With technology connecting employers to employees (and freelance workers) after working hours, it’s become increasingly tough for people to establish a legitimately healthy work-life balance. You certainly have the right not to tackle work during your personal time, but the fear of losing your job or contracts can add pressure to making yourself available around the clock.
According to a Harvard Business School survey, 94% of workers admit to working more than 50 hours a week, and nearly half worked 65-hour weeks. The stress from increased hours and staying plugged into work after hours not only affects your health, but can also damage your relationships and overall happiness.
By following a few simple guidelines, it’s possible to start shifting the weight toward greater work-life balance.
Pull Your Plug
The technological revolution has made it increasingly easier for people to connect with each other around the world, which has opened the doors for more telecommuting positions within companies. However, just because you can be online all the time does not mean you should be, especially for home-based workers who don’t have as obvious a separation in their work-life balance.
Stanford business professors found that workplace stress adds $125 to $190 billion per year to America’s health costs. Overworking alone accounts for $48 billion of that total. Ironically, the brunt of health care costs are covered by the employers who have often established systems that are the source of the stress. In this situation, not only do the employers suffer financially, but there are also other negative consequences on the business due to the decreased productivity of overstressed employees.
Because these costs often seem hidden, they are not properly factored into employers’ cost-benefit analysis.
Within the European Union, the costs of overstressed employees is being taken seriously. Some large European companies have now taken steps toward reducing burnout, and creating a better work-life balance.
In 2012, Volkswagen blocked emails to employees Blackberries after-hours, while Daimler moved to delete emails of employees on vacation. After the email was deleted, the sender would receive an email similar to: I am on holiday. I cannot read your email. Your email is being deleted. Please contact Markus or Linda if it’s an urgent matter, or re-send the email after I return to the office on November 12.
I am on holiday. I cannot read your email. Your email is being deleted. Please contact Tim or Linda if it’s urgent.
"The response is basically 99% positive, because everybody says, 'That's a real nice thing, I would love to have that too,'" a Daimler spokesman told the BBC.
Both Germany and France have also made moves to rein in employers. In 2014, Germany banned managers from calling or emailing staff after work. More recently, France enacted a law that bans after-work emails.
However, if you are telecommuting and working across time zones, it can be hard to unplug, especially if there are no laws protecting your work-life balance. Nonetheless, it’s as important, or perhaps more important, for you to do so.
Beyond being healthy, unplugging gives you clarity and perspective.
"It [Unplugging] also gives us space to let other thoughts and ideas surface. When you are always on, you don't allow other things to surface that might be more important," says Jackie Stone, CMO of MiMedia, a personal cloud storage company.
Additionally, it makes you feel more in control of yourself and your life, which has a huge impact on overall happiness.
When you find it difficult to unplug, conduct a quick self-assessment:
- Is it force of habit?
- Is it because you frequently check social media?
- Is it to deal with FOMO about the latest scoop?
- Is it a form of procrastination?
- Is it because you are frequently behind schedule and forced to put in more hours?
By establishing the reasons you struggle to unplug, you can start to better understand what mental attitude you need to adopt to make time to be offline.
Just Say No
If you’re unwilling to unplug for what might be considered workaholic reasons, determine if your work schedule is overloaded or if you are making systematic mistakes that are impacting your efficiency.
Are regular distractions, such as social media or co-workers, interrupting your workflow? Probably. According to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, the average worker enjoys no more than three minutes of work without distractions. After an interruption, it takes 25 minutes to refocus, which is detrimental to your efficiency.
The average worker enjoys no more than 3 min of work without distractions. After that, it takes 25 min to refocus.
By establishing what work and life goals you want to prioritize, it’s possible to eliminate distractions. To do this, create a list of the top three tasks you want to accomplish for the day, week, and month. If you get those three things done, that day, week or month will be considered productive. Anything you accomplish beyond those is simply a bonus. . Prioritization also involves knowing what you want out of life, such as physical health or time for your family. Once you’ve identified what’s at the top of your list, you can make adjustments to your life and schedule to make sure they don’t end up on a back burner. By knowing your priorities, it is easier to say “no” to distractions that will drain your energy and resources away from what is most important to you.
“If you tend to say yes without thinking when you’re asked to do something extra, stall. Don’t answer straight away. Say you’ll get back to the person asking, then use that time to think clearly about whether to say yes or no. If you want to say yes, fine. But if you want to say no, say no and keep saying it. Don’t justify your actions or give excuses. There’s no need to be nasty or rude,” explains life coach Melanie Allen.
Saying “no”, doesn’t mean you have to turn down work. If a task that is going to ruin your workflow and have a negative impact on your priorities for the day pops up out of the blue, tell your coworker or client that you can do the project, but not until tomorrow (or whenever is best for your timeline).
