Work-Life Balance: 14 Techniques for Improving It

see through at work by littledan77 on Flickr!The current issue of BusinessWeek features a big collection of articles on personal challenges in the workplace. I eagerly read their article about work-life balance as this is something I struggle with, but I was disappointed to find that the article mostly consisted of stories about people who were already well off who simply just chose a different career. While that is one great way to improve your work-life balance, it’s really just one way to do it.

In fact, it’s not even really a choice for many people. Quite often, we find ourselves in a personal or financial state where we simply can’t just pack up and switch jobs. Maybe we really like our jobs, but they just encroach on our lives too much. Maybe it pays really well. Maybe we’re afraid to make the leap into a new career, or we don’t want to rock the boat of our home life too much.

Here are a list of fourteen additional techniques for improving your work-life balance that I’ve discovered over the past few years.

Leave the office early, period.
Easier said than done, right? Not if you set a departure time as a clear goal very early on. If you set an absolute time to leave earlier in the day, that time serves as a deadline to get your tasks done for the day, making you stay more focused throughout the day. Your reward? You actually get out of the workplace at a reasonable time.

Try it! Tomorrow, define an exact time you’re going to leave early in the day and keep your eye on the clock throughout the day. Recognize that you need to get your required tasks done by then, and when you pull it off, get out of there and enjoy your work-free evening.

Reduce your wasted time at work…
Often, I find myself wasting time at work. I’ll surf to some of my favorite political websites, distract myself with something interesting to read, or play a game when I should be working. These things simply waste time – they’re a basic method of procrastination. My best method for counteracting this is by actually blocking the most distracting websites, and also closing all potentially distracting software that I’m not actively using (like my web browser).

Try it! Close all of the programs that distract you, especially your web browser. If you don’t regularly use your web browser for work, hide it, so it’s harder to get to.

… but actually take breaks.
On the flip side of that coin, regular breaks to allow your mind (and body) a break from work tasks can be very helpful if they’re brief and spread apart. If you’re focused on your tasks for an hour or two, by all means, take a short break and do something completely different. Eat a healthy pick-me-up snack (like an orange), drink some water, and do something interesting (like reading The Simple Dollar, for example), but get back to work reasonably quickly.

Try it! Make it your goal to spend the next two hours without any personal distractions, but then have a ten minute break where you get something to eat and drink and do something else.

things to do by elusive. on Flickr!Write a “to-do” list for the next day before you leave.
One of the biggest challenges at the start of a workday is simply figuring out what to do: what needs to be picked up and continued and what tasks need to be started? It’s easy to waste a bunch of time in the morning getting back in the flow, and that wasted time is often tacked on at the end of the day, preventing you from getting out of there. Instead, before you leave in the evening, make a list of the key things you need to do the next day and leave it right where you’ll find it in the morning, so you can just grab it and dig right in tomorrow without burning that start-up time.

Try it! Before you leave from work, make a list of three things you need to accomplish tomorrow and leave it out where you can find it. Then, the following morning, pick up that list and immediately get started on the tasks. You’ll find that your morning is immediately more productive – getting you on the ball quicker and out the door quicker, too.

Carefully consider your work goals, and tone them down a bit.
Many people find themselves with a work-life balance that’s out of whack because they chose to take on more projects at work than they could reasonably manage. Usually, this results in work encroaching more and more on personal lives, to the discomfort of not only the worker, but the worker’s family and friends. Why do they do this? They hope to get ahead in the workplace, based on a perspective that it will make their life better. Instead, the chase makes their life worse. Why not step back and ask yourself what you really want and whether taking on more projects at work will really get the job done? Perhaps executing a small number of projects well is better than juggling a lot of projects and doing them poorly.

Try it! Take a look at all of the ongoing projects you’re currently responsible for and see if there aren’t any that you can trim away or give to someone else. Also, make a commitment to not take on new projects until you can complete the ones you’re currently responsible for with a high level of quality.

Have “focused sessions” at work, where you eliminate all distraction.
Another aspect of modern work that keeps people in the office too late is distractions – people stopping by, phone calls, emails, instant messages, meetings, and so on. These little distractions destroy our train of thought and make it much more difficult to bring sustained focus to a project. The solution is to have short sessions (an hour or two) where you permit no distractions at all and focus on your work. Turn off your phone. Close your email program. Close your office door. Then, focus on what you need to do.

