“You will never feel truly satisfied by work until you are satisfied by life.”
― Heather Schuck (“The Working Mom Manifesto”)
Work takes up an enormous amount of time in our lives. For many people, work takes up more time than basic needs, such as sleep, or the rest of non-working activities combined. This includes not only the hours spent physically at work but the time you spend taking an interest in your professional area, learning (formally and informally), participating in work-related social activities, reading professional literature and news, writing e-mails and messages on weekends and holidays, making business calls, etc. By devoting too much time to professional obligations, many people risk damaging their social connections, family ties, emotional and physical health, and other areas of life. To prevent this from happening, we need a lot of conscious effort to restore the right balance between work and private life, without forgetting what really matters and contributes to the life you want to live.
Things to avoid
Overtime and work after work. It is normal to sometimes work after working hours, on weekends, or during holidays. Sometimes. It is not normal for overtime work to become the norm. At some stage of our lives, we all have undertaken important tasks or projects that require our total concentration and attention for most of the day. Maybe we pulled an all-nighter or two (or even more) and sacrificed all other areas of life to finish something important. When the objective is ambitious and meaningful, such an agreement with yourself (and others) can be made and followed through. Most importantly, this should not become a routine, day-to-day practice. If that’s the case – stop and reflect on what happened, why it happened, and how you can free yourself of it.
Overworking, constant stress, and feeling pressure over unfinished work. Pressure, stress, and anxiety can interfere with our ability to concentrate and make the right decisions. When we are tense, we make more mistakes than usual. This harms the quality of our work. When we overwork, we tend to think we can get out of it by working even more. The, we find ourselves stuck in a kind of trap that’s hard to get out of.
Absence of boundaries. Your time and energy have clear boundaries beyond which there is no more space for other areas of life. Because we can’t do everything we might want to, we must choose between things that really matter and things we can give up. It’s not good if one area of life starts to dominate and obscures all the others. If this happens with work, boundaries have to be redrawn. Setting clear boundaries increases productivity, creativity, and freedom. Paradoxically, we often do more, faster, and better when we work less.
Perfectionism. Sometimes it’s great to just do something without doing it as well as humanly possible. You shouldn’t do things negligently or consciously poorly but be gentle with yourself, especially when there is more work than you have time for.
Lack of rest. If you’re tired, you can’t expect to work as well as after a good and high-quality night of sleep. Listen to your body and respect its boundaries. Rest – and above all, good and sufficient sleep! – is the cornerstone of productive and meaningful work.
Availability 24/7. The modern world and new technologies keep us in contact with others around the clock. This harms our health, social bonds, recreation, and focus. Being in constant contact and, with the help of smartphones, always available, we are no longer able to disconnect and detach ourselves from work and associated strains. It doesn’t allow us to be the masters of our own time anymore.
Questions to ask yourself if your work starts to dominate your life:
- Why do I work so hard? What makes me do this?
- Do I work so hard to get recognition and confirmation of my value from others?
- Do I work overtime to avoid concerns about my family (such as raising children, housework, and other issues that require my time and attention)?
- Why don’t I delegate the tasks that other colleagues can complete? Why don’t I ask other colleagues for help when I have too many tasks?
- Do I feel safe in the position that I hold? Do I feel afraid that if I work less, I will be laid off or someone else, who can do my job faster and better, will come around?
Try answering these questions honestly (after all, you’re talking to yourself). The answers can lead to other relevant questions that will also require a sincere response. This will help you identify the areas of life that demand your attention or solutions the most.
How to find more time?
There are countless tips on curbing work after work. Numerous books, articles, and web pages have been dedicated to this. Below, you will find several recurring ones. At the end of the chapter, there is also a list of recommended books and other resources that can open new horizons for readings (or other forms of information) if you feel like learning more on this topic.
Set priorities. And really follow them. Look at your calendar and consider whose priorities is it filled with – yours or other people’s? Control what’s in your power. For example, your time and the choice of what to spend it on. Don’t waste your time on things you don’t have direct influence and control over. We’re solely responsible for our personal actions, behaviours, and choices, so this should be our focus. When it comes to the complementarity between private life and work, we must choose what is the most important to us, and what creates the most value. When we focus too much on one area of life, we risk breaking down in case it gets out of hand (for example, you lose your job or someone close to you). The more support points you create, the more colourful, diverse, and robust your life will be. Some areas of life are not restored as simply as others. If you lose your job, you’re likely to find another one but what happens if you get sick or lose friends or family because of your own negligence?
Set clear boundaries on how much, when, and how you work. Longer working hours do not mean higher productivity. Various studies show that productivity decreases when working more than 50 hours a week. Respect your time and use it reasonably. One of the simplest ways is planning your time for specific tasks in advance and saying no.
