10 Ways to Radically Improve Your Work-Life Balance
One of the first and most significant hurdles is learning how to stay on top of things.
For the ambitious people amongst you, their main challenge is often preventing work from dominating everything else all the time.
It’s completely okay for professional achievements to be your number one, as it is the case for many of my clients. I won’t argue with your prioritisation, especially as I myself have lived according to that principle for most of my adult life. Prioritising career success is not the problem. It’s how we go about (or how we should go about) finding that success, which is usually the essence of the challenges that get in the way of health-related, well-being or personal goals.
We are raised within working and corporate cultures that often require us to leave our whole selves at the door when we enter the office. For this, and for many other reasons, I regularly see people struggling with taking control of their ambitions. When our drive becomes the driver, our ability to make rational and healthy choices for yourself becomes a little warped.
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Why Is Work Relevant To Your Health?
When you work in a high-paced job with long and busy hours, the impact this has on your outside-of-work life might be greater than you think. A state of true health, happiness and well-being cannot be achieved after coming home late from work exhausted, stressed and depleted. It’s not what you do between 21:00 - 22:00 that will change your life: it’s how you go about your entire day. This is what makes the difference in the long run.
If you hardly ever properly tend to your basic human needs, such as drinking water, eating a proper lunch or going to the toilet when you need to, how do you expect to look after yourself on a deeper level? If you are rushing from one meeting to another, anxious not to miss key information, never having a moment of peace, and totally unaware of how many cups of coffee you’ve consumed, you’re running on fumes and autopilot. Would you fully trust such a person to make important decisions for yourself or for your work?
I once recruited for an intern position and interviewed a range of interesting candidates in their early 20s. One person shared with me that he always seeks to determine the perceived health or physical shape of the leadership team within the companies he applies at.
This was because, in his view, if they’re unable to take care of themselves, how could they take care of an entire company?
I couldn‘t agree more. Wouldn’t you want to be a leader who is aware and mindful enough to recognise their own needs? This means you'd be more likely to recognise and support the needs of their colleagues and teams, as well as the needs of the wider organisation. We need leaders who act from a place of calmness, reflection, and consideration, not from a frantic state of stress, fear or even panic.
Nutrition Is Important - But It Can’t Fix Everything
It’s important to remember this: health is not a goal in itself. It’s the foundation upon where you can create everything else, particularly your dreams. This foundation is your guiding force, which means it’s one of the key areas in life that, if left untended to and uncared for, will have significant repercussions sooner or later.
If your stress hormones go through the roof the minute the alarm goes off in the morning, the steamed vegetables you eat for dinner later will not be able to make up for it. Eating nutritious foods is, of course, always beneficial, but the damage we can do to ourselves through chronic stress simply can’t be counterbalanced by broccoli or warm lemon water. Your body needs moments of attention and mindfulness regularly throughout the day.
This is why I don’t address nutrition in isolation, especially if the desired goal is feeling happier, more balanced, more confident or being slimmer and fitter overall. Therefore, the question about how to achieve any well-being goal really boils down to how you plan your day. This soon develops into a broader exploration into how to live your life.
For many career-driven people who love their jobs, lifestyle changes can be extremely challenging. Working around the clock can feel exciting and fulfilling, with those infamous ‘healthy habits’ being something of a hobby, or something that happens outside of work, when you’ll get the time.
It’s All About Essentialism
Years ago, during a period where I was snowed under by a workload that I felt was impossible to handle, I wanted every second of the day to be used wisely. On top of this, I had to face the constant demands of my own ambition, perfectionism and busyness. I worked very long hours, made progress in many areas - but still felt constantly frustrated that the to-do-list just got longer. The finish line was always getting further away from me.
I knew something had to change. I came across the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown https://gregmckeown.com/book/ and listened to the audio edition on my way to work. I then started applying the essence of the message: ‘do less but better’.