Try it! For one hour, do everything you can to eliminate interruptions. Close your email program, turn off your phones, close doors that when open invite people in, and so on. Then, use this solid block of time to really bear down on your most important task.

Keep careful documentation of the tasks you accomplish…
Whenever you accomplish a notable task or project, document it. Write down the date you completed it, as well as a detailed summary of what you did, and keep it someplace where you can easily retrieve it. Over time, these documents provide strong documentation of all of the work that you actually do. Not only does this help greatly with performance reviews, it also makes it clear how much work you actually accomplish.

Try it! Start keeping a log of your significant accomplishments. You can either make a daily work log or just simply make a list of every significant thing you accomplish. Include details and don’t forget about it!

… and then discuss a reasonable and more flexible work arrangement with your supervisor.
If you’ve been working hard, accomplishing useful stuff, and maintaining a log of it, your next performance review should be a good one, and hopefully it will end with some discussion about performance-based rewards. Instead of just diving for the money, talk about some workplace flexibility, like some degree of flex time, the ability to telecommute on occasion, or other perks that will help you find more breathing room for the life you want to live.

Try it! The next time you’re talking about a raise, instead talk about getting a more flexible work schedule. More flexibility with your time will save you that money anyway and will also improve your quality of life.

aw man by peyri on Flickr!Turn off routes of communication to work when you leave.
Don’t check that email when you’re at home. Don’t leave that cell phone on. Leave the CrackBerry in your bag. Just turn them off when you leave and deal with the problem when you return. There are some jobs where you can’t do this – IT jobs come to mind – but for many jobs, you don’t have to let technology crash the work-home barrier.

Try it! When you get home, shut off the technologies that connect you to work and just enjoy some uninterrupted personal time. After all, the freedom is what you work for, right?

“Unwind” with something personally and spiritually fulfilling and relaxing.
Many people “unwind” by vegetating in front of the television. Big mistake. While it can help you relax, it also provides minimal spiritual and personal fulfillment and is quite often loaded with tons of mixed messages, ones that we’re particularly susceptible to when we’re tired. Instead, seek out other ways to unwind. Perhaps sitting on a park bench will do the trick for you, or maybe you can unwind while playing with your kids. Meditation, prayer, and yoga also work. For me, actually, cooking can really do the trick.

Try it! Instead of unwinding in front of the television, try another simple activity to unwind. Give meditation, prayer, or yoga a try, or go to a park and enjoy nature. Better yet, find a simple activity you really enjoy, even if it seems silly.

Set aside blocks of uninterrupted time to focus on what’s really important to you.
One of the biggest challenges I had in figuring out my own work-life balance was my children. They deserved my uninterrupted attention sometimes, and when I was juggling my full time job and my burgeoning writing, it was very difficult. The way I managed it was to realize that time with my children every day was of paramount importance, and so I just scheduled a three hour block of time each day that I spent solely with my family, usually from five to eight each evening. We ate supper together, played in the yard together, read stories together, and so on. Setting aside that block of time made my life bearable – without that time block, I would have felt very empty with regards to my life.

Try it! Figure out which element of your life you’re missing the most because of a work-life balance that’s out of whack and set aside a block of time to focus solely on that element. It might just be a big block each week, or it might be a smaller block every day, but set aside that time for what’s most important to you.

Get involved in a significant and personally important project outside of work.
Some people tend to get absorbed in their job because they don’t have a deeply meaningful element of their life outside of work, so they let their job become their life. Over the long run, this is dangerous, as it wears you down and spits you out. A much better approach is to find a major project to involve yourself in outside of work, whether it be your family, a community group, a volunteer project, or something oriented around personal growth or fun.

Try it! Spend some time to find out about and get involved with groups or projects of personal interest to you, and when you find one that really clicks, dig in deep and get involved.