Plan your time. Right now. Don’t wait until you catch up with all the work to start paying attention to work-life balance. It will never happen if you don’t consciously spend time on it right here and now.
Start each day with a plan of what you have to do today. Write down all the tasks that should be done, review the plan very critically, and mark each item with the following letters: A – important and urgent; B – important, but can wait; C – should be done but not in a hurry; D – I can ask for help with this or delegate it to others (these tasks should be handed over or renegotiated). Start with A-marked tasks and do not jump to other tasks until category A is complete. Only after that move to B-and C-marked tasks. If you don’t have any time left today, review the list tomorrow and mark the order of tasks again. Do not prioritise new tasks received during the day if they are not urgent. Rather, put them on a list that you will review tomorrow morning. This may look like another extra task that takes extra time but believe me – a day well-planned in the morning saves a lot of time and helps concentrate your attention on where you need it the most. If certain tasks never receive an “A” or a “B”, maybe you don’t really need to complete them, or perhaps they should be delegated to others. Or maybe no one should do them?
In “Win at Work and Succeed at Life”, the authors Ms. Hyatt and Ms. Hyatt Miller argue that there are 3 areas of our lives that should not be negotiated when we plan our time. In other words, these are things that must get your primary attention and can’t be sacrificed for work-related tasks. Those are:
- Caring for yourself. This includes everything that replenishes and refills the body and the mind: good sleep, nutritious diet, movement and exercise, meaningful leisure, hobbies, time for yourself, etc.
- Relations with people close to you. This includes time with children, significant other, dinner with family, weekly meetings with a friend for lunch, etc.
- Professional achievements. This includes things that create the highest value for you as a professional in your field. Not mundane everyday tasks but the grand projects or commitments in the professional field.
How do you find time for these things? By consciously allocating the time in your calendar. Reserve a time slot on your work calendar in advance (you can devote time to this task at the beginning of the week). It is crucial that you write down in your calendar all the things you assign to these three categories: taking a walk in the forest, yoga, time with your children, your daughter’s school performance or her training session that you want to see, a date with your significant other, calling your dad, lunch with your best friend, reviewing and planning the key projects at work, time for yourself (yes, set up dates with yourself!), etc. If you exclude these key things from your calendar, other things will likely take their place and occupy your energy and attention instead. When it’s hard to say no, use your calendar to do it for you: “No, I can’t take on this task because I am busy at that time.”
Focus on other areas of your life. Work is just one of them. Take care of other areas – your friends, family, physical and emotional health, sleep, leisure, hobbies, etc. Think about what is currently the most neglected and what you would like to focus on while stepping away from overwork. We often think that the high pace at work is temporary, we are about to catch up with everything, and then we will be able to enjoy everything outside of work. Pause and think about how long you have been repeating this to yourself and whether things are really changing. If the answer is no, initiate tangible changes right now, such as inviting your friends to dinner tomorrow at your place. When you free up your evenings and weekends from work, fill them with activities you may have neglected.
Don’t let others control your time. When we are constantly available, sometimes it can be difficult to listen to yourself and your needs. If you feel like you can no longer spend 10 minutes without checking your phone, the time has come to take some time off for yourself. Experiment with what works best for you. Maybe it’s screen-free hours, strictly sticking to working hours after which you don’t read emails or messages, turning off all notifications on your phone, disconnecting from the internet for at least a few hours a day, especially before bedtime, going out for a walk, or leaving your phone at home and meeting friends. You know best what works best for you. The advice is rather simple – if you think it causes a problem, take the time to actively address it.
In your free time, do something other than work. Hard-working people often find it difficult to not be working. Not only because of the ever-increasing workload but also because of the lack of alternatives to work. What do you do with all the time after work? Looking for new activities might seem awkward and scary at first if you have been working hard for many years and haven’t developed a hobby, a habit of exercising, or engaging in any other activity (such as volunteering, active leisure with friends, etc.). Try and experiment with different things. Ask your friends, acquaintances, or colleagues what they are doing. Take time to research, and you’ll surely discover something.
Control your time. If we clearly set a specific time in which we must complete certain tasks, we are more focused and forced to prioritise what really needs to be done and what is less important, can be done later, or shared with colleagues, etc. Concentration and a clear definition of what I must do in a clearly defined time frame allow you to concentrate rather than waste time on tasks that are not at all urgent. Work less, but better. Spend the rest of your time enriching your life outside of work.
