Finding work life balance: Tips, techniques, and exercises for a more balanced life

Our success depends on so much more than just what we do during the hours we’re at work. Doing meaningful work means finding a work life balance between being ‘on’ and being ‘off’—a seemingly simple idea, but one that almost all of us struggle with. But why is that?

First, we need to take a quick jump back in time:

It’s the roaring 30s. The economy is finally on its way out of The Great Depression. Jobs are abundant and the average worker is putting in a solid 47-hour work week.

Now let’s jump forward 40 years. It’s the 1970s and automation has helped us shave almost 10 hours off our time working, with the average professional putting in just 39 hours a week.

But then a funny thing happens. That downward trend stops.

By 1986 the phrase ‘work life balance’ first appears in publications. And 20 years later, a 2008 Harvard Business School survey finds 94% of professionals report working more than 50 hours per week, while nearly half say they’re putting in more than 65 hours per week.

So what happened? Instead of working towards a balanced life, we started filling our days with more work. Not only is this level of workaholism unproductive, it’s a disease that poisons our personal and professional lives, leading to stress, burnout, and a loss of meaning in the work we do.

Like most issues around productivity and building a meaningful career, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to finding work life balance. But with the right tools, information, and strategies in place, we can start to find solutions that work for us.

How to find work life balance

Work life balance tips and techniques to get you back on track

How to create a workplace that supports work life balance

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What is ‘work’ in 2017?

workers in office

It’s overly simplistic to say that ‘work’ today is simply the tasks we do to make money.

While yes, 99.9% of us do need to work for a living, that ‘work’ has evolved into something much more complex than simply an exchange of labor for compensation.

“When we think about labor, we usually think about motivation and payment as the same thing,” explains behavioral economist Dan Ariely in his TEDx talk What makes us feel good about our work? “But the reality is that we should probably add all kinds of things to it—meaning, creation, challenges, ownership, identity, pride, etc.”

For many people, work is the principle source of their identity—giving them a reason to get up, a structure to their lives, and a sense of pride and self-esteem through being needed.

Social Anthropologist Peter Worsley wrote that “work is central to our culture. When someone asks ‘What do you do?’ they really mean ‘what work do you do?’”

Work no longer simply supplies us with means to survive, but gives social legitimacy to our lives.

When ‘work’ becomes detached from simply making enough to survive, what is it? And if we can’t say exactly what it is, how can we make sure it’s not seeping into all of the ‘non-work’ aspects of our lives?

Signs your work is taking over your life

In his article Work, identity and health, healthcare researcher and physician Tom Fryers, identifies 3 types of people who work excessively:

  1. Those who run their own business and feel that it can’t succeed without them
  2. Those who are employed but wholly engrossed in their work and can’t disconnect from it (such as some academics and healthcare workers)
  3. Those who work very long hours because it is expected of them by the culture, firm, or wider society and they believe that to keep their job or gain promotion requires nothing less than 150% commitment

While the first two groups are filled with people who elect to work excessive hours, the third isn’t. And unfortunately, this group is most likely to suffer from the effects of poor work life balance.

When we don’t self-select a life of hard work, we’re less likely to find meaning in what we’re doing and can feel like our lives are out of our control. If you think you might be falling into this category, here are a few signs to watch out for:

  • You work longer hours than your colleagues
  • You can’t ‘turn off’ at the end of the day
  • You tie your personal worth solely to your work success
  • Your relationships are strained
  • Your work life is negatively impacting your health
  • You ignore hobbies and activities outside of work that used to bring you joy
  • You always feel behind no matter how much you do

If these sound familiar to you, it might be a good idea to look at some tips and techniques for regaining your work life balance.

Consequences of losing your work life balance

Stressed worker

Along with stress and eventual burnout, researchers at University College London found those who worked more than 55 hours per week had a 13% greater risk of a heart attack, and were 33% more likely to suffer a stroke, compared with those who worked 35-40 hours per week.

While the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found that people who worked long hours were 11% more likely to be heavier drinkers. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

The consequences of being overworked flow into all aspects of our lives. Specifically through:

  • Professional issues like stress, burnout, and losing the sense of meaning found in your work
  • Personal issues like strained mental health, relationship problems, and a lower satisfaction with life in general

The ironic part of all this, is that studies have shown us that extended working hours don’t necessarily make us more productive. In fact, anything beyond 49 hours worked a week can have a negative impact on our productivity.

So, it’s in our best interest—professionally, personally, and physically—to find balance. Let’s look at some ways how.

Work life balance tips and techniques to get you back on track

With an understanding of what we define as work, the role it plays in our lives, and the negative impact of an excessive work schedule, we can start to look at some ways to bring balance back into our lives.

