Ever feel like trying to strike the perfect work-life balance has you teetering on the edge of insanity?
While it might be tempting (and easier) to simply push your personal needs to the side, it turns out this approach is likely to backfire on you.
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According to the OECD Better Life Index, working long hours without incorporating some leisure time into your day has the potential to negatively impact your health — and only add to your stress levels.
So what’s an ambitious, overscheduled person to do?
For me, a work-from-home mom of two, my saving grace comes in the form of a 5 A.M. wake-up call.
With my husband and children fast asleep, all I have is a hot cup of coffee, my home office, and some peace and quiet to really lean into my projects for a few hours.
I always regret the mornings when I hit the snooze button, because it usually leaves me playing a stressful game of catch-up for the rest of the day.
Looking for a few more better-work-life-balance hacks to add to your repertoire? We rounded up six people who were ready and willing to share the secrets of their daily balancing acts.
Who: Grainne Kelly, 43, founder and CEO of a children's product design company in Derry City, U.K.
“My home isn’t just the place my husband, Fintan, and I are raising our two sons; it’s also our workspace. That’s right — we're life partners and business partners.
As you can imagine, establishing boundaries isn’t always easy, but I think we do a pretty good job of it, thanks to a killer trick we call ‘The Rule of the Stairs.’
About six years ago, when Fintan was working in foreign exchange and hospitality management, he’d arrive home exhausted, deep in thought and full of stress.
Naturally, he'd vent about whatever troubled him during office hours — and bring all that negative energy into the house. We’d end up hashing everything out at the dinner table, cutting our children out of the conversation in the process.
That’s when I invented ‘The Rule of the Stairs’: Once your foot touches the first step in the front hall separating the kitchen and home office, no more work-talk is allowed.
This trick was such a game-changer for us that we kept it in play when we launched our business a year later. The same rules apply: if I want to talk about work and Fintan's already upstairs, I’ll e-mail him that we need to discuss the topic the next day.
Now, when our 11- and 14-year-old sons are sitting around the table with us, we give them our full attention — a change that has helped us transform dinner into time that we use to talk, laugh and connect as a family.
‘The Rule of the Stairs’ has helped us keep work where it belongs — in the office.”
"After a decade of being a family doctor (and delivering 500 babies!) I found myself feeling seriously burned out."
Who: Dike Drummond, M.D., 56, a health care speaker and physician's coach in Seattle
“After a decade of being a family doctor (and delivering 500 babies!) I found myself feeling seriously burned out.
As a physician, it’s not always easy to flip the switch when you’re home and put your own needs first. There’s a level of built-in guilt that comes with not being able to give every patient your undivided attention, especially since medical training drives home the importance of perfection.
I eventually stepped out of the rat race altogether in 1999, and now work as a burnout prevention coach for other doctors. My aim is to help them identify the best ways to build a more ideal practice and achieve better work-life balance, based on my own experiences and understanding of the unique pressures doctors face.
One of the biggest lessons I always stress to them is one that’s served me well, both in my current position and as a practicing physician: Master the art of saying no.
Say it’s the day after a doctor has operated on a patient, and it’s his day off. If a nurse calls to check on medications or ask a question, nine out of 10 doctors will take that call. But to give yourself a chance to recharge, my advice is to politely tell the nurse that it’s your day off, and direct her to the on-call doctor.
While it may feel uncomfortable to say no, you can’t reach your full potential if you’re always feeling depleted.
And if you don’t establish boundaries, these calls—or other asks, like when a coworker tries to get you to take on one of his responsibilities—will continue to eat up your personal time until you put your foot down.”
The Hack: Combine Personal and Professional To-Dos
Who: Matt Girvan, 35, cofounder of a software development start-up in Truckee, California
“For years, I tackled my work responsibilities and personal obligations like most people, using two separate to-do lists.
As a Silicon Valley sourcing director, I was never short on professional tasks that needed my immediate attention, so crossing off work to-dos was a cinch.
As for my personal life? Let’s just say those items, from oil changes to returning friends' e-mails, were consistently neglected until I could catch my breath at work.
I didn't give it much thought until about three years ago, when my wife Amy confessed that she wished I could devote more time to my personal life. She'd recently given birth to our son, and was often left organizing everything from grocery trips to nights out with friends while I stayed glued to my work.