As I started eliminating tasks, saying ‘No’ to unnecessary requests, and focusing on only a few goals at a time, I struggled with the beliefs I long held about how success is made. For a couple of weeks, nearly every day, I was waiting to get fired. How could I possibly get away with doing less, simplifying processes and taking myself off projects or out of meetings where my input wasn’t critical. I did things very differently, and I was waiting for it to be noticed… and it did. But not in the way I thought. I didn’t get fired or even cautioned. On the contrary, at the end of the year, I was rewarded with much praise for my ‘best year ever’. I was highly confused, until I understood what really makes the difference.
Let this sink in: you are being paid for delivering visible results, not for taking responsibility for every single process. This is particularly true the higher you climb up the ladder. This might be obvious to some of you, but through many conversations with my coaching clients, I realised this is not how we naturally approach our jobs.
The smooth running of operations is not seen as an achievement in itself; the results are what’s truly noticed and rewarded, especially in a male-dominat environment where “bigger, better, and faster” are measurements of success.
It's easy, especially for women and perfectionists, to fall into the trap of thinking, “If I can prove that I can do more things well, I will get more praise and be promoted sooner.” Reality couldn’t be further from the truth. If you are the busy bee, involved in everything and constantly solving everyone’s problems, that’s where you’ll get stuck. It’s naturally more feminine to think about community first, which is an incredible quality. However, when it becomes a default, it’s harder to claim full ownership for your actual responsibilities.
Through learning how to claim what’s yours and leave the rest behind, you not only become better at your job, but you also become better at looking after yourself and all your varied needs.
So how do we do this?
Here are some ways to get started…
ACCEPT THAT YOU CANNOT FIT IT ALL IN
This is probably the toughest step of all. We want to believe in the fairy-tale story that everything is possible, so long as we try hard enough. Don’t fall victim to your own unrealistic expectations.
Living a life by design, not by default, requires you to say “Yes” to only a couple of selected activities. This must be a whole-hearted, fully committed YES. Automatically, what’s implied is saying NO to 80% of the rest. This is all the background noise and everything that doesn’t contribute immediately and directly to reaching your goals. Accept that life is about making trade-offs. Once you have accepted this truth, it has an incredibly liberating and empowering effect. Remember that it’s your life. You decide what to do with it and how to spend your time.
BE CRYSTAL CLEAR ON YOUR LIFE AND WORK GOALS
It pays off to reflect upon what matters to you in life and at work. What are your life goals and what are your professional goals? Which life do you want to lead? Which problems at work do I want to solve? Break your overall goals down to annual and monthly ones, too.
The step before setting goals is understanding that you actually have a choice. If you believe that the only way to show up at the office is a way that leaves you utterly exploited and depleted, I challenge you to question your own belief. Maybe it’s the only way that you know right now, but there are other ways to learn. Your job is rarely the biggest enemy or the part of your life to ‘blame’. If you put another person in your role, they’d probably do things very differently, and that’s OK too. The point is, there are many ways. When we think there’s not, it’s often our own limiting beliefs about what we think we need to sacrifice in order to be successful. And let’s face it, if you are not proactive about setting your life’s priorities, someone else will.
BE A MASTER OF TIME
Time is your most precious asset and gift. No one else but you can decide who you give your time to and how much of it you give.
So how much time do you have per week? Let‘s assume you sleep the 8 recommended hours per night, which leaves you with 16 hours per day. Before you think it, cutting sleep is never advised. It’s a huge component of ill health and not exactly the golden ticket to being more intentional and productive. Working tired is like working drunk: you won't be at your best. Your decision making capacity is considerably lower and your memory will be poor.
So… 16 awake hours per day x 7 days a week = 112 hours you have available to live per week. Get serious and intentional about how many of those hours you truly want to dedicate to work alone.
