A 5-step plan for better work-life balance

Are you suffering from a lack of work-life balance? Follow this plan to do more of what you love at work and at home while still being productive.

Kate Mulcrone

By Kate Mulcrone

work life balance

Work-life balance is always a hot topic, but lately it has shifted into a marker of career success. The idea of “having it all” has given way to a more nuanced and individualized approach to managing responsibilities at work and home while leaving time for fun and self-care.

Blueground’s turnkey furnished apartments around the world are designed to help our guests be as productive as possible if they’re working from home, whether it’s five days a week or for just a few minutes after a day at the office. Of course, a stunning backdrop isn’t all you need to thrive in your career. As part of our series on how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the way we live and work, we have highlighted advice from renowned business leaders and experts about everything from burnout to what distinguishes a good manager from a bad one.

Work-life balance doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing for every professional. This reality is at the heart of a fascinating new approach to better integrating work and leisure activities presented in the Harvard Business Review. Ioana Lupu, an Associate Professor at ESSEC Business School in France, and Mayra Ruiz-Castro, a Senior Lecturer at the UK’s University of Roehampton, outline a revolutionary new way of thinking about work-life balance.

The two scholars collaborated on a study of how middle and senior managers at top London accounting and law firms dealt with the long work hours that go with the culture – and the accompanying stress.

stressed at work

“The majority of the interviewees described their jobs as highly demanding, exhausting, and chaotic, and they seemed to take for granted that working long hours was necessary for their professional success. However, about 30% of the men and 50% of women in our sample appeared to consciously resist working long hours, describing a variety of strategies they developed for maintaining a healthier work-life balance.”

Is it really possible to keep a managerial role at a top firm if you’re working fewer hours than your colleagues? It turns out it’s not only possible, but might lead to better outcomes at work overall. Lupu and Ruiz-Castro zoomed in on the “resistors” in their workplace study to distill their wisdom into an actionable five-step plan for better work-life balance.

“At a high level, our research showed that achieving better balance between professional and personal priorities boils down to a combination of reflexivity — or questioning assumptions to increase self-awareness — and intentional role redefinition. Importantly, our research suggests that this is not a one-time fix, but rather, a cycle that we must engage in continuously as our circumstances and priorities evolve.”

In other words, professionals who are working high-stress jobs and managing to have a life outside of work have achieved this by continually reassessing and redefining their boundaries. Following the authors’ five-step model can help anyone clarify their goals and get back more time for themselves.

1. Pause and reassess

Mindfulness is just as important at work as it is outside of the office. It can be so easy to get caught up in day-to-day tasks that we lose sight of what’s truly important to the bottom line.

“Take a step back and ask yourself [the following questions]:

  • What is currently causing me stress, unbalance, or dissatisfaction?
  • How are these circumstances affecting how I perform and engage with my job?
  • How are they impacting my personal life?
  • What am I prioritizing?
  • What am I sacrificing?
  • What is getting lost?

“Only after you take a mental pause and acknowledge these factors can you begin to tackle them.”

The authors suggest creating space to answer these questions for yourself. Just like you might reevaluate your priorities after a major life change like a divorce or the birth of a child, you need to periodically do a “vibe check” at the office.

Try pasting the questions above into a document on your work computer and give yourself as long as it takes to find the answers. Once you know what is getting left in the dust you will be able to take steps toward better work-life balance.

2. Notice your emotions

After you have filled out your ad-hoc (and private!) workplace satisfaction survey to your own satisfaction, it’s time to reflect more deeply on your answers.

“Once you’ve increased your awareness of your current situation, examine how that situation makes you feel. Ask yourself, do I feel energized, fulfilled, satisfied? Or do I feel angry, resentful, sad?”

The sad truth is that humans focus more on the negative than positive, so don’t be too worried if your emotions are trending that way. Recognizing your emotions is the first step toward positive change, no matter where you’re starting from.3.

“A rational understanding of the decisions and priorities driving your life is important, but equally important is emotional reflexivity — that is, the capacity to recognize how a situation is making you feel. Awareness of your emotional state is essential in order to determine the changes you want to make in your work and in your life.”

3. Shift your priorities

The next step is to mentally walk the road less traveled. After you’ve done the hard work of admitting what keeps falling to the bottom of your to-do list and what is getting sacrificed week after week, you have the information you need to shift the balance in a more favorable direction.

“Increasing your cognitive and emotional awareness gives you the tools you need to put things into perspective and determine how your priorities need to be adjusted. Ask yourself: What am I willing to sacrifice, and for how long? If I have been prioritizing work over family, for example, why do I feel that it is important to prioritize my life in this way? Is it really necessary? Is it really inevitable? What regrets do I already have, and what will I regret if I continue along my current path?”

After all, work isn’t everything. The authors suggest expanding your view of what success looks like to include what happens outside of the office. When your identity is bound up in work alone you are far more likely to suffer from burnout.

poor work life balance

4. Experiment with small changes

Even if you have discovered that you feel a lot more negative about your career than you expected, don’t despair. Making small changes in how you spend your energy can have a big impact – if they are the right changes. Iteration is the only way to find a balance that works, since no two jobs or lives are exactly the same.

“Before jumping into solutions, first reflect on the aspects of your work and life that could be different in order to better align with your priorities. Are there components of your job that you would like to see changed? How much time would you like to spend with your family, or on hobbies? As one respondent illustrated, improving your situation takes time and experimentation.”

Instead of drastically cutting back your work hours, experiment with a slightly different approach each week to see what sticks. Your work-life balance hacks can be anything from refusing to check email after work to scheduling a lunch with friends once a week to renegotiating your workload with your team or manager.

5. Implement your new work-life balance strategy

It might take weeks or months to move through the ideation and experimentation stages outlined above, but eventually you will be ready to roll out your new work-life balance strategy. That said, it’s important to realize that you could meet with some resistance – especially if you are implementing a “public” strategy.

“In our research, we found that both public and private changes can be effective strategies, as long as they’re implemented in a sustainable manner. For private changes, that might mean self-imposing boundaries (such as choosing not to work on evenings, weekends or during holidays — and sticking to that decision), or turning down demands typically associated with your role (such as new projects or travel requests, even when you feel pressure to take them on).”

If you need to involve key stakeholders like your boss or partner, be sure to ground your new rules in the thinking and experimenting that led you to set them.

“For public changes, rather than simply telling your supervisor that you want more time off or more flexible hours, securing support from key mentors, partners, and coworkers — or even better, formally applying for a new internal position or a flexible working scheme — is likely to result in more lasting change.”

It can take time for people to accept new boundaries you set for work-life balance, so don’t be discouraged if you have to repeat yourself at first. Eventually your colleagues will accept your new approach, and may even realize they could stand to reassess their own commitments.

working from a blueground apartment

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Kate Mulcrone

Kate Mulcrone

Kate Mulcrone has more than 10 years’ experience writing about travel, tech, and the workplace for a variety of publications.