While there are many ways to help protect your time and find work life balance, here are the tips we’ve found to be most useful in our own lives:

Use journaling to reassess how you spend your days

Finding work life balance starts with understanding how you spend your time each day. While there are lots of tools and techniques for understanding where you spend your time (such as RescueTime) one of the easiest to do is journaling.

When we write about our days, it forces us to reflect not only on what we did, but how we felt while we were working. Not only that, but writing about your day can even help you work more efficiently, as researchers found the employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day writing and reflecting performed 22.8% better than those who didn’t.

To get the most out of journaling, however, you’ll want to make sure you’re addressing a few key things:

  • Use your journal to process emotions and events: Rather than simply documenting or writing ‘lessons learned’ use your journal as a sounding board for working through how you feel about the day’s events. This will help you understand what brings meaning to your life and what drains your energy.
  • Write about your best self: Putting yourself in a good light while journaling will not only help reduce stress and build your self-esteem, but will also help you clarify your ideal work life balance.
  • Write in a gratitude journal weekly: Complementing your daily journal with a weekly gratitude journal helps solidify your thinking and understanding what activities bring you the most joy in life.

Journaling gives us a high-level picture of the life we want to live and the balance we want to find in our everyday lives. Armed with this information you can start to prioritize the time you spend every day around the tasks that bring you the most joy.

Organize, prioritize, and discard what’s taking up your time

Understanding where your time is going is the first step to work life balance. The next? Ruthlessly deciding what deserves your attention and what can be cut.

“It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau

Step 1: Write down what you do each day

Be honest and track every small step. For example: eat breakfast, write in journal, build to-do list, walk to work, etc… The key here is to get a clear snapshot of how you’re spending your time.

Step 2: Separate the urgent from the important

Next, take your list of activities and categorize them. The most simple way to go about this is to use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix—a simple four-box grid created by former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Eisenhower decision matrix

Take your daily tasks and place them in the box that makes the most sense.

Step 3: Create an ‘ideal’ schedule

Cut down, discard, or delegate as many ‘urgent and unimportant’ tasks as you can and then create a schedule of your ideal work week.

What are you doing at each moment of the day?

Does it contribute to some bigger goal or are you simply trying to keep your head above water?

Have you scheduled time for non-work activities or the downtime you want?

Step 4: Run a test week

With your schedule in hand, commit to it for a week. Is it possible to keep up with?

Maybe that task you delegated should have been discarded entirely, or you realize what you thought was ‘urgent’ is actually an important part of your new work life balance. It will take some time to finesse the way this works.

Step 5: Slowly add more of the ‘important’ tasks into your life

After a few weeks, your schedule should start to solidify and you might start to notice some free time you could use towards larger goals, important tasks, or to create more of the work life balance you’re after.

Separate yourself from work with regular digital detoxes

Technology is a good servant, but a bad master.

Slack, email, smartphones, and tablets have made us available for work from anywhere at any time. A recent study links extended work availability with decreased calmness, mood, and energy levels.

Simply thinking you might have to respond to a work message makes you feel like you’re still ‘at work’.

“Non-work hours during which employees are expected to respond to work issues cannot be considered leisure time,” say the authors of the study.

Instead, we need to separate ourselves from the technology that ties us to our jobs, or at least mitigate the effects of always being available.

One way is to go on a full-blown digital detox—a dedicated trip without technology meant to hit reset on your digital life.

However, in the context of creating work life balance, this isn’t necessarily the best bet. Instead, we need to bring the benefits of a digital detox into our daily lives. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Create office hours of availability on Slack: Sure, tools like Slack and HipChat were created to help free up time from our inbox, but if anything they’ve added another layer of noise to our workdays. To try to counteract this, set your availability to specific times during the day such as 10–11am and 4–5pm, and let your team know you won’t contact them outside these periods. (Here’s a quick guide on how to set your status in Slack and HipChat)  
  • Only check email twice a day: Studies have shown that email takes up to 28% of the average worker’s day. That’s one whole day a week. Rather than letting your inbox control you, set dedicated times each day to catch up and work through emails. This is advice that’s easy to give, but harder to implement. But remember, these sessions will not only help you feel like you’re getting more done, but break the constant need to check in.
  • Enforce no-screens time before bed: According to the National Sleep Foundation, using your smartphone or laptop before bed delays your body’s internal clock, meaning it’s harder to fall asleep and you’re less likely to get into the deeper, and much-needed REM sleep. Not only that, but simply having our screens near us makes us feel like we’re still at work and unable to relax. Try setting a rule of no screens 2 hours before bed and replace that time with a wind-down ritual to get you ready for the next day.
  • Adjust your notification settings: Waking up to phone full of notifications or being constantly pinged by email, chat, social media, or calls means we’re never truly ‘off work’. These apps were designed to take your attention, however, with a little bit of configuration, you can turn notifications completely off, or mute them when you’re not working. (You can also use the FocusTime feature in RescueTime to block distractions for periods during your workday).
  • Define ‘if-then’ statements for when you’re not working: If turning notifications off isn’t an option, you might be better off creating ‘if-then’ statements for common scenarios that challenge your work life balance. For example, ‘If I receive an email at 4:30pm, then I will leave it for tomorrow morning’ or ‘If I get a meeting invite during a break or focused work session, then I will decline and send them my calendar’.
  • Find other sources for your news or information: Just as email and chat fulfill our need to feel informed at work, so many of us fall into the trap of needing to feel informed about everything else going on in the world. But the news cycle never stops, and trying to catch up leads to information overload, and more time spent away from ‘non work’ activities. To regain balance, try finding ‘slow news’ sources such as books and magazines that don’t make you feel like you’re always missing out.
  • Remember, there are choices outside of what your tech is giving you: As former Google Design Ethicist, Tristan Harris, explains: “The more choices technology gives us,  the more we assume our phone is always the most empowering and useful menu to pick from.” However, there is always another option we forget about: Not using our phone. Next time you reach for your phone take a second and ask if you really need it.

