How I Learned to Walk the Tightrope of Work-Life Balance
There I was again, the very last person in the office. It always started out the same way. Five o’clock hit and I thought to myself, “One more email. Five more minutes won’t hurt.” And then two hours later, I arrived home to a husband grumbling over a home-cooked dinner that lost all its warmth long ago.
One day, as I walked out of the office, past all of the empty parking spots that I envied, I thought to myself, “What if I was one of those people who just left on time?”
And then I thought, “What if I really was one of those people?”
So began my experiment. For one whole month I would leave work on time. I would consciously NOT put work first. I would enjoy my weekend and turn off my email on my phone.
Yes, I was going to be one of those people with the ever sought-after Holy Grail: Work-Life Balance.
Here are the 6 things I learned:
1. Some jobs are inherently not compatible with work-life balance…and others are.
“If I was a doctor, I couldn’t just leave.” That was one of my sad excuses one day. But I’m not. My work is important and fulfilling, but no one is going to die if I stop for dinner. I’m lucky that I work in the insurance industry, where employers are genuinely concerned for their employees’ work-life balance.
When I checked out Glassdoor reviews of major insurance companies, I saw four and five star reviews across the board. “The benefits are great, and the work-life balance is perfect.” “Management is flexible in approving time off for family commitments or illness.” “Having actual vacation days is awesome at this point in my career.”
2. Work and life are not the only two things.
When I started to think about focusing on my life, I suddenly found myself being pulled in fifty directions. Did I want to focus on family? Did I want to focus on my mental health? How about my physical health? What about my intellectual pursuits? How about my marriage? Spirituality? Community service? Travel?
Stop and think about the most important aspects in your life, and then instead of making a plan for work-life balance, make a plan for work-family-community-fitness-education balance.
3. Saying no won’t hurt your career.
If anything, saying yes to everything will, because you’ll never being able to deliver your best work and you’ll start missing deadlines. When I thought about the strongest people in our office, they were the ones who knew their schedule and limits and could actually devote the time to doing amazing work.
So here are some career-smart ways to say no:
- “My schedule is pretty full today, will Friday work?” If they really need YOU for the project, they’ll come back then.
- “I already have an obligation this evening, I’m sorry I can’t stay.” Any manager serious about work-life balance will respect it. No further excuses needed.
- “My plate is so full right now that I’m not sure I’ll be able to give my best work. I’m happy to give some advice if you need.” This works well for co-workers, and shows that you're interested in their success even if you can't help.
- “My plate is so full right now that I’m not sure I’ll be able to give my best work. Can we sit down and go over my priorities?” This version works best for your boss. It shows you are serious about doing your job well, and that you value their opinion on what projects are most important. But it makes it clear that you can’t do everything at once.
- “I think that’s really interesting, but I know John is really interested in getting more involved since he knows a lot about this.” This one is GREAT because it makes you into a team player who builds others up.
4. Take advantage of your work’s flexibility.
The school girl in me still feels mischievous when I leave the office during my lunch break. Every office obviously has rules that you have to work with. Outside of that, realize that you no longer need to raise your hand to go to the bathroom. There’s a reason your employer has flexible benefits- for you to use!
For me, it was feeling empowered enough to run down the road for Starbucks in the middle of the afternoon, without stressing about missing a phone call. For my co-worker, it was being able to leave a little early to watch her boyfriend’s soccer game. If you’re unsure about the office’s culture, take a cue from the more experienced workers in your office.
5. Balance will come through in the tiniest ways.
Successfully balancing work and life doesn’t necessarily mean you have to perfectly balance 8 hours of work and 8 hours of life every day. It doesn’t have to mean spending 6 months training for a marathon or planning the perfect vacation each spring. Sometimes it’s the tiny, barely noticeable things that really make the most difference. And for everyone that’s different. For me, fulfillment came when I started calling my grandmother once a week, when I started going for a ten minute walk after lunch, and when I stopped checking my email before bed and started sleeping better.
6. Your perspective on life will change.
When my friend mentioned that she was looking for a new job, the first thing I asked was “what kind of lifestyle are you looking for?” She looked at me like I had two heads. Don’t you mean, “What kind of job am I looking for?”
That was a lightbulb moment for me. I realized I had stopped thinking about work as the most important part of my life. Yes, if you have to spend 8 hours of your day working, you might as well enjoy it. But after focusing on the other aspects of my life for so long, I realized how much I never wanted to give that up. Knowing how you want to spend your other 16 hours of your day (and weekends) can really help you narrow down your job search (or open it up to new possibilities!).
Colleen Fitzgerald LaCoss is a program director with The Institutes CPCU Society and Griffith Foundation, where she provides education and career growth opportunities for professionals and students in the risk management and insurance industry.