MAKE SMART TIME-SAVING INVESTMENTS
Next step is to get clear on what other activities apart from work you want to experience. These are the other investments you want to make for yourself that isn’t about your career Bring in activities or goals like incorporating regular exercise, going to more social events, spending time with loved ones, train, read more, start meditating, indulge your creative side, or learn a new skill - all that good stuff. Figure out what you want to achieve and consider them investments in yourself and making your life more fulfilling and well-rounded.
When you look at the numbers and where you spend your time, you will see clearly, in a measurable way, what you truly value. When you remember that life is happening now, know how you want to spend it.
Get smart on where you can carve out more time in your schedule. One day working from home can save you time on the commute. The same goes for other tasks like exercise. Home workouts or running are an easy way to avoid travelling to classes or the gym. Socialising closer to home or work can also help you save time, but still allow you to do what you want.
DECLUTTER YOUR AGENDA (WEEKLY AND DAILY)
With this heightened sense of time awareness, make it a habit to review your plans for the week ahead every Sunday afternoon and minimise your to-do list. Excuse yourself from meetings where your circle of influence is limited; your contribution is only marginal at best; and not attending won’t have any significant impact. You should also do this daily every night before the next day.
If you have an assistant, explain to them that their informal job description is to protect your time. Talk them through certain categories of meetings and help them understand your prioritisation of tasks.
SET CRITERIA FOR ENGAGEMENT
Just because you are invited to a meeting doesn’t mean you have to automatically accept and attend. Set criteria for when you want to invest in an activity, such as the following:
Once you are clear on what you want to do, it’s time to take a closer look at everything else that is on your plate. What activities can you stop doing, downsize, delegate to your team or move to another department? In short, what’s not a great use of your time, or what isn’t even your responsibility to begin with?
LEARN WHEN TO SAY NO AND WHEN TO SAY YES
Once you have come to the internal conclusion of which activities are worth engaging in, you’ll likely come up against social expectations regarding what you are ‘supposed’ to do. This might be your own inner critic, or the feeling that other people might not like the changes you implement.
The sooner you manage to put social expectations aside, the happier you will be. Living life for others never leads to true happiness or success. Life is far too precious to waste it by being good at ‘being normal’. Only when you can learn to assertively (and politely) say ‘No’ can you be able to say a meaningful ‘Yes’ to projects, people and activities that are more aligned with your vision for your life.
SHOW UP FULLY IN YOUR LIFE
We don‘t just say ‘No’ for the sake of it or because we obsess about having a cleared agenda. We say ‘No’ so that we can fully focus on the activities we say ‘Yes’ to. Whatever you decide to go for, rule number one is be present.
Before you enter into a meeting room, clarify in your mind what your role in that meeting will be. A mentor of mine once so funnily said that ‘most people go into a meeting as they go to the toilet.’ Meaning that people went in with an empty mind, without an agenda and not prepared. That shouldn‘t be you.
If you want to contribute, contribute fully. Don‘t just sit there passively and warm a seat. But this doesn’t mean that you have to dominate every meeting. If you are one of the senior people who is excellent at observing the room and getting to the core of the problem as well as summarising the meeting, making recommendations, and allocating action points at the end of the meeting, that’s fair enough. Just be clear with yourself what your role is.
SET DAILY INTENTIONS
The game is won in the mind and in the morning. Use your mornings wisely. Set clear intentions of what you want to achieve on a specific day. Simply letting the day roll over you and dictate what you do once you enter the office is simply not good enough. If you need inspiration for your morning routine, I’ve got many suggestions for you here.
Adopting this intentional approach to designing your days will not make you the office outcast. On the contrary, you will most likely become more respected because you have set strong and healthy boundaries that support better results for you and the team.
With a more mindful and conscious way of living, you will also find it much easier to take care of yourself during the day. Eating the right foods, taking a break, drinking more water, etc., are things that you will now far more easily be able to integrate into your day than before.
I hope these points will help you to be able and ready to gently change your approach so you can stop talking about work-life balance and start experiencing it.