This post is for everyone who feels like they have very little work-life balance. You feel like you work all the time, and you’re desperately seeking ways to protect your sanity this fall.
When I was a university Department Chair the first time I had no boundaries. It felt like I worked every waking hour because, well, I did. Burnout arrived and still I pushed through. When I ended up in emergency thinking I was having a heart attack (just a panic attack), those who know me well were not surprised. The position is three years in length but I did four.
I had two years off between Chairships numbers one and two, and I knew I needed to put some strategies in place if I were to survive this second round. I’ve put in one year of the second round already and have been able to test out my new approach.
Well, it’s not easy but it’s working. I’m much more centered this time around and definitely have firm boundaries in place.
Here is a bird’s-eye view of how I’m managing the work-life balance project during this second Chairship in the hope that it might help you with your work-life balance too.
1. Set Reasonable Work Hours
This was the main challenge. I started noticing that I would never expect any of my superiors to answer emails on evenings and weekends, and yet I was doing exactly that.
Another reason this was a priority for me was I wanted to work on my new side-business without any fear of anyone accusing me of stealing from my day job to do so. I needed to be able to say that I put in my best work for my day job during the week, so I could shut down 100% without guilt.
So I started with setting the intention of working on my academic job Monday-Friday, 9-5. Doesn’t this seem laughably obvious when you see it? This is reasonable. And you know what? I stick to it, and I get a lot done during that time because I’m focused on just that job.
Your “reasonable work hours” might look different than mine, but if you can make this determination you have a starting point for exactly what you are trying to protect.
2. Be a Prioritization Ninja
When shifting from zero weekly work strategy to protecting the (very reasonable) 40-hour work week approach, I needed to figure out how to get clear on getting the right things done within that time frame.
One of my previous challenges was not knowing how best to maximize my work time. I often waited until things were urgent and then rushed to meet deadlines. I always met them, but we all know this approach comes at a cost.
Find a prioritization method that works for you. I rely on my Full Focus Planner and its prioritization strategies to help me with this challenge.
One of the most helpful strategies is to set three priority tasks to complete each day. Look at your to-do list and pick the most important three. Focus on those.
When your “Daily Big 3” are done then you can dive into the other items. If your to-do list is anything like mine there is no end to it, but the exercise of prioritizing really helps to move the needle.
Here’s a previous blog post about how I use the Full Focus Planner:
3. Manage Your Inbox
Oof. This one is a biggie for so many of us. If your work-life-balance creep looks like endless emails and an inbox of 3000+ “unread” emails, you’re always walking around with a never-ending sense of doom.
How can you possibly focus on anything important when every time you open your inbox you’re barraged with all the unfinished business sitting there, staring at you?
How many of use use our inbox as our to-do list, and set our priorities using flags, or marking emails as “unread”, or whatever?
In my two years of learning new coping strategies, it never occurred to me that one could get control of the inbox craziness. But then I stumbled upon this fabulous free training called the Stack Method.
This training is sooooo worth it, friends. Do yourself a favour and work through it. There are no upsells or hidden costs or anything, just great, free training.
The method works for any email platform, and is basically a triage method to keep your inbox clear. This has been the biggest lifesaver of all my new strategies.
But you know what’s really interesting? The psychological difference it makes when you see an inbox with nothing in it. Don’t believe this is possible? It is. And it’s amazing.
Here’s a little ditty I wrote about that too, and how managing your inbox can help you protect your margin so you can focus on other things:
4. Create a Great Morning Routine
Why should you have a morning routine? Because it’s one of the best ways to protect your “me time” in a consistent way.
It’s far less difficult to show up in your demanding day job when you feel that your basic personal needs have been met. Find something you love to do and that fills your cup. It can be anything.
For me it’s journaling, which I do every morning. When I don’t do it I feel scattered and way less inclined to feel charitable towards other people.
Do you see this? When you do something that makes you feel that your emotional needs are met, you have more left to give to others. You know that common adage about filling your own cup? This is where you see it.
Have you ever felt the thing where your job is so demanding that you feel you have nothing left for yourself at the end of the day? If this is a common feeling for you the best way to manage it is to get in front of it, every day.
Yes, that means getting up a little earlier, and it also means getting to bed a little earlier, and it also means organizing your evening so you can do that. But trust me, it’s 100% worth the effort.
Here are some recent posts if you want to dive deeper:
5. Communicate Your Expectations
It’s important to let people know to expect a change if you hope to implement any work-life balance measures consistently.
When I started my second Chairship I communicated with my department that I would be approaching things differently this time. Whereas before I responded to emails pretty much any time, this is what they could expect now.
I also told them I would in turn respect these boundaries for them. There would be no more emails from me outside of my reasonable work hours, so they knew not to expect any response from me outside of those hours too.
There were also people who would contact me through social media messaging for work things. Every time I ask them to communicate through my work channels instead.
Sometimes people need many reminders. The message is usually something like, “Please keep work communications to work channels, as I’m desperately trying to keep my work and home lives separate.” Most people respect that.
The most important thing is to uphold what you say you will do. If you say to expect emails only within a certain time frame, then make sure that’s what you do. All it takes is once where you colour outside the lines and all of a sudden you have to retrain everyone.
If you know your expectations, you can communicate them. If you communicate them, people will know what to expect. If they know what to expect, they’re more likely to follow your lead.
6. Plan Your Non-Work Time
I don’t mean to schedule every free moment here. Work-life balance includes down time too.
If you’re used to working all the time it feels weird to not work. If that’s you (it’s definitely me), sometimes you just end up doing more work because you aren’t sure what else to do.
This will feel really weird at first, and you’ll probably feel selfish for a while too until you realize it’s not ok to work all the time.
Find yourself something you’re looking forward to doing. Maybe it’s tackling the mountain of laundry or scrubbing the bathroom. It’s not sexy but sometimes this stuff makes you feel more centered. maybe you’ll have more time in the week to do these things already.
Even better, do something “normal people” do in their off time. You know, the people who go camping, or on winery tours, or read books, or have coffee with friends on weekends? Yes, you can do that too.
Not only that, but you can do those things without checking your email every second, because everyone will know you won’t be answering them anyway.
It feels weird at first. But if you have something to look forward to during your off time, you’re less likely to fill it with work.
Ok, sometimes you do need to do homework, I realize that. But if you’re managing all the other parameters then you’ll hopefully find this doesn’t happen quite so often.
Put It All Together
Yes, you can carve some semblance of work-life balance. If you can implement even one of the steps in this post this will start you on a path towards greater control of your margin.
The different strategies all feed off each other. If you have your inbox managed, you can confidently stay out of it. If you have your priorities determined you can get more done during the workday, and effectively shut off when the reasonable workday is over.
Serving your emotional wellness every morning leaves you more to give to others, and makes you a better leader for it. Communicating your expectations ensures you can maintain the boundaries, because no ones has to guess where those are.
Hang In There
Did any of this help? Leave a comment below and let’s all help each other!