5 tips for achieving a manageable work-life balance

Work-life balance is huge these days. The lack thereof, that is. I can remember before my mother went back to work, way back in 1960 or so, she would have killed for that kind of challenge. She was bored and frustrated by being “stuck” at home while the rest of us went off to lead our lives (to work or to school). Ironing basket loads of clothes and making sure that dinner would be ready when we all got home was not her idea of life or balance.

All these years later there are way, way more women who can enjoy the satisfaction of having their own careers. That can only be a good thing, for many reasons. But, as we all know, having two people working at busy jobs, especially when there are children of school age or younger at home, makes for very busy households with scant time for oneself. Somewhere, somehow, there’s got to be a happy medium.

Recently I had an enjoyable back-and-forth online with a former grad student from Bhutan who is currently studying for her PhD in Australia.  She spoke about the same issue: how to balance the demands of her studies with the needs of her young family, who has accompanied her to Australia during this period of intensive study. This exchange reminded me that this is indeed a world-wide problem. It’s the main thing I hear from younger friends and family: “Everything’s fine, but I’m way too busy.”

I was lucky in this regard. I didn’t start to work full-time until my kids were a bit older and both in school. And the world didn’t have 24/7 Internet in my earlier days of working, so, as much as I love it and couldn’t imagine doing without it, there was more true down-time in pre-Internet days, including down-time from working after hours. But, as my own work-life balance became something to be managed, I did pick up a few tips along the way that might help the next generation cope a little bit better. See what you think.

1. Lower your standards.

Some of our housekeeping expectations are holdovers from the days when middle class women stayed home and maintained a household to unnecessarily exacting standards. This is fine if you really get off on doing these tasks, or if you can afford to pay someone else to do it. But these exacting standards were not proclaimed on tablets as sacred acts. There’s a big difference between a reasonable level of hygiene and perfection. When every member of a household is busy with multiple responsibilities, take stock of which household standards are important to all of you and which ones the majority of you are happy to relax or even forget entirely.

My Eureka moment in this regard came when I was persuaded by my husband and sons, then 11 and 14, that of course I could leave home for a month to work in an exciting new program; they’d be fine without me. Fast forward one month and I returned home to a few changes in how things were done. One was that the three men in my family had introduced a new laundry system, one that definitely did not fit into the exacting standards of old. Apparently, their father had ruined some of their prized t-shirts by doing the unthinkable, putting a dreaded red cotton shirt in with white ones. I don’t think my husband planned this (although it would have been brilliant if he had), but the upshot was that in response to their indignation at their new pink shirts, he suggested that perhaps they’d rather do their own laundry. The system this engineering-trained father came up with resulted in them each having two laundry baskets in their closet, one for clean clothes and one for dirty clothes. When their clean-clothes basket became empty, they would take the full dirty basket to the washer/dryer and, a few washer and dryer cycles later, their clean-clothes basket would be full again. No sorting, nothing in drawers, nothing hung up except their precious cotton t-shirts. Needless to say, the first thing I said was that I was delighted that they could use the washing machine, but why don’t we just sort the underwear and socks, roll the socks together, and put everything away. You can imagine the look I got: why would I do that? And you know what, they were right, they would only be doing it for me, not because it made any sense at all.

I stopped long enough to realize that if I started sorting their laundry for them and putting it away I’d just be doing it for myself; they couldn’t care less. I’d be doing meaningless work to satisfy a standard that only I cared about. Nagging wouldn’t be a lot more effective. I decided to stop caring and to drop that standard. As it was, my husband gave our sons the invaluable gift of knowing how to run a washing machine, which they then passed on to all the kids with whom they went to basketball camp and university residence. And today, when they’re older than I was then, they both seem to be in charge of the laundry tasks in their households. Blame (and thank) your Dad, boys. And teach your kids!

2. Prioritize your to-do list; make sure you’re doing what’s really important to you.

You can’t be all things to all people, either at home or at work. When there just doesn’t seem to be time for everything you need to do, or maybe even more importantly everything you want to do, you need to figure out what on your to-do lists really needs to be done, and when. Prioritize. If you don’t prioritize then you feel overwhelmed all the time because you feel the weight of your entire list on your shoulders instead of one thing at a time.  Bonus: if a need-to item has been on the to-do list for a very long time, maybe it doesn’t really need to be done at all.  Keeping lists, prioritizing the items, and taking pleasuring in ticking them off one by one, can be very satisfying.

Keep your list of what you really want to do separate from your list of what you need to do. You may have less time for these items at the moment, but that doesn’t mean some of them shouldn’t happen. Prioritize this list as well and try to figure out when the top item or two can happen, and how. This is about managing expectations without giving up what matters most. Keeping your dreams alive!

