We all crave the elusive work-life balance. It comes up again and again in the events I’ve hosted for WTS’s Mentoring Program. It’s always interesting to see how panelists and speakers respond, because a lot of them haven’t figured it out either. I remember the first career panel I hosted as co-chair of WTS’s Mentoring Program, someone asked how to achieve this balance and the first panelist answered, “if you figure it out, let me know”. Over the years, however, I have been able to piece together some helpful advice. I gave a brief synopsis in my last blog post, Lessons from WTS-DC’s Mentoring Program, but there was too much to say so I’m breaking it out into a separate post.
Hearing stories from numerous panelists and working with my mentors, my approach to work-life balance is continuously evolving. I used to think there were specific jobs that offered work-life balance and I just had to find them. While it’s true that some jobs are more or less conducive to work-life balance than others, I’ve learned that in almost any job in any sector, you can fall prey to working way too many hours and burning out. When my Mentoring Program co-chairs and I brainstorm people to invite to the panels, we make sure we have a representative from each sector. For example, this year’s panel included someone from the Federal government, local government, non-profit, and someone who currently works for a transportation agency but has worked for private consulting firms in the past. They all have the same challenges when it comes to work load – in every single sector, in almost every position they’ve been in.
So how do you find work-life balance? To sum everything up in one sentence: you have to set the boundaries to achieve work-life balance – it won’t fall into your lap. No one is going to know how much you can handle except for you. You need to be your own advocate. Sure, but how do you turn down additional work? While these of course won’t work for everyone, our panelists had the following tips:
Focusing on the Essentials
What can you take off your plate? What is not essential? If you take too much on, your work will suffer (not to mention your physical and mental health). Instead, figure out which tasks at work and at home are most important and stop doing anything else that isn’t absolutely necessary. If you are able, delegate to a coworker, ask your boss for an intern, outsource household chores, etc. You can then excel at whatever you choose to focus on and that is what makes people want to work with you.
Alternative to Saying ‘No’
On a related note, instead of just saying ‘no’ when asked to take something else on, provide alternative options. At work, instead of telling your boss you can’t take on a new task, say you can do it but you need help. You and your boss can work together to figure out how your team can get the work done so that it’s not all piled on you. This can similarly be used for extra-curricular activities. For example, if you’re asked to speak on a panel, join a board, or volunteer at an event, and you just don’t have the time, recommend someone else who can take your place.
Get Out of the Office
Your time outside of work is important. If you have a flexible schedule and worked more at the beginning of the week, make sure you actually leave work early at the end the week. People make this mistake with vacation too when they don’t use all of their PTO. Taking time off makes you more productive and will improve the quality of your work. And when you take time off, truly be out of the office (i.e. no answering emails or work calls).
Take care of yourself, know your limits, and trust that you are appreciated and respected enough to take a step back without impeding your career. In fact, easing up when necessary will probably improve your career in the long run.
Again, some jobs and professions (and some bosses) are more conducive to these techniques than others and sometimes this advice just isn’t possible. But I think a lot of people would be surprised about what is possible when you ask for it, as long as it’s a well-thought-out, reasonable request.