Years ago, the secret to work/life balance was the number eight: eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for you. That was good math until technology added the numbers 24/7 to the equation. We are bombarded daily by an avalanche of information and a tsunami of tasks; just sorting through the debris to determine relevance can be a full-time job. Is it possible any more to segregate work time from down time? Yes, but it takes a determined approach. Here are six tips to a better work/life equation.
1. Move from work/life balance to work/life energy, says Henna Inam, CEO of Transformation Leadership, Inc. Since the boundaries between work and life are blurred, it's easy to succumb to burn-out. "Stop trying to balance and start thinking about ways we can be fully energized and creative for all of our life." Begin by finding ways to engage more passionately in work and the daily activities of living, instead of viewing everything as a chore. If it all seems too much, stop for a moment to summon wisdom from philosopher Omar Khayyam who said, "Be happy for this moment, this moment is your life!"
2. Be the center of your attention. Focus on the aforementioned moment. Worrying about deadlines at work and all the tasks awaiting you at home accomplishes nothing but adding more stress to your plate. Are you writing a report? Bring total focus to the assignment instead of stopping every minute to check email or make phone calls. This is not the same as un-plugging (which we'll get to later). If you take a 10-minute break from your desk to go outside and enjoy the sunshine, then enjoy the sunshine and everything else that's out there: trees, flowers, the wind blowing, the birds singing... Breaks help counter-balance work stress, but only if you engage in them fully. "People think they're refreshing themselves [by indulging in video clips or texting], but they're fatiguing themselves," says Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist. If you're standing there under a glorious blue sky and checking out what's new on Pinterest, you're not just missing the point, you're losing an opportunity to create balance.
3. Schedule downtime. Make regular appointments on your calendar for fun, quality time with your family, friends, or just you, and keep that time sacred – no cancellations because the lawn needs mowing, no "emergency" phone calls from needy friends or co-workers. An afternoon spent without interference from work-related issues is a miracle pill for the psyche.
4. Drop the soul-suckers and time wasters. Every voluntary minute spent with a toxic co-worker or trawling through internet sites or sitting at home watching excessive amounts of television is a minute you could be doing something to really feed your soul and contribute to a sense of balance. Want to learn to play the piano? Tune up your vocal chords and sing in a choir? Try your hand at painting? You can find the time, if you'll start saying no to the things that waste it.
5. Get moving. Exercising every day, even if it's walking around the yard pulling weeds, boosts energy levels and your ability to concentrate, say doctors at the Mayo Clinic. You'll just feel better, and that's a big part of balance, too.
6. Balance your mind-set. It's literally more important to feel work/life balance on the inside than on the outside. The only total control you have in life is over your thoughts so use them to your advantage: Make your home a Zen-zone by tuning out work when you walk through the door. Resist checking the lap-top and cell-phone for messages from the office until you can learn how to revel in the disconnection. Better yet, power everything down, at least for a couple of hours every evening. Drawing a line between you and technology offers many benefits says Dr. Jim Taylor, an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. "The cumulative effect [is] closer and stronger relationships with the people you care most about and deeper engagement in the activities you enjoy most."
Pressure to be "on" all the time is very real. Look at the new normal in the workplace: "Downsizing" or "rightsizing" means there are fewer people doing more work; the "paperless society" that was supposed to revolutionize the way we do business never happened – we have more to contend with than ever and technology keeps changing so fast we can barely keep up; the emergence of new start-ups and niche business competition is enough to keep business owners on edge all the time. No wonder everyone struggles with balance.
Even though the only "eight" we may ever get to indulge in anymore is the number of hours we sleep, we can still find ways to segment job and life in chunks that work for us. The key is evaluating and managing our own priorities to create a healthy separation between work and home, then protecting that division with discipline and commitment. As Hillary Rodham Clinton once reminded us, "Don't confuse having a career with having a life."