Keeping lists and paying attention to them helps me achieve more with less stress, both for what needs to get done and what I want to do. It just might work for you. And don’t forget, some of the “want” items should include things that are special for you, and some should include things that are special to you and your partner together.

3. If your work has taken over your life, there’s something wrong.

For some of us, work (or study) can easily expand to fill every waking moment. I admit to falling into this category. I also admit that it’s not healthy. No job should consume all of your time, except perhaps in very rare, short, extraordinary, managed situations. If work is taking over your life regularly then there’s something wrong. Techniques for addressing this ailment undoubtedly deserve a separate blog post. But in the short term, re-evaluation of your work and going through steps similar to those in tips 1 and 2 are in order. (And, do as I say, not as I do!)

4. Remind yourself that you may be able to do it all, but not necessarily all at the same time.

All things being equal, adulthood lasts a long time! For those of us who have families, there’s the pre-children phase of life, the child-raising phase of life, and the empty-nester phase. Actually, now that I think of it there are really four phases; the empty-nester phase is more appropriately broken down into a working empty-nester phase and a retired empty-nester phase. Take it from someone who has made it to the 4th phase, each phase brings its joy and rewards along with the muddling-through parts. And there’s a lot more time to concentrate on fulfilling some of your want-to-dos in the last two phases, instead of getting bogged down in your need-to-dos. More time for paying attention to causes that are near and dear to your heart, volunteering, writing, running, traveling, whatever. It’s all a question of prioritizing. You’ll get there. Meanwhile, make sure that most of what is keeping you so busy is satisfying and giving meaning to your life. 

5. Things work best when you and your life partner see yourselves as a team.

Living in such busy times, with so many competing demands, requires family members to be on the same page, ready and able to support each other. It requires communication, cooperation, compromise, flexibility, patience, and mutual respect for what the other person is doing. It’s team work writ large, and not always easy! (Keep that in mind when you’re falling in love! 😉 )

Hopefully, a few of these points resonate with you.  Feel free to share other tips that work for you. 🙂

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9 Responses to 5 tips for achieving a manageable work-life balance

  1. Roy McCarthy says:

    Nice post Jane. Living the single life it is way easier for me to focus on things I enjoy. My small apartment could be cleaner, but it’s OK to my minimal standards. The launderette lady folds stuff neatly enough it needs no ironing. Like your menfolk I’ll most likely find clean socks in the laundry bag instead of a drawer. Cooking for one is quick and simple – how long does it take to put a pre-packed salad, prawns and chopped cheese in a bowl? I keep strict 9-5 work hours unless something really needs completing that evening. That’s the whole solution actually – live the single life 🙂

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol. Bravo on your sensible approach to household tasks, Roy. The bit that you seem to have taken impressive control of that many of us have trouble with (once any young kids are out of the picture), single or partnered, is putting your work to the side outside of work hours. I know many singles and non-single empty-nesters who, without human distraction, let their work fill every hour. So give yourself a big pat on the back and head out for a nice, leisurely run! 🙂

  2. These are such excellent tips! The lower your standards one about keeping up with the house really spoke to me.

    I love cleaning and staying organized, but now that I run my own business and work from home I can’t hardly stand it. Obviously our place is much more lived in than before when me and my husband worked in offices. But, it’s also about how much I prize my time to either run my business, do creative things, or try to find some time to relax. Spending a lot of time cleaning just isn’t my thing now. It’s okay to do the minimum and do a deep clean every now and then. 😉

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I’m glad you found some confirmation and reassurance in the post, Britt. The fact that you even use the term “deep clean” shows that accepting lower levels of cleaning is more difficult for you than for me! However, my guess is that working from home brings additional challenges that may require further tips. I’ll have to give that some thought. 😉

  3. Excellent advice, Jane! There’s much wisdom there.

  4. Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    Excellent tips for workalcholics.

  5. All of your points resonate with me – especially #3. There is life outside of work. I feel sorry in a way for today’s young workers. Because of email, internet, and Smartphones, it’s nearly impossible to get totally away from work. Too many employers (and clients) these days find it perfectly acceptable to shoot off an email at 3 am and expect an immediate reply. In my young working days, everyone had to wait until the office opened at 9 am the next day, because no one dared to actually dial your home phone (landline) at 3 am. That was considered harassment.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for your comments, CM. You are so right. The immediacy of the Internet is addictive, so even with nothing but good intentions the medium takes over our lives. It’s hard to know how we’re going to overcome this intrusion in our lives when we voluntarily spend so much of our time on the Internet. Talk about unintended consequences!

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