Let go of perfectionism

Much of what drives us to work to excess and kill our work life balance is a need to do our best work. But more than that, it’s a compulsive belief that if we don’t put in effort beyond what’s expected, we’ll fail, be chastised, or even lose our jobs.

The problem is that perfectionists see mistakes to be personal failures, rather than a natural part of how we learn and grow, and are likely to fall victim to one of two bad habits:

  1. Procrastination out of fear we won’t be able to complete the task to the level we expect of ourselves
  2. Over preparing out of the belief that to do the work we need to put in more effort than expected

In an article for the American Psychological Association, Kirsten Weir explains how perfectionism and the imposter syndrome go hand in hand:

“So-called impostors think every task they tackle has to be done perfectly, and they rarely ask for help.

“Ultimately, the impostor phenomenon becomes a cycle. Afraid of being discovered as a fraud, people with impostor feelings go through contortions to do a project perfectly. When they succeed, they begin to believe all that anxiety and effort paid off.”

“You set goals that are so unrealistic that they are difficult or impossible to achieve, and in the end, there is no sense of self-satisfaction,” adds Irene S. Levine, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine.

To help break us out of the cycle of perfectionism, psychologist Dr. Paula Durlofsky suggests a few practices:

  1. Become aware of your negative self-dialogue and practice self-compassion
  2. Take the time to examine whether your goals and expectations are actually attainable
  3. Talk to someone about your irrational fears of failure

Limit time-wasting activities and relationships

Work life balance depends not just on separating work from non-work, but in feeling fulfilled in both. And while productivity can help us feel like we’re doing more meaningful work, it’s easy to slip into bad habits at home and in your personal life.

Think about the way many people wind down from a workday or week: Ordering in food, tossing on a movie or binge-watching Netflix, going out for drinks with friends. While we all need socializing and a bit of downtime, these activities rarely bring us meaning.

This all starts with awareness of how much time you’re spending on non-productive or time-wasting activities. Tools like RescueTime give you a snapshot of how you’re spending your day, which can help reduce the amount of time spent on social media or watching movies and TV and even lets you block distracting sites during specific times.

For your time spent offline, try blocking out time to work on meaningful hobbies and prioritize activities that bring meaning into your life, such as playing sports or working out, visiting friends, or learning a new skill.

Take small steps towards fixing your bad habits

When you’re trying to bring some balance back into your life, it can be easy to fall into the same traps that made you lose that balance in the first place: being unrealistic about what can be done, trying to do too much at once, obsessing over details and falling into the trap of perfectionism.

Instead, finding work life balance means building good habits and getting rid of some bad ones you’ve picked up over the years.

Here’s a few suggestions:

Start with the smallest step possible: It’s impossible to just go cold turkey on your bad work life balance habits. Instead, look for the smallest ways to bring a little bit of balance back into your life. As Sonia Thompson, founder of TRY Business School, says, “Setting the bar too high can serve to de-motivate and discourage you from ever getting started.”

Instead, Thompson says we should focus on ‘embarrassingly tiny’ goals. Ones that take 5 minutes, not 5 months. For example, if you want to stop checking your phone before bed, start with simply putting it in another room at 9pm. If you go grab it, that’s fine. But tomorrow at 9pm it goes back in that room. Eventually, put it away at 8pm, and then 7pm, until you hit the point that works for you.

Focus on consistency at first: The reason small goals work is that they create momentum. When we keep up with the activities, we start to see progress and, as consultant and author John Brubaker says, this progress builds our confidence in our own abilities.

