If someone asked, “What is work-life balance?” you’d probably say something about spending equal time at work and home. But if they asked you how to improve work-life balance, you might not know what to say. After all, a lot of people want to achieve work-life balance but find it difficult to do.
Achieving and maintaining equilibrium between your work and personal life is a career-long process that requires you to identify what work-life balance is to you and the steps you need to take to make it a reality. And this guide will help you do just that! Below, we cover:
- What Is Work-Life Balance?
- Signs You Lack Work-Life Balance
- Work-Life Balance: How to Improve and Maintain It
What Is Work-Life Balance?
The phrase “work-life balance” conjures the image of a scale. One side of the scale is your work life, and the other is your personal life. When you have work-life balance, the scale is even, meaning you have enough time for both sides. However, when you have to spend more time on one side, you’re out of balance.
One of the problems with work-life balance is that it often feels impossible to achieve. In today’s hyper-connected workworld, it may feel like work creeps in at home, thanks to email, Slack, and text notifications. Likewise, because you may believe that “good” workers work long hours, you might feel guilty if you don’t deal with these notifications when you’re on personal time.
Why It Matters
Work-life equilibrium is crucial to your overall well-being. When you lack work-life balance, it may be hard to perform your best at work and home.
For example, when you’re out of balance, you may spend too much time working instead of sleeping as much as you should or skipping breaks during the day. Spending day after day like this could make you feel tired all the time. When that happens, you may not work as productively as you could if you were well-rested, and your decision-making abilities might suffer, leading you to perform poorly.
This constant fatigue could, in turn, put your health at risk. When you’re constantly stressed and tired, your immune system may start to suffer, making it more likely you’ll fall ill. And, when work is the priority, you could miss out on time with family and friends.
What’s more, a work-life imbalance could lead to burnout. While not a disease, you can still suffer some very real professional and personal consequences when you’re burned out:
- Increased negative or cynical feelings toward your job
- Reduced performance
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Signs You Lack Work-Life Balance
All of the above are signs that you’re out of balance, but there are other indicators to keep an eye out for. If recognized early enough, you may have a chance to stop and rebalance your scales.
Before deciding you lack work-life balance, though, it’s essential to remember that in any job, there will be times that work has to be the priority. For example, there may be peak periods when you have to work long hours (like an accountant during tax season), or you’ve got a major presentation due in a few weeks. During these times, the work-life balance scale will tip in favor of work, but that’s OK, as long as the scales regain their equilibrium when these periods end.
Other signs you’re out of balance include:
- You stop prioritizing your health. This encompasses many things. You might stay up too late or have trouble falling asleep. Maybe you don’t exercise like you want to or used to. You might eat nothing but junk food (or only use the drive-thru for meals because you don’t have time to cook). You might even stop eating.
- Your mental health is suffering. Feeling stressed is one thing, especially if it comes and goes. But when you don’t have work-life balance, you might feel angry, irritable, or even anxious. You might suffer from panic attacks or mood swings.
- You doubt your abilities. This differs from imposter syndrome. While you used to feel that you could handle the job and conquer any challenges that came your way, you no longer feel capable. You’re never able to get on top of your tasks, and you’re certain the work you’re producing isn’t great. You may even think you’re going to be fired at any moment.
- You feel disconnected. Though you’re surrounded by people all day, you no longer feel connected to anyone in your professional or personal circles. You communicate with them but no longer have meaningful interactions.
Work-Life Balance: How to Improve and Maintain It
Fortunately, once you recognize your scale is out of whack, you can take steps to regain that equilibrium.
It’s important to note, though, that work-life balance looks different for everyone. Some people truly enjoy their work and derive great satisfaction from it. For them, sacrificing some “me time” on the weekends is OK. Likewise, some people want and need time in their lives for an art class twice a week or an hour every morning to meditate. For them, work needs to fit in with personal priorities, too.”
Define Work-Life Balance for You
The first step is to figure out what work-life balance means to you. Career coach Tracy Capozzoli, Ed.S, MS, says to take the time to figure out not only what you want but how to achieve it.
“Giving yourself time to brainstorm on what you want and learning how to incorporate these into your work-life balance is an important part of the process. Returning to yourself through thoughtful exploration of personal and professional values also helps when exploring and prioritizing your ‘must haves.'”
Capozzoli says there are several ways to start this process. You can create a vision board, keep a journal, or try personality and career tests to get a better idea of what matters to you. She also advises answering the following questions:
- When are you most productive (morning, afternoon, evening, a combination)?
- What personal or lifestyle values are mandatory for you? Examples could be exercising every day, being close to nature, diversity and inclusion at work, professional development (training and conferences), or regular travel.
- What kind of supervision and mentorship styles motivate you and help you do your best work?
- What do your ideal work environment and company culture look like?
- What company values match and support your personal and professional values?
Answering these questions can help you figure out your definition of work-life balance and what aspects of it you want and need to prioritize.
Make Work-Life Balance a Reality
One of the essential elements of making work-life balance a reality is to set boundaries. “Setting boundaries and keeping them is key when effectively living a well-oiled work-life balance,” Capozzoli says. “Knowing your must-haves may help when you need to enforce a boundary.”
But how can you effectively establish and stick to your boundaries? Capozzoli offers these tips:
- Sketch out your day and create a daily routine. Incorporate mental and physical breaks into your day and add them to your calendar.
- Silence all notifications when you’re engaging in “me” time.
- Allow for change and growth. Some strategies may work well at first, but as you progress in your career, they may lose their effectiveness. Be open to trying new techniques as your needs change and evolve.
Other Ways to Improve Work-Life Balance
Once you’ve established your boundaries and are enforcing them, it’s crucial to recognize that achieving work-life balance is not a one-and-done deal. It is an ongoing process that requires you to reassess and recalibrate your weights and measures regularly.
Periodically, take a step back and ask yourself how things are going. Are you experiencing any warning signs that your work-life scale is unequal? Is work overtaking everything? If you don’t pause regularly and evaluate where you are, you may miss the warning signs that you’re out of balance until it’s too late.
If you conclude that things are unbalanced, make the necessary changes to regain your equilibrium. This might mean establishing and enforcing new boundaries. It could also mean changing up your priorities. Or, rebalancing your scale could mean scheduling a vacation, so you have something to look forward to (and no excuse not to take time off!).
Achieving work-life balance is an individualized process and what it means to you can be very different from everyone else in your life. But knowing how you define work-life balance will help you take the proper steps to achieve equilibrium throughout your entire career.
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