A balanced life, with quality time spent on work, family, creative projects, exercise, and anything else that’s important to us, isn’t easily achieved. We’re working too much, but want to spend more time with our family. We’re on social media, but want to read more books.
The health and emotional problems related to this imbalance—such as stress, lack of sleep and exercise, and drinking or eating too much—are real reasons to make the effort to find more balance.
“Everyone says they don’t have enough time,” says Pauline Larkin, an AMA faculty member who frequently teaches on time management and organization. “But you have to take more time.”
The pursuit of work-life balance
Larkin offers several strategies for better work-life equilibrium:
Recognize you’re out of balance and be open to feedback. Sometimes it isn’t obvious to you when you are working too much, especially when you like what you’re doing. The stress that accompanies this situation may not be apparent, either.
Larkin was teaching training courses in her early 20s. She loved the job and her colleagues. But all her eggs were in her work basket, and the time she spent with her family and on self-care was lacking. She never saw it as a problem. People were giving her positive feedback about her successes, so she didn’t see any reason to slow down.
One day on the way to an appointment with a client, she got lost. Feeling anxious, she pulled her car over. What happened next frightened her. She found herself in the middle of a panic attack, breathing heavy and barely able to see. She hadn’t even realized she was under stress.
There are some classic signs of stress, Larkin says, but “sometimes stress flies under a person’s radar and they can’t see it.”
Other people may see it more clearly, however. Larkin had a mentor who gave her feedback on allocating and prioritizing her time. She was able to take a week off from work, during which she analyzed what she had to change.
Figure out what you can let go. “There are people who are working massive hours,” Larkin says. They are overworked and stressed, and it seeps into everything. If your job is stressful, you may bring anger and stress home with you. And if it’s your home life that’s stressful, it could affect your work environment, she says.
She believes that moving into a balanced life means giving something up—if not your work hours, then something else outside of work. “What are you doing when you’re not sleeping or working?” Larkin asks. “Is this adding to your stability?”
If parents are working two jobs to pay the bills and have kids at home, maybe all they can let go of is perfectionism. You don’t always have to prepare a home-cooked meal, for instance, Larkin says. “Your kid can have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”
Tune out, turn off. People feel there’s no room in their calendars, but their free time is spent online, on social media, or following the news. If being on Facebook is keeping you from extraordinary productivity, cut back or stop entirely, Larkin says. She herself does not use cable TV, Facebook, or Instagram. “We’ve become dulled to how much we’re ‘on,’” she says. “When is enough enough?”
Make choices that work for you. Larkin says it took quite a few years to feel she’d come to a healthy work-life balance. “I stopped feeling that I had to be able to do it all,” she says.
This decision was important when it came time to plan a family with her husband. She knew she didn’t want a career that was going to take her all over the country, so they decided that he would be the primary breadwinner and she would be at home while the kids were young.
She emphasizes that this was her choice, and everyone gets to make his or her own choices. Women have been criticized both for leaving their kids with sitters and for being stay-at-home moms, she points out. “You have to be at peace with your decisions,” she says.
Larkin’s advice on achieving work-life balance: Find your own space and don’t compare your life to others. Ask yourself, “Am I living a life that I enjoy living?”
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