In the debates around managing personal and professional responsibilities, the only certainty is that no single technique works for everyone. The key is finding out what’s most important to you—in your career as well as in your personal life—and making sure you prioritize it in your daily schedule. The tips below are designed to help 20- and 30-somethings (or anyone) navigate the beginning stages of their careers without letting health, relationships, and happiness fall by the wayside.
What’s the Deal?
As the American workforce becomes increasingly mobile, the line between our work and our personal lives is often blurred. Nearly half of American workers have jobs suitable for part-time or full-time telecommuting (aka working from somewhere outside the office). That means more people are checking work email at the dinner table and typing up project reports in their pajamas. In fact, the physical separation between our work and our personal lives (aka an office building) may be somewhat outdated. One survey found that as many as 70 percent of college students believe it’s unnecessary to be in an office regularly.
For younger workers, these relaxed boundaries may actually be desirable. When they look for a job, many millennials say flexibility (in terms of where and when they work) is especially important. That’s possibly because employees in this age bracket want the freedom to develop relationships and pursue personal hobbies: Research suggests millennial workers place a higher value on being able to spend time with friends and family than Boomers (people born between approximately 1946 and 1964) did when they were younger Millennials in the Workplace: A Communication Perspective on Millennials’ Organizational Relationships and Performance. Meyers, K.K., Sadaghiani, K. Journal of Business Psychology, 2010 Jun;25(2):225-238.. Likewise, millennials are less likely to define themselves by their careers Millennials in the Workplace: A Communication Perspective on Millennials’ Organizational Relationships and Performance. Meyers, K.K., Sadaghiani, K. Journal of Business Psychology, 2010 Jun;25(2):225-238..
But flexibility in the form of having constant access to work email and never technically “clocking out” for the day can have some negative repercussions. Research suggests it’s important to take breaks from professional demands and to recover from a busy workweek in order to reduce stress Relationships between work-home segmentation and psychological detachment from work: the role of communication technology use at home. Park, Y., Fritz, C., Jex, S.M. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 2011 Oct;16(4):457-67..
Unfortunately, there’s no one “right” approach to balancing work-related and personal commitments. For those worried about whether, where, or how to draw the line between work and play, follow the practical steps below to create a life that’s all-around fulfilling.
Your Action Plan
Sometimes achieving a better balance between work and the rest of our lives is a matter of tweaking our ’tude, like accepting that we can’t do or have everything. Other times the solutions are simple (think keeping better records of how you actually spend your time or relocating the laptop outside the bedroom). Whatever your challenges with work-life balance, these 15 tips are bound to help you enjoy every day to the fullest.
1. Pick and choose.
One of the hardest parts of achieving work-life balance is recognizing that we’ll never have it all. That is, we’ll never make it to every social event while also working extra hours and making home-cooked meals every night. Once you’ve decided which responsibilities and relationships you find most important (see number two), it’s all about prioritizing. So cut yourself some slack when it comes to other achievements in your personal and professional life, and remind yourself that you’re making progress where you believe it really counts.
2. You do you.
The definition of work-life balance varies pretty widely between individuals. Instead of trying to conform to someone else’s lifestyle, figure out what’s personally meaningful to you, whether that’s developing a relationship with a new partner or working toward a promotion at a new job (or both). As long as you find your life fulfilling, it doesn’t matter if your schedule looks different from someone else’s.
3. Be open to change.
Even once you’ve searched your soul to figure out what truly matters to you, accept that those priorities might change over time. Maybe you’ll start a family, take a new job, or pick up a new hobby—whatever the situation, be prepared for your values and schedule to shift, and make adjustments accordingly.
4. Accept imperfection.
Let’s say you’ve established that friendships are the most important aspect of your life right now. That still doesn’t mean you need to freak out if you miss your BFF’s boyfriend’s birthday bash because you’re working late on a big project. Know that you’ll make mistakes, and that obstacles and challenges will pop up unexpectedly. Instead of feeling like a terrible person, try to enjoy yourself and be productive and present with whatever you’re doing. Then refocus on your main priorities as soon as possible.