Actually use your vacation time, even if it’s just spent around the house.
At my previous job, there were people who consistently lost their vacation time simply because they didn’t use it. Quite often, these same people were those who were tied to their desks and clearly unhappy about it, with that unhappiness eating into their productivity and effectively eating up the time they could be spending on vacation. Don’t let yourself fall into that trap. Instead, keep focused on your work and actually use your vacation, even if it’s at home. Take that time to do something fun and different or dabble in an area you’ve never tried before.

Try it! Never let your vacation time lapse. Instead, always use it up – and use some of it to just stay at home and try some new things or complete some personal projects left undone.

Get adequate sleep.
“Doesn’t a couple more hours of sleep eat into my personal time?” Sure, but if you’re exhausted, you’re spending more time getting less done at work and enjoying your time at home less, too. A solid night’s sleep vastly increases your concentration level, making you more productive at work and adding to your enjoyment of your personal life as well.

Try it! If you feel tired on a regular basis, try to adjust your sleep so that you get closer to an optimum amount of seven to eight hours a day. If you get less than that, cut out some nonessential activities (like television watching) for sleep; if you get more, try going to sleep later or getting up earlier.

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  1. Jules says:

    Definitely second the sleeping part! I get 5-6 hours during the week, and maybe 7-8 on the weekends.

    But also pay attention to how you sleep. Set up rituals before bed, follow them religiously. ABSOLUTELY NO ALCOHOL–the parts of your brain that get activated during REM sleep (the kind of good, deep sleep you need to feel refreshed in the mornings) won’t be able to “wake up” if they’re swimming in drink.

  2. Kevin says:

    Nice list.

    A technique to your suggesting that we end the day by defining a To Do list for the next day…

    At the beginning of each day, DO NOT start the day by looking at your email In Box. Instead, get started on the toughest item on your To Do list. Get something tangible accomplished and then – and only then – check your In Box.

    Thanks.

    Kevin

  3. Shanel Yang says:

    All great tips! I also found these to be very helpful: “20 Tips for Highly Effective Time Management” at http://shanelyang.com/2008/05/05/20-tips-for-highly-effective-time-management/

  4. Grant says:

    How do you eliminate distractions at work when you have people in offices on either side of you making calls on speakerphone that you can hear very clearly even when they close their office doors?

  5. writer dad says:

    Writing a to do list for the next day is essential for me. Even though the “office” is just my bedroom, writing out a to do list gives me closure on the day, and helps prevent me from thinking about the next one.

  6. Kacie says:

    Be careful when doing traceable non-work tasks at work (i.e., browsing the internet).

    People have been fired over that. Seriously.

  7. Wow, this is incredibly good advice and is very practical. Thanks for putting this list together!

  8. bethh says:

    * Avoid talking about work outside of work! Many of my friends are coworkers, and I try not to engage in the conversation when it (inevitably) touches on work. I enjoy my job but want to keep it confined to the 8am-5pm box as much as possible.

  9. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Grant: Earphones.

  10. Andy says:

    I definitely agree with finding something outside of work that you want to put time into. Starting a blog was a great way to have something that made me want to get up in the morning and do something. School just doesn’t motivate me like that!

  11. Sean says:

    Some of these, I honestly wish I could use. The stuff about leaving work early just doesn’t apply to my job, however — since I work in news publishing.

    Most of the last part of my day is spent fiddling around, with nothing much to do but watch the clock countdown to quitting time.

  12. I like the idea of only checking emails and voicemails twice a day. Noon and 4pm. Everything else can wait.

  13. Brad says:

    You know, it’s funny – all of this applies to those of us who work from home too. I had to install a firefox plugin that blocks cnn and other sites of that nature. I waste SOOOO much time clicking around useless sites that it isn’t funny.

  14. Jan says:

    Great tips. I need to block the websites I’m most tempted to look at – how do I do that?

  15. Boris says:

    “Get adequate sleep.” Now there’s some sound advice I could use! Unfortunately, getting sleep is a challenge these days. Such a simple suggestion that carries so much weight. When you are younger, you are able to operate on 4-5 hours of sleep, but as you age, you really need the 7-9.

  16. Mindy says:

    I work in an open space office. Everyone in our department has low cubicles. We have a lot of space, but things sometimes get noisy. I second the earphones suggestion. If I really need to concentrate, I plug my earphones in to my computer to listen to music on my media player. It really helps me concentrate. Others may need the kind that cancel noise.

