Work-life Imbalance? Here's How To Protect Your Personal Priorities

It's possible to control your work, your time and your life.

working from home
Вадим Пастух/

Work-life balance is so hard for so many because traditional boundaries haven't just blurred — they have been eviscerated. When the commute involves moving from the couch to the kitchen table, where's the boundary?

Thirty years ago when you left the office, you left work. But 24/7 engagement gradually became the expectation, and then the norm. Then things got really funky with Covid-19.

Someone forgot to create an off button.

You can spend your day responding to everyone else's priorities, or you can choose to protect your own. It's possible to control your work, your time and your life. Start by promoting these five disciplines to protect your priorities: demarcate, discern, delegate, downtime and detox.

1. Demarcate

Create that off button. It's a judgment call where to establish those boundaries affecting meals, evenings, weekends and vacations. But the failure to demarcate will mean that work will creep into, and possibly pollute, every other aspect of your life.

Effective demarcation may mean establishing reasonable expectations with your work counterparts, including your bosses, colleagues and possibly business partners. Here's the crucial part: in communicating about the need to set boundaries, also explain why you need these boundaries — for example, for your kids or marriage — and what's at stake if you fail to demarcate.

Most reasonable business people will respect your parameters once they understand why the boundaries are important — especially if you agree in advance to make allowances for urgent situations. There's a good chance your work counterparts will embrace this candid conversation about demarcation, because they likely want the same thing. After all, demarcation offers reciprocal benefits.

This is a great time to start a dialogue around demarcation because, in the massive churn of the Great Resignation, you have some employee leverage to define — or perhaps redefine — work parameters.

One immediately actionable way to demarcate right now is to turn off email and phone alerts for new messages. This simple act demarcates quality time from the noise. This reduces unnecessary distractions and increases the capacity for higher quality and undisturbed focus, which leads to higher productivity.

Effective demarcation goes a long way to prevent the unimportant from displacing the important.

2. Discern

Most people recognize the importance of prioritization. But an aspect of prioritization that frequently gets overlooked is active deprioritization, determining what or who shouldn't make the cut.

How and with whom you spend your time greatly affects life satisfaction. Your choices matter. A good question to ask after any activity or interaction: How did the experience make me feel? Do I feel energised? Or depleted?

Discernment means "No" is sometimes the right response. It's sometimes necessary to cut draining tasks, responsibilities, social obligations and even people from your life. You can optimize your time and your satisfaction levels by discerning how an activity or person makes you feel. Identify the events and people that leech your energy and spirit, and discern.

3. Delegate

Professionals routinely face real-time constraints. When time is scarce, maximize the things that produce enjoyment, and minimise or eliminate the things that deflate, both at home and at the office. Delegating unpleasant or mechanical tasks ensures your valuable time goes to the best use.

At work, many executives hesitate to delegate due to self-preservation. This widespread concern cuts across all levels of an organization. Executives worry about losing control or delegating themselves out of a job. I take the opposite view. Delegation is good management practice; it strengthens and cross-pollinates the team and enables you to focus on areas where you can add the most value.

At home, suppose you'd rather spend the weekend relaxing rather than doing housework or yard work. Outsource it. Is preparing dinner the last thing you'd like to do after a long day? Outsource it. Outsourcing the functions that deliver no joy can liberate you and your time. In the collaborative article "Buying time promotes happiness," researchers in North America and Europe found that using money to buy time improves life satisfaction among time-deficient professionals.

4. Downtime

What ensures sustained high-level performance? Recovery. Athletes need recovery time to repair and strengthen muscles. Professionals require the same kind of restorative downtime to prevent burnout. Many professionals agree with this concept intellectually. But in practice, however, they skimp on their own downtime.

The solution? To protect your downtime, make sure you get adequate sleep at consistent times. Sufficient sleep regulates quality of life and quality of work.

Beyond ensuring a good night's sleep, there's another potent strategy to protect your downtime: to treat weekends like vacations. One study found that executives who treat weekends as a vacation are consistently happier — even if they didn't spend any extra money, or travel — than those who spend the weekend like a workweek.

5. Detox

What's an antidote to a fast-paced life? Unplug. Detox from tech and immerse yourself in natural environments as often as you can — especially in this Covid-19 era. The notion of a tech Shabbat and the Time Well Spent movement advocates reigning technology to preclude smartphone addiction.

Another way to unplug is to get outside — ideally, at least two hours every week. A British study found that health and well-being improve with time in nature. A word exists for this phenomenon: biophilia, the idea that humans are happier when surrounded by nature.

Demarcate, discern, delegate, downtime, detox. Promoting these five disciplines will go a long way to protecting your priorities — and restoring your sense of work-life balance. I encourage you to try these potent disciplines. You can thank me later.

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