In our perma-switched-on world, disconnecting from work and being fully present in our personal life has never been so hard. Skim reading an email at dinner, incubating on how to solve a task, and mentally planning our to-do list have become the norm, instead of a serious invasion of our downtime. When it comes to juggling our personal and professional lives, there’s no quick fix – it takes ongoing effort, and some weeks will be better than others. But luckily, there are many small things you can do to establish a better work-life balance, and together they really make a difference.
1. Learn to say “no”
We’ve written a lot about how to better protect your time, and one of the things that crops up time and again is learning to say “no”: to “quick favors” for colleagues that never turn out to be quick, to wasting effort on low-value admin you can outsource, to being in an utterly pointless meeting that steals away your entire afternoon.
You’ll never find the right work-life balance if you start factoring in other people’s work on top of your own. And you’ll never improve the efficiency of your workflow without filtering out all the unnecessary tasks that clog it up. Working smarter means being conscious of how you’re spending your allotted 8 hours each day, and a huge part of that means learning to say “no”.
2. Don’t bring your work home with you
Boundaries are essential for a healthy work-life equilibrium. Work is work and home is home; do better to not mix the two. Before leaving the office, make a list of the work you need complete tomorrow and give each task a unnegotiable timeframe. Then get out the office; you’ve scheduled that work for tomorrow and that’s all there is to it.
Of course, we know that realistically there will be times where you can’t just ignore your work – but that shouldn’t mean it should take over your home life. Setting boundaries is as much about physical ones as psychological ones. If you have to work at home, try to confine that to a specific area – and not the places you usually relax, like the living room or bedroom. If you don’t have a home office, use the spare room, dining room or kitchen.
It’s important to be able to physically close the door on your work once you’ve finished it. That corporal act makes it much easier for you to then close the door on it psychologically, too.
3. Learn to unplug
No sane person would dispute the idea that technology has made our lives better in many ways… but we shouldn’t gloss over its negative effects. The idea of being constantly accessible can cause enormous amounts of stress. Because emails arrive instantly, we feel we’re expected to reply instantly too… but we’re not! Resisting the temptation to reply immediately is one of the biggest “small” things we can do to improve our work-life balance.
Be mindful that constantly checking emails and messages rarely helps boost your productivity; instead, it just creates mindless, pointless stress. Since most of us reply to emails on our phones, it makes it harder for us to actually enjoy our downtime too. You can be blissing out in a luxury spa or curled up watching Netflix at home, but the minute you start peeking at work emails, you’re introducing stress into your life.
If you have a separate work email, disable it in the evenings and on weekends. If something’s urgent, people will find a way to contact you. Getting into the habit of not immediately reacting to work emails helps build resistance – and buoyant people generally feel much more in control of their lives.
4. Put aside time for self-care
There are some people who are simply unable to relax. They could be having an indulgent three-hour massage and their heads would still be spinning with work-related doubts and anxieties. If this sounds like you, don’t just accept your inability to relax… work on it instead. We can train our brains to do almost anything, and relaxing is no different to anything else.
Learning to meditate is one of the single-best things you can do to improve your work-life balance. It’s true that it may take a while to feel you’re doing it correctly, but as with anything worth having, getting it right takes time. Start by taking a few long, deep breaths whenever you finish work: after a while, you’ll start to see this act as mentally and physically leaving your work self behind. Basing your senses in your present environment helps soothe stress – just what you need to go home and enjoy your evening.
Make time to exercise, too. Even when we’re rushed off our feet we find time to eat and sleep, so try to place exercise in a similar category: thanks to those feel-good endorphins that it pumps through our body, few things are better at making us feel positive, grounded and powerful. Put time aside for self-care with activities like yoga, meditation, running or hitting the gym – but it can be any activity that you really enjoy. Your mind and body will thank you.
Just remember that there is no single "fix" here - self-care needs an ongoing commitment. Regularly introduce changes into your daily routine to stay refreshed, engaged and ready for whatever's next (here are a few ideas to get you going).