Striking the perfect work-life balance isn’t easy.
Fitting in loads of laundry between work sessions and virtual meetings…
Never missing your kids’ school plays or soccer games…
Cooking every night and having plenty of quality time with your spouse…
Working remotely was supposed to make all of that (and more) possible.
With all the time saved by skipping the commute and office time-wasters, you were going to get more work done in less time. Your days of long hours and overworking were over.
(Or so you thought.)
Here’s the thing:
A healthy work-life balance doesn’t just automatically happen when you’re working remotely.
Like everyone, you have to plan to keep life from intruding on work — and work from intruding on life — and even more so when it all takes place in one place.
But it can be done, and it’s worth the effort. Let’s look at some ways to make it easier.
1. Get a Room of Your Own
You probably don’t cook dinner in your bedroom or take a shower in the kitchen. We usually have designated spaces for certain tasks within our home.
So it makes sense that if you work at home, you need a specific place that’s just for work, to help set physical and mental boundaries between your work and personal life.
Or, as stated in a paper from the London School of Economics:
“Many people need both a geographical and a psychological separation between work and family life.”
This helps you feel like you are at work — or not at work — and reminds others to respect your work time.
If you have a spare room or separate space for an office, that’s ideal. If not, just a dedicated desk and computer in a corner will do. But try to still set it up as a work only zone, separate from your living space.
Have a discussion about this work-life divide ahead of time with members of your household, so everyone knows what the boundaries are.
It can also help to have “props” to make it clear you are at work. These might include:
- A special chair you use just for work
- Room divider or other barrier between your workspace and living space
- Hat or scarf that signals you are in work mode
- Sign on your door or desk
- Designated work mug
And take a look at these visual examples for extra inspiration.
2. Get in the Mood (or Fake it)
Employees don’t always feel like going to work, or working when they get there, but they do it anyway. You owe it to yourself to take your work seriously, even when you’re the only one who will know if you’re working or not.
Of course, you absolutely should take advantage of setting hours that make sense for you, working at the times of day you do your best work, taking breaks, and integrating the rest of your life into your day.
But when you’ve allotted the time to work, you’ll need to overcome the many distractions inherent in your home environment and concentrate on work.
Try a getting-ready-for work ritual, such as going for a jog first, making tea or coffee (in your work mug), or whatever works for you.
You might play some music that you only listen to while you’re working (try Brain FM), or use headphones or white noise to drown out background noise and create a “sound barrier” to keep you in work mode.
You can also set a timer and concentrate fully on work until it goes off.
There’s nothing wrong with working in spurts throughout the day if that’s a good fit for you, but when it’s time to work, set yourself up to actually work.
3. Put up an “Open” Sign
Set up cues to remind the people in your life you’re at work. In a way, it functions more as a “closed” sign, letting people know that you are currently unavailable.
If you have a home office with a door, that should be easier. Just close the door, and literally put a sign on it. But if you don’t have a closed space, you can do other things to make the distinction clear.
In addition to the props in tip one, you might:
- Shut off your smartphone
- Turn off email alerts
- Put a “do not disturb” sign on your front door
- Set specific times to answer work-related emails and phone calls and let your clients and colleagues know when they can expect to hear back from you
- Set specific times to update work-related social media or respond to comments, and don’t check it in between
- Post your basic work hours where family can see them
- Let your friends know the days and hours you’ve allotted for telecommuting
It’s great to have the freedom to make exceptions for emergencies and special occasions, but you need to remind the people in your life that flexible hours don’t mean you’re never really at work.
When it comes to last-minute requests that are more about others’ convenience than your goals and priorities, just say no.
If you have young children, you may want to arrange for daycare or other childcare during some of your work hours (see tip #6 below).
You also need to remember you aren’t always at work, so set limits in both directions. Don’t be a workaholic. You can invent your own “closed sign” to put up at the end of the day.
That could be an actual sign, closing your door, putting your divider in place, changing clothes, or just turning off your computer and putting work materials out of sight.
4. Get Out of the House
Since you work in your house, and live in your house, you sometimes need to get out of your house. You can use trips to the outside world to get a different perspective and create some space between the different parts of your life.
Here are four ways that you can use leaving the house to further your goals:
Get Out of the House to Work
If you work elsewhere one day a week, or at special times, such as when your home is extra chaotic or you have a tight deadline, you may get more work done in less time and look forward to the change in routine.
The Harvard Business Review article Why People Thrive in Coworking Spaces says:
“Coworkers reported that having a community to work in helps them create structures and discipline that motivates them.”
Get Out of the House for Time Off
If you work traditionally, you’ll likely get in your car or on public transport and drive or ride home, signalling that you are now off work.
If you work from home, you might want to take a drive or a walk; go out for a drink or coffee; or just go somewhere for a little personal time between work hours and family time.
You could also make plans for the evening, such as dinner out, to really get away from where you do it all.
Get Out of the House to Exercise
In addition to the physical benefits, exercise can clear your mind, help you generate ideas, and reduce your stress levels.
Whether you go for a jog, go to the gym, take a dance class, or ride a bike, exercise is an activity that gets you out of the house for a change of scenery.
Even a short walk out your front door can be a productive break from work, and help you focus better when you return.
Get Out of the House to Transition
Use errands, appointments, and other outside demands as natural breaks in your work schedule, or to signal that your workday is done.
For example, stop work at 3 o’clock and go out to buy groceries or pick up the kids from school. Spend some time with your kids, or do meal prep, then fit in another hour or two of work before dinner.
Or, if you want to quit work at 6, schedule a haircut for 6:30.
