7 Ways to Maintain Work-Life Balance

A while ago Jeffro wrote a post about needing to achieve balance. Unfortunately for him, the post was prompted by a discussion he had with his wife about how much time he spent working. Seriously, read the comments in that post. Many of them have awesome suggestions for maintaining balance in your life.

Here are my top tips for staying productive but keeping balance.

Before we really dig into the tactics to maintaining a good work-life balance, let’s stop and consider this quote.

The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen sit all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard. – The Journal 1837 – 1861 Henry David Thoreau

Tactics can only get you so far. If you’ve experienced trying to juggle 9,000 things at one time, perhaps you’ve developed some strategies for juggling those things more efficiently. But just keeping all the balls in the air does not mean you’re achieving balance. At some point you need to really stop and understand that rushing back and forth among tasks isn’t the way to be really effective. Your strategy may be efficient, but it’s not allowing you to be effective.

Efficiency is not what you should strive for — you should be effective. If you’re going the wrong way, then moving faster (more efficient) is just getting you to a bad end result, faster. In all things strive to be effective. Face the right direction and make continual progress towards your goal.

Now let’s look at some better tactics — ones that will move you towards balance/effectiveness.

1. Say NO way more than you say YES

The most productive thing you have in your toolbox is the word NO.

No, I can’t make that deadline (which was unrealistic in the first place). Sure, you don’t like to disappoint clients, but saying yes disappoints your family and pushes you to burnout as you work evenings/weekends to meet that deadline.  You can’t actually manufacture time, even though you thought you could.

One of my favourite ways to tell new clients I can’t start with them now is to say:

Well, I guess I could say yes to starting next week, but I know if I did I’d be lying. I’d end up serving you poorly and serving my existing client poorly. I don’t think that’s what either of us wants.

Said that way, clients always agree that they don’t want poor service and 99% of the time they’re willing to wait until I actually have the time to start on their project.

Get comfortable with the word no. Just because someone wants to work with you doesn’t mean you need to take the work. Just because someone sends you a Twitter direct message doesn’t mean you are required to respond right away.

2. Schedule your week

Do you know what your ideal week looks like? Do you know how to build that ideal week?

If you answered no to those questions, read the posts that are linked. My ideal week starts with 25 minutes of reading, followed by 25 minutes of writing. Then I get into client work without opening my email because I planned my tasks the day before.

I only take new prospect calls one day a week and if those days are filled for weeks, then a new prospect will have to decide if they can wait a few weeks to get in touch with me. My ideal client will wait because I’m the best person for them. If they don’t wait, then I wasn’t the right person for them.

Okay, it’s great to say you should schedule your week and set boundaries, but what about clients that just keep calling outside of those work hours? Well, that’s your fault, too.

I simply don’t answer the phone for anyone that’s not friend or family outside of my regular work hours. The odd client that’s complained about my availability policy is offered more availability…at a price.

Those clients that want me around evenings/weekends for any possible thing that could come up with their site get offered a fee of $15,000/month for me to do that. Remember, me being available at all those times means I need to be near a cellular connection for them to reach me. That means no mountain runs or canoe trips or…anything that gets me away from Wi-Fi or cell service.

The charge for that type of access to me is $15,000/month, because I don’t want to do it. If a client took me up on the offer, I’d hire one person and pay them $5,000/month for four days a week, spanning the weekend. Then I’d have to cover a few weekends a year while that person was on vacation, which is doable for $10,000/month profit.

Remember — access to you is something that has value and you can charge for that value.

3. Realize you’re stealing

Sure, I could spend time reading about CrossFit or watching the latest videos posted about CrossFit. I could check Twitter 52 times in an hour just to see if something is coming up.

CrossFit is something I do outside of work and is a good thing, in context. Every time I pull myself away from client tasks or my writing tasks I’m actually stealing.

I’m stealing that time from my family or other clients later in the day, or maybe next week. Those client tasks still have to get done and if I want to stick to my ideal week that means a project is going to take longer to get done than it should. That means I won’t be able to take a new project as fast and that means I make less money in a month.

If I stay a bit late to get tasks done then that means I just stole time from my family. I should be at home helping with the kids or house chores, or sitting and talking to my wife.