    Something else that has helped me TREMENDOUSLY is utilizing the tasks function in Outlook. I put in the timelines for each project and make the project the task. Then I set up the reminders as I need them. It helps me get everything out of my head without having to keep writing lists and wasting paper.

    Using the voice mail feature also helps me a lot. It really helps to have specific times during the day when you check your voice mail and return calls. Not all people can do this, but if you can it really helps cut down on interruptions.

  17. Don’t forget to exercise.

    Also, I will admit, I see a wackjob doctor (shrink) about once a month for some anxiety. Nothing big, I have always just tended to be a high-strung person. Anyway, one technique that I have been working on from those sessions is FOCUSING ON ONE THING AT A TIME. I have always been a list maker and I got nervous if I didn’t complete EVERYTHING on that list.

    Lately I try to focus on only ONE thing per day. If I happen to get more done that is great, but for now I only work on ONE thing and I always have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day because it is easier to get ONE thing done than a whole front and back side of a list full of things.

  18. Sandy says:

    Many people would say this is easier said than done, but you break it up into manageable steps and just suggest to try it! Love it!

    I need to take one of your steps a little further, though. I work in a cube and the distractions are incessant. I’m in a culture that expects an immediate response – closing your e-mail would be seriously frowned upon. I even have people come up to me asking if I read the e-mail they just sent two minutes ago. It’s insane. People just walk right up to my chair to ask me something, no warning, and I’m in mid-thought. My phone rings a lot and we have to pick up each other’s phones when someone isn’t there. (I’m currently trying to change this within our department, but I’m meeting some resistance.) There are some days when I feel like I get nothing done. Any suggestions?

  19. Tabs says:

    Kept a log once, saved my job, got me an apology from my overbearing supervisor, her boss and her boss’s boss. Also got me a pay raise and promotion two months later. I tell anyone that works for anyone to keep a log, especially if you are good at your job. A log also gives you a sense of accomplishment, lets you know you have done something at the end of the day.

    Great post,

    -Tabs

  20. Chris says:

    For a while, I was working quite a way from where I lived, so I started taking the train. The best part about that was that it forced me to leave the office at a specific time. It wasn’t negotiable. The train left at a specific time and I had to be on it.

    Today, I work much closer to home, but I *must* pick up the kids from daycare at 6pm, no exceptions. That forces me to be out of the office at the same time every evening.

    This, in turn drives what time I need to be in the office, since I have a set time to leave. That drives what time I have to be up. This drives what time I need to be asleep by.

    In the end, setting that time I must be out of the office drives so much other order in my life and makes so many other things simpler.

  21. Brent says:

    At the first of the year, I went on an internet “fast.” I didn’t allow myself to look at a single web page from the office for a whole month. It was dead-painful at first but I eventually broke the horrible habit of web-surfing at work. It’s made all the difference in the world. I’m able to focus on my work without the constant distraction of the-world-at-my-fingertips.

  22. Sam says:

    I especially like “Turn off routes of communication to work when you leave.” Sometimes I continue work at home simply because somebody from office remind me of the task I’m suppose to do for the next day. For some reason, I make it a point to do it at home to get “less” work in the office, but often times, time with family is sacrificed because of this habit. What I did to get away from it? Turn my work mobile phone off! I also don’t check work-related emails.

    Sam
    Fix My Personal Finance
    http://fixmypersonalfinance.com/

  23. These are all great suggestions…for making a job more bearable. But I think the big one that’s missing is this: find a job you *love*. Not a job you tolerate, enjoy, or like. Something that makes you come alive. Not that you still shouldn’t pursue balance, but it seems like a lot of people are thinking of balance as more of a way to manage stress of a job they hate. It doesn’t have to be that way.

    “Find a job you like and you add five days to every week.”
    -H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

  24. Favorite Nephew says:

    Great advice, especially about documenting the tasks you accomplish. More than anything else, this has helped me stay successful in my job. To Trent’s advice, I would also add to document your work visually, if you can. Take photos of what you’ve done and bring them to your next review. OK, now I’m closing my web browser.