Take breaks regularly. Just like children have breaks between lessons at school, you also need to take breaks between tasks or just regular pauses during the day. Taking a break from work can be an incredible opportunity to move around, do a couple of exercises, take time to reflect, walk outside, have coffee with colleagues, call someone close to you, etc. You are going to be more productive later and, at the same time, you’re going to do something other than work. Sometimes you have to bring yourself to take breaks (this is especially true for those who don’t practice it regularly). Try setting a reminder on your phone, and when it rings, just get off your chair or walk away from whatever you’re doing.
Plan your vacation. Even better, go on vacation now! For at least two weeks, switch off all email notifications, Slack, and your business phone, and don’t turn them on. Spend your time off on areas of life other THAN WORK. It can be hard at first, but eventually, the body and mind will relax, and you will return to work born anew. In the meantime, you’ll have numerous opportunities to take care of the other areas of your life. It is also a good time to strengthen social ties, stay with family, engage in hobbies, etc. During your vacation, spend time on activities that replenish and restore you with new ideas and promote creativity. A two-week leave should be taken at least once a year. For a good reason, the Labour Code states: “At least one of the annual leaves may not be shorter than ten working days or not shorter than twelve working days (if one works six days a week)”. If you can’t take a holiday right now, at least plan it!
To conclude, remember that work is just one area of life. What the bigger picture of your life looks like is up to you. The more diverse it is, the richer each of its areas gets.
Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (James Clear, 2019). “If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Here, you’ll get a proven system that can take you to new heights.” The book will also give your life better structure and make more time for the things you want to have more of.
The Work-Life Balance Myth (David J. McNeff, 2021). We all have seven slices to our lives: family, professional sphere, personal life, physical fitness, intellectual activity, emotions, and spirituality. All of these are equally important when addressing balance and inner harmony in our lives. The author gives advice on finding this harmony by reviewing each of the slices separately and analysing examples from his clients’ lives. David J. McNeff also provides practical tips on listening to your personal needs, reducing stress, and overcoming work-life balance challenges.
Work-Life Balance (Harvard Business Review Guides, 2019). A collection of articles and essays on work-life balance. It encompasses topics such as time management habits and techniques, setting boundaries between different areas of life, learning to not work overtime and respect your time for rest, using flexible work forms and other measures, strengthening social bonds with your loved ones, self-care, and taking take for yourself.
Win at Work and Succeed at Life: 5 Principles to Free Yourself from the Cult of Overwork (Michael Hyatt and Megan Hyatt Miller, 2021). The authors give 5 principles to achieving work-life balance without stress. Their findings are backed by scholarly research from organizational science and psychology and illustrated with case studies from their clients’ lives. In the book, Michael Hyatt and Megan Hyatt Miller discuss how to avoid burn-out and exhaustion, rethink work and productivity, and slow down and reclaim a fulfilled life.
Time to Breathe: Navigating Life and Work for Energy, Success and Happiness (Dr Bill Mitchell, 2020). This book presents practical tips and ideas from Dr Bill Mitchell’s clinical experience as a psychologist in getting people their energy, balance, and fulfilment back, promoting a more balanced mindset when thinking about themselves. The author teaches how to prevent burnout and maintain emotional health.
Make Time. How to Focus on What Matters Every Day (Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, 2018). A book without grandiose theories but with many practical tips and tricks that can help you manage your time and energy better. The whole book is a long list of tips. All you have to do is choose the ones that suit you the best and apply them to your everyday life.
Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life (Steward D. Friedman, 2014). The author of the book presents work-life balance as complementarity between different spheres of life with four main areas: work, home, time for yourself, and community. In the book, you will find plenty of practical tips on balancing and combining them all to lead a fulfilled life.
Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time (Brian Tracy, 2017). A book on time man management and prioritising. How to complete the tasks that bring the most value in the shortest amount of time.
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Mason Currey, 2020). This book is about the different strategies of famous people to overcome obstacles to productive work and creativity.
Free to Focus. A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Michael Hyatt, 2019). Everyone has 168 hours a week. What we choose to do with this time is up to us. The author of the book presents a system that allows you to focus on effective work in an area of life that matters to you and find more time for health, relationships, and rest. In the book, you will find tips on creating a work routine, focusing on the most important tasks and professional commitments, cutting out non-essential tasks, setting clear boundaries between work and non-work, distributing time and energy effectively, and maintaining productivity.
The Fix. Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work (Michelle P. King, 2020). This book discusses gender inequality in the workplace and the creation of an environment friendly to equalising the work of women and men. The author reviews the different stages of women’s careers and gives advice on recognising gender inequality and combatting it.
“The Fix with Michelle King”. A weekly podcast where guests share stories about promoting equality in the workplace and beyond. The show is hosted by world-renowned gender equality expert Michelle King and labour law expert Kelly Thomson who discuss research, personal insights, and tips on striving for equality every day.