Every time you get off track you’re stealing from some other part of your life. Time is not ‘found’ since it doesn’t fall out of your pockets into the couch cushions. Time is not ‘made’ either, unless you somehow invented time travel and can go back in time to do things you missed.

Stay focused and stop stealing time.

4. Phone, meet counter

When I get home, 99% of the time I put my phone on the counter. That means I can’t just pull my phone out of my pocket to check Twitter or see if any email came in. I do use my iPad in the house but it doesn’t have any social networks on it (well, it has Goodreads if you count that), and no email on it.

All I can do with my iPad is read RSS feeds, Instapaper and Kindle, or any digital magazines I have.

If my phone rings while it’s on the counter, I don’t even go look at it. See, I set up all friends/family who do have access to me on evenings/weekends with the same ringer, and one that is different from any other call. Therefore, I know immediately by the ring if a call is from a friend or family member, without needing to go visit my phone. Then I don’t have to exert willpower around not just answering a phone call.

This discipline is a bit more than just putting that phone on the counter, though. Do you let Twitter @mentions and DMs send notifications to your phone? I did for a while, but I don’t now. If a DM goes missed for days, that’s fine with me. I have email — which I check regularly — for communication. For current clients, I use Redbooth to communicate through, so those times I’m really busy I can just ignore my email since none of my current clients should be putting anything important in it for me.

Keep that phone out of reach and cut all those notifications. It’s way too easy to get dragged into the screen again.

5. Non-work stuff

For those with kids, you know that kids ensure you give attention to non-work stuff. They need to get driven to skating/hockey/llama wrestling and sometimes you need to do it. For me, it means hitting an arena once a week for an hour and watching a 4-year-old skate around, while talking to other parents and maybe reading a bit.

Saturdays mean getting a baby changed for the pool and sometimes going in with her. The times my wife goes in the pool with the baby, I’m sitting on a couch at the YMCA, reading. No significant work can get done since I don’t take my laptop.

It’s more than just getting out for ‘family’ stuff, though. Some of you don’t have kids to whine at you about your phone or computer time. You need to find something to do that’s not related to work that you enjoy.

For me it’s hiking, biking, CrossFit, climbing. I spend at least 10 hours a week split up between those activities. For you, maybe it’s going to do photography, or LEGO, or building models out of popsicle sticks.

Really, it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you’re doing something that’s not work related and preferably away from your computer. Sitting on that computer after work just isn’t good for you. Find something that gets you up each day and makes you work a bit hard. Even a stiff walk is good for you.

Just take yourself to a place where you can’t do work and you’re not sitting.

6. Meditate/Pray/Tea

Okay, some of you don’t like the word “meditate”. The Christians among you may think about some religion that’s not ‘Christian’ and that feels creepy. I hear that — I felt the same way at first.

So call it prayer time, quiet time…doesn’t really matter. I have a friend that brews a cup of tea and sits down to drink it slowly before he starts his day.

It’s all the same basic principle. Take some quiet time first thing each day, and think. Think about nothing, or the sunrise, or how awesome your tea/coffee tastes. Sit in the quiet space there and don’t dwell on the 9,000 things you think you must do today. They’ll be there in 20 minutes.

Starting your day with that break goes miles towards pacing the whole day properly.

7. Seasons

So we talked about how to not just work all the time, but I want to say that there are times when you need to work a bunch. The year my second kid was born I spent two months working longer hours three days a week so that I could take off from December 15th to February 10th of the next year.

My wife and I sat down and decided that the short-term sacrifice of two months of me getting up early and working an extra few hours was worth the almost two months off work. It was a season of working more.

The thing is, that for most people, that ‘season’ of working more turns into a new lifestyle. If you have a season of working more then sit down and decide how long that season will last before you dive into it. When the time is up, cut the work back to where it should be.

Be ruthless with yourself, even if you feel like you should be working more still. You need that break so you can get productive again. You need at least a few weeks of less than 40 hours working to recover before you can head into another season of working extra if you need to do that.

Those seasons of extra work happen, just don’t let them turn into a life of working all the time.

Those are my main tips for maintaining a good work-life balance. Do you have any that I should be adding? Are you using any of these with success? I’d love to hear about your success stories or any tips that you have to bring balance into your life. Even stories of how lack of balance hindered your life, since I’m sure that there are a number of people reading this saying ‘not me’ — until they read your comment.

photo credit: pasukaru76 cc