That’s what prompted me to adopt the work-life hack that's totally changed the way I view my time: Instead of jotting down tasks on two separate lists, I now make one that encompasses all of my responsibilities.
I admit that it's still mostly made up of work tasks, but I make a conscious effort to include three or four personal needs, like ‘Take Amy out to dinner’ and ‘Hit the store.’ If it’s there, in black and white, I will prioritize it.
Since overhauling my strategy, I now remember birthdays, book flights in advance, and even pick up my son from preschool, all because I’ve planned ahead by including them on my master list.”
"Just last week I pulled back-to-back, 11-hour days, but it didn’t feel nearly as bad, knowing that it wasn’t my everyday reality anymore."
Who: Tamera Malone, 27, a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee
“When I began my career as a special education teacher six years ago, I knew I wanted to do everything in my power to help my students succeed.
For years, this drive often translated into spending much of my time lesson-planning or working on other school-related responsibilities — instead of working out, watching my favorite TV shows or spending time with friends.
Then, last year, whatever work-life balance I had flew out the window. I accepted a new position in an underperforming elementary school, and the stakes were high to turn around below-average reading levels. So I threw myself into the job, working 11-hour days, plus most Sundays.
At the end of the year, I was exhausted, and knew I couldn’t keep up that pace much longer. I never wanted to become one of those burned-out teachers who’d lost all of their passion.
So before the start of the current school year, I made a commitment to start prioritizing more 'me' time, vowing to tackle any extra work on my plate by either arriving to school early or staying late, but not both.
As a natural morning person, I decided to stick with the early-arrival route, getting to work around 6 A.M. to knock out a few tasks before my day officially started at 7 A.M.
To my pleasant surprise, this little hack has made all the difference. I’ve become super organized and much better at planning ahead in order to get everything done, so that I can sneak out by 4 P.M. guilt-free.
Of course, I don’t always keep to my new rule. Just last week I pulled back-to-back, 11-hour days, but it didn’t feel nearly as bad, knowing that it wasn’t my everyday reality anymore.”
Who: Miranda Marquit, 35, a freelance writer in West Chester, Pennsylvania
“As an independent contractor, maintaining a high level of productivity is essential to my success. The more I can get done — and bill my clients for — the more money I earn.
But keeping a laser focus can sometimes be difficult while working from home. I find it all too easy to feel frazzled and distracted.
If I let these feelings go unchecked for too long, my work stress starts to creep into my daily life. My mind races and fatigue sets in, which, of course, further deteriorates my concentration at work. It’s a vicious cycle.
About 10 years ago, I confessed these feelings to a friend, who encouraged me to fight them with meditation. I’m glad I took that advice; it’s truly been a life changer!
Meditation has helped me clear my mind, enjoy my successes, and pinpoint what really matters in the moment, whether that’s digging into a homework assignment with my son or meeting an important deadline.
And it doesn’t even eat up much of my day. After I wake up, I spend a few moments clearing the mental clutter by flowing through some 'sun salutation' yoga poses, using meditation balls, or following a guided meditation app. I repeat the exercise for five minutes at lunchtime and again at the end of the day.
While I’m sometimes tempted to power through certain tasks without stopping to meditate, I always thank myself for following through. I’ve found that my ideas flow better, and I’m able to produce better quality work, which, in turn, gives me extra time to devote to my family.”
"Responding to a non-urgent e-mail at 10 A.M., instead of 10 P.M., isn't going to tank deals."
Who: James Merse, 23, an account executive in New York City
“When I first started out in my career, I thought proving yourself as a newbie meant you had to devote 100% of your time to work.
So I made myself available 24/7, often sacrificing precious personal time by fielding e-mails and responding to requests up until I went to bed.
But I gradually came to realize that, despite working all hours of the day, I wasn’t actually getting ahead. Client demands continued to stack up, and I never found myself less stressed because I’d worked the night before.
So, almost a year ago, I implemented an after-hours technology ban: After I leave the office, I don’t open my laptop, check my e-mail or answer my work phone for the rest of the day. Instead, I fill my time with things that make me happy, like weeknight outings with friends or catching up on some rest, and I don’t feel guilty about it.
I’ve been pretty transparent with my colleagues and boss about this new rule, and it’s been really well received. I'm sure that's because responding to a non-urgent e-mail at 10 A.M., instead of 10 P.M., isn't going to tank any deals.”