural consequence of a hyper-connected world.” So your goal shouldn’t be to avoid its symptoms entirely. Stress, for example, is sometimes a necessary a part of life. However, by devising a system to identify and prevent it, you can stop it from taking over your life in a negative way.