Work Smarter, Not Harder
Old adage work smarter, not harder, is more applicable now than ever as distractions through social media and demands on your time continue to exponentially increase.
The key to working smarter is strictly managing your time. Do not fall into the trap of multitasking. Multitasking is a work-place myth used to justify constant distractions: both internal and external. The mind can focus on only a little information at any single moment, which means that any attempt to multitask will lead to scatter-brained results. So, focus solely on the task at hand, whether it is putting the final touches on a presentation or tossing around a baseball with your son.
Imposing a strict schedule for your work will provide structure for focus. People often get distracted by emails, so establish set times for checking email, replying only to the ones that merit the time of your response.
The Pomodoro technique can also help you create structure in your schedule. It alots 25 minutes of your undivided attention for the task at hand. Then, you rest for five minutes. As you become more adept at using the technique, you can slowly increase the time. However, if you reach the point that distractions start slipping in, scale it back.
Given that you can do a full-body workout in as few as seven minutes, it should be no surprise how much work you can accomplish during a focused, 25-minute session. Be just as strict with yourself during your rest time; rest is an important part of the system, as it allows your brain to relax and recover.
The most important step to managing your work schedule, and creating the ideal work-life balance, is to leave work when your working hours are finished. Even if you telecommute, by establishing a clear work space and hours, you can give yourself the same release from work as anybody sitting in an office. Knowing that you won’t start checking work emails at 10 p.m. that night helps keep you focused during working hours. By following these general rules, as well as other productivity techniques, it is possible to work smarter, not harder.
Let go of Perfection
Many people think that procrastination is caused by a person’s laziness, disorganization or apathy, but it couldn't be further from the truth.
Usually, procrastination is caused by one of four reasons:
- Low energy level
- Lack of focus
- Fear of failure or success
In this article, you’ve already learned about some ways to improve your focus, and as you establish a better work-life balance, you’ll improve your energy levels. That said, these last two reasons for procrastination can be the downfall of smart, dedicated workers.
It can be very hard to let go of perfectionism, especially when it’s been ingrained in you as a child. Many overachievers found it easy to balance everything when they were younger, but struggle as they enter the adult world and are looking to find the ideal work-life balance.
Perfectionists face three major issues at work: overworking, failing to delegate, and fear of failure. All of these problems can lead to a snowballing effect of projects piling up on your already full plate.
It’s easy to say “let go of perfection”, but how do you actually do it?
First, realize that perfectionism is no excuse. If you tell your boss, colleagues, or clients that the delay is because “you want everything to be perfect”, you aren't getting any sympathy. Late is late. Second, focus on progress, not perfection. Some perfectionists clam up at the start of a project because they can see the big picture, but don’t know how to break it down into smaller steps.
As American novelist and nonfiction writer Anne Lamott explains in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, take projects one step at a time. It’s important to start doing something that moves you toward the end goal, no matter how small that step is.
Lastly, show self-compassion. Forgive yourself and acknowledge that mistakes are part of life. The law of diminishing returns establishes that at a certain point there will still be mistakes, but the energy and time it takes to rectify them no longer outweighs the benefits.
Show self-compassion. Forgive yourself and acknowledge that mistakes are part of life.
Make Time for Yourself
You work hard. Give yourself credit for that and treat yourself well. By incorporating enjoyable forms of exercise into your daily schedule, you will not only be healthier, but you will also have more energy to tackle your work.
Meditation is also beneficial way of treating yourself. Morning meditation sessions will improve your focus and reduce stress levels.
By working these two practices into a daily routine, they will both become second nature. There will be an adjustment period. However, once you find the rhythm, you’ll discover that you enjoy both more and more each day.
Beyond regular breaks in the office, such as those prescribed in the Pomodoro technique, take a vacation. While on holiday, allow yourself to shut off your phone and close your laptop so that you can relax and unwind. By letting go while you’re on holiday, you’re more likely to return to work invigorated and focused.
Finally, don’t forget that there is more to your life than sleeping and working. Set aside time in your schedule to take up a hobby. Even the busiest, most successful people pursue hobbies, as they enrich their lives and help bring depth and meaning to what they do.
How to Find Your Perfect Work-Life Balance
It is possible to find a work-life balance, and is essential for both your happiness and productivity. Neglecting aspects of your personal life to remain on the clock for employers is not only detrimental to your social, mental and physical health: it is disservice to the company. Identify what’s important in your life and make no concessions when it comes to where they are on your priority list.
What do you do to create an ideal work-life balance? Any tips and tricks you’re willing to share? Tweet at @Planio with your thoughts, and we’ll share our favorites!