Updated: Mar 1, 2021
I generally estimate I am awake about 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. So about 112 hours a week, somewhere around 450 hours a month, nearly 5400 hours a year...you get the gist. The typical work week is about 40 hours, so about 160 hours a month, 1920 hours a year...perhaps a bit less when factoring in vacation. Any way you slice it though, time spent on work is a lot. I used to pride myself on this time. Growing up, I would turn in extra reports, just for the sake of doing more than was asked of me. I never skipped extra credit, and loved to add some sort of creative additional unnecessary feature to every project I worked on. I once added raised topography to a map I was supposed to draw for an Idaho history assignment and my 4th grade teacher was so confused she called my dad. I was so dead set on proving that I had worked the hardest, but what did that really do for me? I remember my ex accusing me of being more in love with my job than I was with him, after yet another night of staying late, grabbing happy hour, and then bringing my computer home for some pre-bedtime catching up. I rolled my eyes and dismissed it, but looking back I was completely neglecting him. I think there were a lot of things I was neglecting.
I still have a lot of learning to do, but I’ve made some pretty drastic changes to the way I approach and perceive my career. I don’t want to find so much of my identity in what I do. It’s not exactly like a switch you can flip, but I’ll share a few lessons I’ve learned/am learning that have helped me find a bit more balance between work time and personal time.
Know my weaknesses
Especially working from home, I don’t want to be sitting at my desk from 9:00-5:00. So I’ve really tried to pinpoint my weaknesses and my time wasters. My first weakness is that my brain is basically garbage by mid-afternoon. I love my mornings and am usually up well before the sun, but that focus and energy can only last so long. With that in mind, I try to get started early, to get my more complicated projects going in the morning, and to leave the busy work to those later hours in the day. I also know that distractions have been a huge roadblock for me in the past. I am pretty type A and can’t stand to see a notification floating around out there, so I am constantly opening and closing apps, clearing emails, and clicking through Slack messages. I’m sure many of you can relate, but every time I open an app, click into email, or open up Slack, I’m there for sooo much longer than intended. So I’ve been trying a few things that have really worked for me.
To address my phone notifications, one of our board members, Ajna, looped me in on the fact that you can just mute phone notifications altogether. I also have removed social media from my home screen and I keep my phone in a separate room, just with the ringer on in case someone absolutely needs to get a hold of me. I’ll set specific times to check my texts and limit myself to only finding my social media apps when I’m wrapped with work for the day.
As far as email goes, I have an auto-reply setup to let contacts know that I only check my email at specific times, and just leave my phone number in case they need to reach me outside of those hours. I’ll still check here and there if I need to get into old emails throughout the day, but at least at this point I don’t feel obligated to reply right away. I know this won’t work for everyone, but if you can somehow integrate it into your approach and just okay it with your company, I have found it to be a total game changer.
As far as Slack/work messaging goes, and I know this is not easy for everyone to do, but I really only use it for work-specific needs, only when it's absolutely necessary, and I keep myself on away mode. Again, there are exceptions as it is definitely the most convenient way to get quick answers to questions, but keep it work-related and only check it at specific times. I probably seem cold to my colleagues, but I’ve reduced a hell of a lot of time looking at my computer each day.
My last biggest weakness is time management. I love to promise I will have something done by a certain time before I’ve actually thought about what else I have on my plate. I’ve been in my current role for the last year or so and I’m wearing many more hats than I ever have before. So I have to get this sort of thing under control. One thing I’m trying to master is prioritization. Lately I’ve been re-prioritizing every morning, and figuring out what my one biggest priority for the day is and then working backwards and asking myself if there is anything that doesn’t need to be done today. If so, I move that task to a day that makes more sense.
I was recently listening to this interview Tim Ferriss had with Jerry Seinfeld on Tim’s podcast (pretty sure it’s like 30 minutes in on episode #485- the podcast is called The Tim Ferriss show...pretty easy to remember) and took down a concept I love. Seinfeld talks about teaching his daughter how to approach writing. Rather than dedicating an entire day to it and ultimately failing at reaching that pretty unattainable goal, he suggests a specific chunk of time, like an hour. For that one hour, he says (I’m paraphrasing) she essentially needs to eliminate all distractions and devote that one full hour to writing and not spend any more or any less time on that one task. At the end of the hour, she gets to reward herself with cookies and milk...because she’s a kid. I can’t do cookies or I’d have a major weight problem, but I give myself breaks. So for example, I might have an RFP due and say I’ll dedicate 2 hours this morning to only working on this RFP. When the two hours are up, I can get up, grab some water, check my phone, just something to give my brain a break. Then I have another maybe one hour chunk to work on sales technique trainings, take a break, a couple hours to prep/present/follow up on prospect demos, take a break, etc.
Separate work from home
The last company I worked for had about 1500 employees in our main office, and I would guess 90% of us were 25-35 years old. We had a mostly open concept workspace, similar interests, often not a huge amount of afterhours commitments, and we spent a lot of time together. The camaraderie was great, coming into work was fun, but ultimately I think it hurt my productivity and professional relationships, and it 100% was damaging to my home life.
I love a good happy hour and we’ll do occasional team outings at the company I work for now, but I think I’ve changed my tune about the nature of my friendships with the people I work with. Here’s my reasoning:
It’s really hard to turn work off after you leave the office.
Respect and professionalism is harder to maintain when someone knows all of your personal details.
Gossip happens, and you will be the topic of it at some point.
You already spend most of your waking time with these people and they know a certain side of you...it might be alienating to your partner or family when those relationships then bleed into your time meant to be spent with them.
If you’re looking for work/life balance, you need to be able to turn work off at some point. Adam Grant talks on his podcast about a firefighter actually removing his uniform and washing off before he goes home to sort of symbolically leave work at the door. I think you can do the same with your peers. If you have designated people to talk to about work, at work, and you can (for the most part) keep your personal life separate...it makes it that much easier to really settle into your time away from the office and not be hung up on work issues. In a similar vein, I wish I would have spent less time talking to my partner about work. High level conversation is probably healthy, but why would he want to hear about all the crap I have going on in the time that I’m spending away from him rather than working on things that matter to us or relaxing and letting loose together? Again, I think leave it at the door, and savor the time that you have to really live your life.
Set boundaries, and early on
This has by far been my biggest lesson, and I still have a long way to go. I know I do my best when I make sure to turn work off. But it’s really hard to do that when you’ve already shown your colleagues and clients that you are always on. I remember sitting in my hotel room on my honeymoon going back and forth on a deal we were trying to pull in. No one expected that from me, but that was who I had always portrayed myself to be and I thought I had to stay in line with that persona. People don’t appreciate that; it just sets unrealistic expectations all around. We all benefit from addressing what work/life balance boundaries we need, and then we need to make sure we adhere to them :) So set an OOO email when you’re on vacation that clearly states you will not be reading emails...and then don’t read emails. Agree to only reading work related messages and emails between certain times of the day, and then don’t send any outside of those times, either. It might be that much easier to really turn it on, when you’ve had some time to really turn it off.
There have to be many other takes on this, but this is what is working for me. We would love to hear about any lessons you all have learned in setting up an approach to work/life balance that works for you!