The more confidence we have in what we can do, the better chance we have of sticking to a balanced life.

Focus on Keystone habits: While you’re building out the habits that promote work life balance, there are certain activities that have far-reaching benefits. These are called Keystone habits—actions or behaviors that encourage us to build other healthy habits without trying.

Here’s an example: For many people who want to be more healthy in their life, they know they need to exercise, eat better, get more sleep, and be more productive at work to have time to hit the gym.

However, rather than going after all those activities at once (and falling into the trap of perfectionism), simply exercising might be enough. When we exercise, we’re more inclined to eat better, we fall asleep faster, and have more energy throughout the day. The one habit builds others simultaneously.

Think of the activities you identified as wanting to spend more time on and think what is at the core of them? How can you start bringing balance into your life one task at a time?

Look for flexible working environments

Often, the pressures of physically being ‘at work’ lead us to overwork and lose sight of the balance we’re after.

And while it’s not perfect by any means, remote working or creating a flexible work schedule lets you work in the way that suits you best, schedule your day around what you need (and want) to do, and have time for meaningful activities.

However, to make it work, you need to follow a few simple rules:

  • Get buy-in from your team: Remote working requires that people trust you’re doing what needs to be done. Getting buy-in from your team not only makes them feel better, but also helps stave off the need to ‘show’ you’re working by being overly available or putting in too much effort (which is exactly the thing we’re trying to avoid here).
  • Work to a schedule: While remote working gives you the flexibility to work how you want, if you leave it up to chance you’ll more than likely follow the same poorly balanced schedule you worked in the past.
  • Make your status clear: When you’re not physically around, it can be difficult for coworkers to know what you’re doing and respect your boundaries. Try informing everyone in your chat app that you’re taking lunch or simply doing weekly catch-ups.
  • Start your day with a ritual: A ritual in this sense, is a repeatable action that signals it’s time to start working (or stop working at the end of the day). This could be leaving the house to get a coffee, meditating for 10 minutes, or simply making the bed.
  • Use video chat to bring a bit of socializing into your day: An even easier way to maintain the balance of working remotely and being available is to do regular video chats with your teammates. Being able to see you helps create a social bond and also gives you a much-needed boost of socializing.

Be honest about what is ‘enough’ for you

One of the final, and unfortunately most abstract aspects of finding work life balance is knowing when to stop.

If you’re a freelancer, entrepreneur, or even just an ambitious worker, it’s difficult to know when you’ve done ‘enough’, whether that’s billable hours, investor outreach, or hours coding.

As Hooked author Nir Eyal explains: “The Internet never says, ‘You’ve had enough, now go away.’”

Similarly, work will never tell you you’ve done enough. Instead, you need to find ways to feel good about the work you’ve put in and be able to walk away from it when the time comes.

Some people find it helps to break their tasks up into units, so instead of measuring output they’re measuring effort. For others, it all comes down to being aware of the time spent working and celebrating the small wins.

In RescueTime, you can set alerts based on your daily goals to help you keep track of the work you’re doing behind-the-scenes. For example, if ‘enough writing’ for you is 3 hours a day, you can set an alert to tell you when you’ve hit this goal. (Here’s a quick guide to show you how to set this alert up)

How to create a workplace that supports work life balance

hands working

Finding work life balance isn’t always just your responsibility as an individual worker.

In fact, if you run a startup or your own business, it’s in your best interest to create policies that allow your employees to have a balanced lifestyle.

Good, balanced workplaces have been shown to retain staff longer, attract better candidates, reduce sickness and absenteeism, decrease stress and burnout, and even increase morale and productivity in the workplace.

So while this guide has focused mainly on how to achieve balance as an individual, here are a few tips for providing those around you with an equal level of work life balance.

  • Survey employees, managers, and leaders to get a pulse on how people are feeling. What is the bottom line or underlying concerns? What stress level are people at and where does that stress come from
  • Get buy-in from all levels to ensure everyone understands the reasons behind your work life balance program. Educate and be clear about your objectives and intentions.
  • Be clear about how hours and productivity will be monitored and assessed. The point of this program is to relieve stress and bring more balance, not create chaos. Address any fears and be sure workload issues are resolved and targets are realistic.
  • Build a policy that works for you. This could mean flexible work hours, daycare or resources for people with dependents, increased vacation or compensation.
  • Monitor and adjust as needed. With the needs of so many different people held in balance this won’t be a simple set it and forget it policy. Give it a few weeks and then see how people are adjusting.

Work has become more than just a place we go to for 8+ hours a day.

To make sure we have the balance we need to live happy, healthy lives, we need to be aware of the impact of always being on and find ways to monitor our work and be realistic about what can be done in the time we have.

Photo by Jon FlobrantAlex KotliarskyiTim Gouw, and on Unsplash

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.