5. Take it day by day.
One clever tip is to combine your work and personal calendars so you don’t necessarily prioritize one set of responsibilities over the other in advance. Each day, you can decide whether the staff meeting is more important than getting lunch with an old high school buddy, or vice versa.
6. Pursue your passions.
Just because you’re working a lot doesn’t necessarily mean your life isn’t awesome. Some of us (ideally, all of us!) love our jobs, so much so that we’re willing to spend hours brainstorming, emailing, and sitting in meetings. If it makes you happy to bring your laptop home and continue working after dinner because you feel like you’re making a difference in the world or you simply love the work, go for it!
7. Keep track.
One of the first steps to figuring out how we can spend more time on the things that are really meaningful to us is learning how much time we currently spend on all our activities. For one week, try keeping a log of everything you do, from washing laundry to browsing Pinterest. Then go over the lists, pinpoint potential “time sucks,” share your concerns with your family and coworkers, and create an action plan for refocusing on the activities that really matter to you.
8. Open your options.
A growing number of workplaces allow employees to work remotely or have flexible schedules. If that possibility interests you, and if you think a new work style could make you less stressed, talk to your employer and see what you two can work out. (The worst that could happen is your boss will say no.)
9. Rock to your own rhythm.
Researchers are increasingly paying attention to the topic of chronotypes (biological schedules that determine when we feel tired and awake), and they’ve found that people vary widely in terms of when they’re most creative, energetic, and productive. Think about how your own abilities evolve throughout the day—if you’re most alert in the mornings, try getting to the office early; if you really come alive after 9pm, consider creating a less traditional work schedule (see number eight). That way, you won’t feel like you’re wasting valuable time at work when you’re half-zoned out anyway.
10. Reconsider your commute.
The physical trip to and from the office can be more draining than work itself. If standing like a sardine on a crowded subway is making you sick, consider moving closer to your workplace: You’ll have a better attitude toward work and feel less like you’re wasting a big chunk of your day. On the other hand, don’t be afraid of a long commute if it means going home to a neighborhood you love and feeling happier in general.
11. Seek support.
Ultimately, work-life balance is about finding a way to juggle all the different kinds of relationships in our lives. So don’t be shy about asking other people to help you manage your responsibilities. Talk to coworkers about filling in for each other when one of you has an outside commitment, or to family members about sharing dog-walking or babysitting responsibilities on days when someone needs to stay late at the office.
12. Don’t tear down this wall.
Working from home can be liberating, but it comes with challenges, like potentially getting distracted by the pile of dirty laundry on the floor. To avoid these issues, set up a physical boundary between work life and home life by designating a whole room (or even just a corner) as your office space. Try to keep all work-related paraphernalia and tasks contained to just this area.
13. Squeeze it in.
In an ideal world, we’d be able to spend two hours lunching with pals every day and attend salsa lessons every night. But sometimes it’s more realistic to grab coffee with a friend and go dancing every other weekend. This schedule might not be exactly what we’d like, but it’s certainly preferable to not socializing or letting loose at all. Let yourself enjoy the time you do have, instead of lamenting the time you don’t.
14. Find fun anywhere.
These days, lots of workplaces are embracing the idea of organized fun, like bonding activities for staff members. And nearly three quarters of millennial workers say they want their coworkers to be a second family. If you enjoy the workday and the company of your coworkers, this experience in itself can count as socializing. Don’t feel like you have to create “balance” by spending your weekends and weeknights doing non-work-related activities unless you really want to do them.
15. Tackle technology.
Smartphones, laptops, tablets, spaceships: All these tools are designed to improve our productivity and our lives overall. But when these gadgets make us feel like we’re supposed to be responding to work emails or finishing up projects at home, we can start to get overwhelmed. On the other side of the spectrum, constantly checking our Facebook feed while at work can lead to some serious FOMO. Manage all this technology-induced stress by unplugging for a little while or by setting limits on when and where to use it.
The most important thing to remember in the quest for work-life balance is that we’ll never achieve perfection. There will be nights when we miss dinner with our partner because we stayed late at the office, and days when we skip a staff meeting to bring a pal to an emergency dental appointment. What matters is that we create a personally meaningful life that helps us feel happy and healthy overall.