10 ways to achieve better work-life balance

These tips will help bring balance to your workday.

“Work-life balance.” What a quaint phrase! These days, it’s like a lonely kid is sitting on that seesaw. The work side is buried in the mud, and the life side is way up in the air, out of reach. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We’ve put together a list of tips on making your work more manageable. And while we might not get you to the perfect state of equilibrium — which is different for everyone — we can at least get you closer to a semblance of balance.

If you’d like to learn more about how employees and hiring managers are adapting to the new working world of today, check out our survey of thousands of people on hiring, job hunting and more, including work-life balance.

1. Start with a dream.

Let’s indulge ourselves in some idealism, shall we? Imagine your perfect workday — a day where nothing goes wrong, all the stoplights on your commute turn green, and no one drops a pile of extra work on top of you. Now, try turning it into a schedule. Hour by hour, what are you working on? Fill in your day, all the way to the end of work, and then keep going. What would you like to do after work? Drinks with your pals? A movie with the kids? Take note of how much time you’re spending on work tasks vs. personal endeavors. Do you like the balance you’ve struck? If not, go back and reorganize the schedule, even if you need to leave something out just for now. We’re not going to show this to your boss — this exercise is purely imaginative.

2. Then get real. Really real.

Now that you’ve mapped out your dream workday, it’s time to burst your own bubble and get real about your schedule. Things do go wrong, every dang traffic light catches you on red, and, lo and behold, someone forgot to fill out that order form last week, so now you’ve got a ton of extra stuff to deal with. Hello, Monday.

We’re going to make the opposite of the schedule you made in step one. This one is going to be coldly accurate. Keep a rough diary of everything you do for a whole week. OK, not everything you do. Don’t write down every breath you take. But be honest with yourself. How much time were you driving, or checking emails, or doing work tasks? Keep it up after work. How much time did you really spend on your hobbies? Were you so beat from the day that you just collapsed on the couch when you got home?

At the end of the week, put your dream schedule and your painfully real schedule side by side. Note the differences — there will probably be a lot of them. You won’t be able to do much about some or even most of them. Traffic lights turn red. Order forms get forgotten. But could you save some of those emails for the next day? Talk to your manager about the work overflow bleeding into your family dinner? Identify your pain points, then see which ones you can heal.

3. Make friends with your alarm.

Are you one of those workaholics who looks down at their watch and realizes, whoa, lunch was supposed to be an hour ago? If your workday doesn’t have enough structure built in, it’s tough to keep track of the hours. Set yourself reminders or alarms on your phone so that your breaks don’t pass you by. And if you find yourself drooling whenever your phone goes off, blame Pavlov, not us!

4. If you can, unplug.

We can’t all decide to leave work behind for the day. Truckers can’t just teleport home when they’re worn out, and patients’ needs don’t conform to the schedules of even the most fastidious nurses. But if you can, unplug at the end of the day. Learn to meditate, try that new yoga pose that might be just a little too hard, take a walk around your neighborhood, or, if you’re traveling, look up a park to explore nearby.

Folks who work from home have an especially hard time disconnecting from work — after all, their office is literally inside their home. So set your work accounts to “offline.” You could even remove your email app from your phone. Restrict work tasks to work hours. For most of us who aren’t first responders, there are no real work emergencies. You can get to it in the morning.

5. Learn to say no.

No to consulting on your coworker’s new project. No to organizing the entire extended family’s vacation all on your own. No to joining that board, that club, that neighborhood committee about whatever. No, no, no.

No is one of the most beautiful words in the English language, but it gets a bad rap. The goal here isn’t to be a jerk, but you need to protect the precious little time you carved out in step two. Politely decline requests you just can’t devote enough hours to. It can be difficult, but most of the time, people will understand — they’ve got responsibilities to juggle, too. And it’s better to be honest about how much you can give than to overwhelm yourself and come up short. Just. Say. No.

6. Set expectations early.

It’s one thing to set a boundary between your work and your personal life, but moving an existing boundary is another matter. If you’re always staying late, checking emails at 6:30 p.m. and pushing personal plans to accommodate work, people will come to expect those things from you. Better to get a clear idea of your responsibilities and draw reasonable lines in the sand early on. If you’re starting a new job, make sure to ask your recruiter, HR partner or hiring manager for a clear set of expectations, so that you know exactly how much work you’re signing up for. Also ask them about things like paid time off — especially for parents and caretakers — and overall workplace culture. Will your hours be flexible? Will work come up on nights and weekends? Strategizing around this from the outset will prevent you from working yourself into an unworkable situation later. And if you are looking to recalibrate at your existing job, talk to your manager or HR about small ways to accommodate your needs. Maybe you could institute a team-wide moratorium on work messages after a certain hour in the day, or maybe you and a coworker could split up some work so that no one is too overwhelmed.

7. Protect your hobbies.

Your hobbies are the proverbial canary in the work-life balance coal mine — if you don’t have time for the things that bring joy into your life, something has gone wrong. When you’re setting your schedule, do your best to carve out time to play baseball, or work on that antique car, or practice the piano. If you’re struggling to stay connected to your passions, look for little ways to incorporate them into your idle time. Maybe you could listen to a podcast about classic cars on your way to work or start a fantasy baseball league with your coworkers.

8. Set clear, concrete goals.

It’s great that you want to be the best nurse you can be, the most talented trucker on either side of the Mississippi, or the coolest customer service rep in America. (Hey, they should give out a trophy for that!) Your drive is the reason you got hired. But big, nebulous, abstract goals have a way of running out of control. You’re not going to achieve your lifetime professional dreams in a day, and if you try to, you’ll burn out in no time.

At the start of each day, make a list of your specific, concrete responsibilities, or review the list you get from your manager. Add any goals — again, thinking small and specific — that you’d like to work on a little each week. Maybe you’re a nurse who wants to cut the time it takes you to administer an IV in half. Maybe you’ve been hitting the gym and you want to load that delivery truck 20% faster. These are easy to track (if not so easy to pull off) and won’t spiral out beyond work hours so much as those “Be the best there ever was” kinds of goals.

9. Got PTO? USE IT!

We’re not all lucky enough to have paid time off, so if you’ve got it, for goodness’ sake, use it! Take it from us: you are not letting your team down. You are not being lazy. You are not slowing down production. If your employer sets aside PTO for you, they plan on you using it. Don’t feel guilty about taking time that belongs to you. It will do wonders for your mental health.

10. Ask for feedback.

Your work-life balance doesn’t just affect you — it affects your family, your friends and, yes, your coworkers. So make sure to get feedback from all the important people in your life — especially the important people in your personal life. Are your friends missing you? Does your kid need a little extra help with their homework? Does your spouse need you to handle snacks for the soccer game next week? Talk to your manager, too. Is your performance at work satisfactory? Are there things you could improve, other areas you could pull back from? Survey others about how your time management is affecting them, and you could learn something about how to structure your day.