  25. Sridhar J says:

    Hi Trent

    As a consultant who needs to travel constantly, I have also been struggling with maintaining a balance between my work and personal lives. I have attended a couple of seminars and read quite a few books on this. The lessons I learnt from them have been invaluable.

    You have made a couple of very good points; for example, on reducing time wasted near the office water cooler.

    If a person has the energy and is willing to make the commitment, David Allen’s Getting Things Done can provide a valuable complement to those who are trying to be better at work and home, while not compromising on either. The key is to have the discipline to practice them consistently.

    I have written a series of blog posts, where I discuss my experiences and share some tips, which may be interesting to your readers. This is at
    http://lifesays.com/?p=6

  26. Matt says:

    One of the commenters mentioned it – get some exercise should be on the list. It doesn’t have to be a big workout at a gym but getting some physical activity is important.

    Otherwise this is a great list.

  27. cynthia says:

    Thanks for the great post. Your list of suggestions is really helpful. I also like the suggestion of focusing on one thing at at time.

  28. Carrie says:

    Any tips on how to deal with an environment where your performance is directly related to the number of hours you work (like a law firm, where the emphasis is on billable hours)? I used to work in one, and spending any time on non-billable activities (like exercise and relationships) was frowned upon. I dealt with it by leaving, but are there any less-drastic measures for the ones still stuck there?

  29. This is a great blog entry! Even a job that you love requires work-life balance. I think these suggestions are “on the money!”

  30. Michael says:

    not exactly a frugal choice, but I have to recommend a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones for those in loud environments. I work in a very chaotic environment, and when I need to concentrate I slip them on and go to work.

    Great list. Also have to second those “don’t forget to exersice” suggestions.

  31. Stephanie says:

    Those are good suggestions. I’d never thought of installing a filter to block distraction sites, though. I have on occasion deleted all shortcuts to my browser, but I need the Internet for too many valid work tasks for that to last long.

    I liked your item “Leave Work Early.” However, I doubt that those who are working for an employer can do that. Hourly workers can’t. And most salaried employees are required to “charge” their time to some project (whether or not a client is billed for it). And, in many office cultures, leaving early looks bad.

  32. Bob says:

    Thanks for letting me know that I’m not the only one guilty of Surfing at work. Try as I might, I still let myself get distracted. Good advice, hiding the shortcut.

    Exercise is a great stress killer. I pedal to work (16 miles each way), but have a suggestion to those who debate that. Bring the bike to in the morning, ride home-leaving the car at work, get a good nights sleep, then ride back. This way, its not too strenuous at first. Check with the Boss-man- you’ll probably find it is OK to leave the car.

    An excellent column.

  33. DJ says:

    The last few suggestions are good. However, the first part may be OK for office workers that have flexibility in what they do. However, most workers don’t have those options. When to work, what to do, when to take a break, and when to leave are normally scheduled and required. In fact changing the routine or leaving early could easily cost you your job. My guess is that the majority of workers are not even in an office setting. Other industries have vastly different work environments, tasks and expectations. I guess it’s natural to assume that your own work environement is similar to others. For office workers that have some say in their work flow these are good points. But, I’d like to see some more universal suggestions that could apply to other work – life situations.

  34. Great article about working within the constraints of daily life. As a software developer who has written a tool to help with task management, focus and prioritization, one thing that I’ve seen among my clients is that they initially think that they should be able to do all this stuff in their heads and come up with a timely good decision on the spur of the moment. Either that, or they get suckered into ineffective multi-tasking.

    More often than not, the process of making goals and setting priorities is not that straightforward. When you let go of the guilt, it is a lot easier to get a grip on your to do list. First thing to realize is that it is really complicated to compare tasks among projects. Is a low impact task that contributes to a high priority project more useful to get done than a high impact task on a low priority project? What if there is a deadline? Who am I trying to please? How do I make room in my schedule for any FUN? Are these tasks contributing to my long term goals and my life as a whole? Our minds are not that good at finding answers to these questions. Software can be part of the solution, (not just the villain) if you are open to that idea. But any kind of structure for thinking it through can be beneficial. Even a journal or a pencil and paper. I like your action items for “try it.” You have to start somewhere.

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