3 Secrets to Better Work-Life Balance

6 minute read

One person’s balance is another person’s recipe for being stressed out.

The first thing to know about a balanced life — one where you spend time working, enjoying family and friends, and taking care of yourself — is that the mix is different for everyone. What brings balance into your colleague’s life could be the thing that throws you completely off center.

There isn’t one recipe or formula.

The second thing to remember is that the act of balancing takes work… and it isn’t always pretty.

Allow me to illustrate…

I’d like you to step away from your computer, stand on one foot, and close your eyes for 20 seconds. (If this isn’t something you do on a regular basis, make sure you have a wall or something you can reach out for. I’d hate to get a bunch of comments about how I made you fall over.)

Go ahead… do it now. I’ll wait.

Okay. You back?

How did that feel? Did you feel like a graceful swan? Or more like a newborn foal? Did your leg start to get tired before you got to 20?

That’s how work-life balance feels sometimes. Not all the time. There will be stretches when achieving balance feels more like standing on two feet instead of one foot with your eyes closed.

But the point is, when you’re wobbling and swaying all over the place, and you have to reach out to grab onto the wall just to find your stability, that’s not failure. That’s just very active balancing. So, give yourself a break. This isn’t a perfect process.

All right, so keeping those two things in mind, let’s dig into three strategies to help you create the balance you’re looking for… and that will result in more standing-on-two-feet moments versus swaying-in-the-dark moments.

Lesson 1:  Constraints Are Your Friend

A wooden fence along a green field on a misty day.
Photo by Jan Canty

When you work for someone else, there are ready-made boundaries you don’t even think about until they’re gone.

The act of commuting to the job creates a ritual that puts your brain into work mode — or, at least signals it’s work time.

And then, leaving the job and returning home establishes this is your time… you’re free to clean the house, binge-watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, or work on your novel. Whatever you want. You get to choose.

When you start working at home, those natural signals disappear. That’s when things can go a little haywire. I know a lot of writers — including myself — who put in late hours working on client projects. I also know a lot of writers — including myself — who occasionally take an afternoon off to go to a movie, go on a hike, or relax over a long lunch with a friend.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Schedule flexibility is part of the draw of freelancing.

But, when you hit your desk at 8 a.m., work through lunch, break for dinner, and then put in a few more hours before bed… there might be a work-life balance issue in the making.

Likewise, if you’re constantly putting off work to do things like clean the house, binge-watch videos, or work on your novel… only to find yourself scrambling to meet deadlines and turning in less-than-your-best work… again, a balance issue is in the works. (Come to think of it, this balance issue is what often leads to the working-all-hours-of-the-night balance issue.)

Setting up your own boundaries for “work time” versus “you time” can help you stay on track.

If you make an agreement with yourself that you won’t get to your desk later than 9 a.m., that you won’t work after dinner, and that you won’t take off more than one day a week, you’ll start to create some separation between work and the rest of your life.

And, by adding in constraints on your work time that you stick to, you’re more likely to focus and get good work done.

You can give this strategy another layer by creating your own “I’m at work now” and “I’m at home now” rituals.

A few ideas for that:

  • Create a commute by going for a short walk before and after work.
  • Kick off your day with an energizing song — the same one every day. And then, close the day with a different, but also energizing, song.
  • Spend the first 15 minutes at your desk visualizing how your day will go. And then, spend the last 15 minutes reflecting on the high and low points of your day and planning (or reviewing) the next day’s schedule.

Embracing constraints is often the first step in creating a better work-life balance.

For some writers, it’s the only step needed.

But you might find, once your work-life balance is in place, there are some things within your work hours that need balance, as well as some things outside of work.

That kind of balance is often solved by setting clear priorities.

Lesson 2:  Make a List of Priorities… and Then, See Lesson 1

What is your number one work priority?

This is an important question to ask yourself regularly.

There aren’t any wrong answers here, and only you can determine your top priority. But there needs to be a top one… a most important thing. No shared crowns here.

To figure out your top priority, make a list of everything important to you about your work. Serving clients. Landing clients. Earning income. Building a network. Launching a new product. Mastering new skills. Staying organized.

Everything you can think of.

Then go through that list and determine which one is the most important. Put it at the top of a new page. Then determine which is the second most important. And then, the third. Go through your entire list and rank your priorities in descending order.

Once you’ve done that, the next step is to establish some constraints within your work schedule that support your top priority, while allowing you also to attend to the other important things on your list.

You might decide you’ll dedicate mornings to your top priority. And then, divvy up your afternoon hours among your other priorities in order of importance.

Your priorities might change month-to-month or even week-to-week depending on what you’re working on. Determine how often you need to revisit this process, and then use it to keep your work schedule balanced.

Use this same process to bring balance to your personal life.

Make a list of all your priorities here, too — family, friends, health, solitary time, hobbies, travel, and so on.

Determine the most important one. Remember, this is your top priority. Not what you think it should be… the thing that is really and truly most important to you.

Put it at the top of a list, and then sort the other things in descending order of importance.

Make sure you’re giving time to your top priority each week.

And then, for the other items on your list, think about how frequently they need attention. Weekly? Monthly? Quarterly?

Block out some time for each one… but always block out time for your top priority first.

Lesson 3:  Build in Open Space

A woman enjoying the sunshine
Photo by Radu Florin from Pexels

You might be getting the idea that the secret to creating a good work-life balance has a lot to do with scheduling.

It does… for many of us, anyway.

If you’re one of those people who works better without any constraints at all, who almost always knows the best next step to take and then takes it, and who can avoid the distractions and temptations that pull many people off course… I both admire and envy you.

But, if you’re more like me — easily distracted, prone to taking on too much, and readier to procrastinate than I care to admit — building a schedule based on priorities and putting constraints on what you focus on and when are going to make a huge difference in how balanced and fulfilling your work and your personal life feel.

But, if you’re like me, there’s a chance you’ll take your priorities and the idea of constraints and you’ll fill every waking hour with something to do… possibly some of the sleeping hours, too. 🙂

That tendency toward overscheduling can also put your life out of balance.

The final piece of the puzzle is to schedule open time.

Have a least one or two blocks during your work schedule each week where you have nothing planned. When you hit that block, ask yourself what you want to work on. Is there a project you’re particularly excited about that you want to give extra time to? Is there a book you’ve been enjoying, but it’s low on your priority list? Is there something you’re curious about and want to spend some time researching?

Whatever you feel like doing during the open block, do it.

Same goes for your off-work schedule.

These open blocks give you the option to goof off, be spontaneous, and explore things you might not otherwise make time for.

If you find work-life balance is elusive, try using these three secrets and see if they don’t put you on a better track. If you have your own secrets for balancing life’s many demands and opportunities, tell us about them in the comments.