Have you ever blown off meetings because your kid got sick? Have you ever had an urgent thing come up at work and you scrambled for a last minute babysitter and didn’t come home until the kids were asleep? Is that balance? You are likely to respond that it is not. However, you might discount these examples as emergencies and expect the rest of your life have work/life balance. Be honest with yourself and you will realize that each day is like this to some extent. Moreover, work is as much a part of your life as other important things, such as family. So, how can you balance the whole with its part? Telling yourself that there is a balance that you are not achieving is just making you feel guilty and that you are failing at something important. It is hard enough to get through the day without also feeling like a constant failure, especially since that feeling can only interfere with actually getting things done. Instead, you should focus on managing each given day.
It is important to remember that the list of possible work tasks and home chores is never ending. Thus, expecting to finish everything is unachievable. Instead, use the techniques below to gain some control over your time. This may not produce “balance,” but it will help to make sure that those things that are important to you at any given time are getting done.
The word “balancing” suggests that you are spending equal time on all things, but most often that is not what you need to be doing. Instead of striving for equality among commitments, try starting each day by building a list of tasks that are a “must” for that day. Include all of the day’s musts: work, family and household. Then go back and add in an element that rarely makes it onto the list of musts for many busy people – self-care. Try to include an item of self-care, however you define it, on the list at least several times per week. After you completed this list, take honest stock of your day. Based on how much time there is in this particular day, how many of the musts will and will not get done? If it does not look like there is enough time, reassess your list and move some items to the “It would be great if these things were done” category. This category will hold those items that will get done when you have a chance to do them, but they are not priorities. It is important to be honest with yourself that there is a large chance that items in this category will not get done on that day. Please keep in mind, for the above technique to work, you have to dive right into your “musts.” Procrastinating or pursuing “would be great” tasks undermines the entire approach.
The list of musts should not only include items that are urgent. This list should also include those items that will take less time and will be easier if done now than if you wait until they become urgent. For example, a dental wellness check up may not seem like a “must” because nothing hurts. But, if you keep putting it off until something hurts, and only then put it on the list, the procedures involved will be more elaborate, painful and costly both in money and time. In other words, musts are things that would be hurt by not getting done today.
After determining what must get done, protect those priorities from things that will attempt to encroach on the time. Following the dentist example from above, imagine you decided that this is a must for today and have scheduled an appointment. However, an hour before the appointment time, you get an invitation for a play date that you think your child would love. Your first thought may be, “I can go to the dentist a different day.” At that point, remind yourself that the dentist appointment is a “must” and the play date is not. Go to the dentist.
Also, try to remember that other people’s emergencies are not necessarily yours. For instance, imagine that your must for the day is to prepare for an important meeting that will take place at the end of the week. Then, midway through the morning, your colleague sends you an email asking for something that he needs from you ASAP. This does not necessarily mean that the email takes priority over your prep time. Find out how truly urgent this information is, and whether it can wait until you finish your “must tasks.”
Practice setting boundaries and sticking to them. For example, if you want to get home in time for family dinner, determine what time you have to leave work to make that happen. Set an alarm and make it a point to actually leave at that time whether or not you completed the task you were working on. This sounds unreasonable, but if you were accurate in determining your must activities, then by the end of the day you are working on things that are “good to have done” and those can wait until tomorrow.
Often the busier the person, the more reluctant they are to ask for assistance because “it will be faster if I do it myself.” However, given the number of tasks that are likely on your list at any given time, it is probably unrealistic that you can get through them without assistance. Furthermore, even if you could get everything you need done by yourself, why should you if support is available. Of course there are situations where you have no choice but to do everything yourself, but those are rare for most people. Moreover, you may benefit from devoting your attention to those tasks that only you can do. For example, if you are the person who cooks in the house, then maybe you focus on cooking while someone else goes and picks up your children from school. It will take time initially to pair people with the tasks that their suited for, but in the end this will save you time.
The techniques described above are of course easier described than implemented, and there will be times when life feels out of control. But, understanding that priorities can change day to day will help make life feel more manageable if not “balanced.” Moreover, acknowledging that by making a choice to do something you are choosing not to do something else, rather than failing to get it done, may, in the end, make you feel more in control of your life.