If you’re a working adult between the ages of 25 and 50, 2013 was the year of work-life balance. First there was Lean In. And then there were the many (many, many) responses to it — some positive, some negative and some even featuring brave male voices. But two years later, the question still remains: Can anyone, man or woman, successfully balance their work and personal lives? “[‘Work-life balance’] is often used as a word for ‘getting everything you want’ or work-life perfection, which is unattainable by definition,” says Larissa Barber, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University whose work focuses on workplace flexibility, workplace stress and work engagement and burnout. “Work-life balance is really about thinking carefully about your values and needs in both domains … and working to manage activities and relationships on a day-to-day basis.”
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That may sound pretty involved, but it’s worth it, says Erica Ravich, a lifestyle coach, career counselor and certified personal trainer. “I find you need a balance of both [work and personal commitments] in order to feel as though you are living a fulfilling life.” Here, our top tips to make it happen — without sacrificing your sanity.
1. Sync your calendars.
Add your personal commitments to the same calendar as your work responsibilities. “This way you won’t forget and I find it makes me work more efficiently during the work day,” says Ravich. Treat all those calendar events equally and force yourself to step away from the desk when it’s fun time.
2. Block off your time.
Got a big task looming overhead? Add it to your calendar and ignore all outside distractions for that set period of time, says Ravich. “This way I give myself a limit and stay focused.” Even if you don’t have a single, focused task to work on, working continuously for a set, pre-determined time (rather than flipping back and forth from email to instant messages to reading your favorite blogs) can help you keep your head in the game. “What we often find is that people don’t work as much as they think they do because of constant interruptions to their work flow and multitasking,” says Barber.
3. Lose the alerts.
A buzzing phone is a major distraction (you could even be addicted) — and you didn’t really need to see that Facebook update this second. Try stashing your phone well away from your desk. “If you need to check your phone, do so at specific times in the day so you don’t break your focus and are more productive,” Ravich recommends. (Note: The same should hold true when you’re spending quality time with family and friends; ditch the cellphone!)
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4. Add bite-size to-dos.
Go big or go home isn’t the motto here. Try adding even the tiniest tasks to your daily agenda. “When I cross them off the list, I already feel a sense of accomplishment and gain the momentum I need to tackle the bigger more daunting tasks,” Ravich says. If you’ve got something big to get done, break down the smaller pieces so you can see exactly what needs to get done — even if you can’t tackle them yet. Psychologists have found that this step of planning how to finish a task frees our mind to focus on the here and now rather than obsessing over that impending to-do.
5. Work out. No, really, work out.
“Fitness is the driving force that keeps me energized, focused and motivated,” says Ravich. “Health and wealth go hand in hand. If you take care of yourself daily … you are demonstrating self-respect, and in turn others will respect you, too.” Take the time you deserve to add even a little bit of extra movement every day, whether that’s 30 minutes at once or 10 minutes at a time throughout the day.
6. Exercise in the morning.
OK, so you’re on board with exercise, but a.m. exercise…not so much. Getting active earlier provides energy and endorphins before heading into the 9-to-5, plus it ensures that you won’t have that extra jolt of energy right before bedtime.
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7. Make the most of your exercise.
“You truly only need 30 minutes if you make every minute count,” says Ravich. She recommends going 100 percent on full-body exercises like squats or overhead presses to get the biggest bang for your buck. Performing bodyweight exercises in intervals right in the comfort of your own home can scorch calories in just minutes.
Protect Your Personal Time
8. Set your goals
Barber likens work-life balance to financial management. Like money, you’ve got a limited amount of time. “Know your values, set your goals in relation to those values, create a budget … and stick to your budget,” she says. Understanding how individual responsibilities contribute (or distract from) your big picture goals can help motivate change.
9. Manage expectations.
Even if you’ve powered down your laptop and banished your smartphone, you can still feel the draw of emails piling up in your inbox. Barber recommends talking with your coworkers about the hours you’re available and how long they can expect it to take to hear back from you. The same holds true for family: Make sure your kids and significant other understand when it’s appropriate to interrupt you at work.
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10. Learn to say no.
“Sometimes [work-life balance] means saying “no” and clearly communicating your limits and boundaries,” says Barber. When an opportunity, activity or request comes up that doesn’t fit into your schedule, sometimes you’ve just gotta say no. Even if can find the time, you should still consider whether that commitment fits within your goals and values. You don’t have to say yes just because you can.
Get Enough Sleep
11. Prepare for the day ahead.
Before nodding off, pack up anything you need for tomorrow — a healthy lunch, a gym bag, etc. Being prepared will help you get out the door quickly. All that order and organization might even help you relax before falling asleep.
12. Be bed-ready.
“I set an alarm for seven to eight hours before I know I need to wake up,” says Ravich. That alarm serves as a reminder to hit the hay in time to get enough zzz’s. She also recommends winding down with quiet reading or yoga to relax before bed, though many types of routines can clue your body in on the fact it’s bedtime.
Originally published February 2014. Updated November 2015.