By Amanda N. Wegner
For many people, juggling the demands of work with their personal life is an everlasting challenge. This challenge is compounded by the fact that many of us are struggling under the rising competition and undue expectations of work, home, and our 24/7 society, all while trying to do more with less time and resources. Taken together, achieving work-life balance often feels like an impossible goal.
“I think real balance, at least the way we think about it, is elusive,” says Chariti Gent, a life coach based in Madison.
But that also doesn’t mean that work-life balance is unattainable. Instead, it takes some effort.
“Balance,” says Gent, “is really about counterbalance. Day in and day out, you may be feeling like your balance is off and you’re not alone. But it’s not about a single day. You have to take in the bigger picture. It takes work to get work-life balance.”
Adds Dr. Daniel Christy, Ph.D. of the Aurora Behavioral Health Center in Lake Geneva: “… What we mean by work-life balance is weighing the relative importance of different commitments, such as hours at work versus family time. Having the proper ratio of work hours to family hours to recreational hours is necessary for long-term sustained performance and results. A saying I like to use is ‘You can’t pick the fruit if you don’t water the tree.’”
SIGNS OF IMBALANCE
It’s fairly easy to tell if you’re not properly “watering the tree.” The big warning sign, says Christy, is when thoughts about one aspect of life start to interfere with the other, such as constantly thinking about family, children or bills while at work.
“While a certain amount of this is normal in all of our daily lives, if the thoughts are incessant, frequent and very difficult to redirect, this is one sign that work–life balance is out of whack,” says Christy.
Another key sign of imbalance is that people stop taking care of themselves, according to Dr. John “Jack” Jansky, Ph.D. and psychologist at Mercy Behavioral Health Clinic, Walworth. “They haven’t seen a doctor in a long time, they haven’t seen their dentist, they’re not taking care of regular, preventative issues. If we are feeling overwhelmed, we don’t take preventative steps.”
Physical manifestations of one’s mental health are also strong indicators that something’s amiss. “The body knows before the mind,” says Gent. “If you’re dealing with chronic illness, insomnia, anxiety, a lack of excitement, these are all indicators that something is out of whack. If you’re feeling stressed overwhelmed, sensitive, these will manifest physically if not addressed over time.”
Other signs include procrastination, or avoidance of the less pleasurable aspects of a job, to a damaging degree; easy irritability; and shortness with and lack of tolerance with customers, co-workers, supervisors, friends and family. At worst, imbalance can also affect appetite, sleep, muscle tension, headaches and gastric distress or lead to indulgence in less-than-desirable stress management practices.
It’s also important to note that friends and loved ones may recognize that something’s amiss before you do. “We all have a certain behavior, certain demeanor,” says Jansky. “A deviation from this baseline is indicative of stress or anxiety in our lives and usually our friends and family see this before we’re aware of it.”
TIPS TO ACHIEVE WORK-LIFE BALANCE
Achieve mind-body health
Even before work-life balance, it’s important to have good body-mind health; you have to take care of yourself physically, including exercise, nutrition and sleep, says Jansky.
Be clear about your priorities
When your true priorities aren’t routinely honored, says Jansky, that can greatly contribute to imbalance. “Whatever is most valued by you, you’ve got to find ways to be working them in.”
Gent suggests writing down the top five things — and only the top five things — that matter most. “Get clear on those and design a life around them,” she says.
The philosopher Nietzsche, says Christy, once said, “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how.’ Ask yourself: In what order are your various commitments prioritized?” says Christy. “Is work primarily to support your family or is the nature of the work itself part of your purpose or identity or your “why”? This will help you get through any particularly difficult unbalanced times.”
If people are among your top five priorities, go for quality over quantity in planning and spending time with them. For instance, sitting in room watching a movie is two hours of time, but it’s not necessarily quality time.
With children, ask them open-ended questions, such as “Tell me about your day” instead of “What did you do today?” to invoke genuine, thoughtful conversation.
“Aim for quality and authenticity in your interactions with those who are important to you,” says Jansky. “This is important for good, strong relationships.”
Schedule in white space
Not every minute of the day has to be filled with something; allow for rest and unstructured and unscheduled time.
For individuals who work high-stress jobs, Jansky suggests that instead of running straight home, build “decompression” time into the day. “It may actually be good to stop at the health club and work out and process all the issues of the day,” he says. “That way when you get to wherever you’re heading, you can focus on that particular environment and the people there.”
Manage energy, not time
While we are taught to manage our time, Gent believes that’s false thinking.
“We have to start thinking less about time management and more about energy management,” says Gent. “We’re all on the same clock, but some of us are night owls, some early birds. When your energy is highest, you’re doing your best and you should be doing the most challenging things during those times.”
That also means that when you’re tired, you should rest. “We do not value that enough,” says Gent. “We almost wear droopy eyelids as a badge of honor. But when you’re managing that energy, you get the power of full engagement.”
Give permission for downtime
It’s not enough to just schedule downtime — you have to allow yourself permission to enjoy it. “Downtime is not an indulgence, it’s a necessity,” says Gent.
Refuel your engine
Find things outside work that fuel you, whether those are social activities or more inward activities.
“You have to have things in your life that bring you joy, and you need to engage in them on a regular basis,” says Gent.