5. Get a Spine — Combine Structure with Flexibility
Our spines are wonderfully designed to hold everything together and support us, while providing ideal flexibility. They allow us to bend in many directions, without anything falling apart.
A work-at-home routine can be similar. Greater flexibility is one of the best things about working remotely.
We can move fluidly from one part of our life to the next as needed, and adjust our schedule to work around our other responsibilities or to take advantage of an opportunity to, say, go to an event on a Tuesday afternoon.
But with so many working parts in our lives we need some structure to hold it all together.
The optimal amount and type of structure will be different for everyone, but we all need some kind of structure to make all our goals happen, and to stay in balance.
Some structural models to consider:
Have Some Kind of Set Schedule
It can be early or late in the day, one big block of time or several shorter sessions, a traditional Monday through Friday work week, or something less conventional.
And you can adjust that schedule if you need to respond (not just react) to other demands, opportunities, or shifting energy levels. But pencil in a basic schedule for the day or week, and try to stick to it most of the time.
You may not be a “schedule person” at all. Instead, write down what you need to get done in your work hours. Break it down by month, week, and day. As long as you get those things done, you can work whenever you want.
Your list can be written on a computer document, in a journal, or on a white board for easy reference.
Structure Your Work Around Your Life
Another option is to break up the projects you need to work on into smaller tasks, and then fit them in around other parts of your day.
The things you normally do can be triggers for your work routine.
For example, if you have kids in school, start working on the main task of the day after they leave the house. Take a break for lunch, then work again until they return home.
After school, you can do lighter duty activities, like returning work emails and phone calls, paying bills, or sending invoices.
Or, let’s say your energy is higher later in the day, and on Wednesdays you have a class at 2:00.
Use the time before the class for light work, exercise, or life tasks. Then after the class, work on your highest priority project until dinner.
Work Literally on the Clock
If you use the Pomodoro Technique or another productivity app, set up work sessions for specific tasks and decide how many you’ll do in a day.
For example, if you’re a writer, and you want to work 5 hours in a day, you might set up your sessions as follows:
- Three 1-hour writing sessions
- One 1-hour research session
- Two half-hour sessions for email and administrative tasks
Work them in whenever they fit into your day, but make it a goal to complete all your sessions.
Whatever types of structure you choose, your “spine” can help you meet your goals and avoid high stress levels or missed deadlines, so you can really enjoy all the parts of your life.
A spine is made for bending, so make good use of your flexibility to fit in what’s important to you.
By using good time management and working when and how you are most efficient, you can make the most of each day, without overworking.
Design the life, and the day, that serves your needs, goals, and strengths.
6. Make the Best of Both Worlds
There are plenty of downsides to working in a traditional setting, especially when you want better work-life balance.
- Rigid, longer hours
- Time spent dressing up and commuting to and from work
- Time wasted on meetings and office politics
- Being physically separated from home, so you can’t fit in life activities
- Having to beg for time off if you have an emergency or other things to take care of during business hours
When you work from home, you are free from these outwardly-imposed restrictions. By all means use this freedom to your advantage.
But there are likely some structures in place in the corporate world that can actually help in your pursuit of better work-life balance:
- Coffee breaks
- A lunch hour
- Set work hours
- A definitive “quitting time”
- Weekends off
- More free time, including vacation time
- Gyms, daycare, and other healthy or family-friendly amenities
- Physical distance between work and home
(Yes, this physical divide can be both a negative and a positive.)
Ditch what doesn’t work for you while incorporating some of the benefits of being an employee into how you run your home-based business.
Be sure to schedule breaks and real time off for lunch; plan for vacation time; set a time to quit at the end of the workday; and make sure there are days off in your weekly schedule, whether they take place on the weekend or not.
You may also want to make arrangements for childcare, a home gym, and some kind of activity that signals your transition from your workday to home life.
Try a short, symbolic “commute,” like a walk before and after work; or a few minutes of quiet time to yourself, to signal the shift out of work mode.
7. Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First
You take care of your business, your clients, your home, your family. But self-care is important too. That means eating well, sleeping enough, and making time for what gives you joy.
Yes, you’re wearing many hats, but don’t forget the “life” part of work-life balance.
What some fail to acknowledge in the work-life balance equation is that some of your home life and family time involve work too.
Things like cooking meals, doing housework, shopping for groceries, and childcare, can be enjoyable parts of your personal time. But you also need time to take care of your mental health and physical well-being, and cultivate outside interests as a person.
Otherwise, working from home could mean that you slip from one job to the next and end up balancing several kinds of work, instead of balancing work and life.
If you are shouldering too many tasks yourself, you might need to ask for help. Try:
- Delegating — to your spouse, other adults in your life, and older children.
- Outsourcing — hire someone else to do bookkeeping, housecleaning, or whatever work or home chores you don’t love.
- Letting go of perfectionism — stop trying to be a perfect professional, spouse, parent, friend, or home-maker. Just be a good one and a happy one.
If you delegate, outsource, and let go, you can focus on what you care about most, and enjoy your time with your loved ones without it feeling like another chore.
And be sure to use your flexibility in a way that serves you as a person. You can and should fit in activities that keep you energized, movitated, and productive.
Contrary to common beliefs among American workers and employers, a midday nap; shorter workdays; and time off to see a healthcare professional or have coffee with a friend can actually make you a more effective worker.
And as already mentioned, exercise is not only essential for your well-being, it can play an important role in healthy work-life balance.
The Harvard Business Review article How Regular Exercise Helps You Balance Work and Family reports that:
“Through its direct impact on increased self-efficacy and reduced psychological strain, exercise leads to better integration of professional and personal lives.”
And whatever else you do to care for yourself; cultivate your mind and creativity; and have a life beyond work — and even beyond home — can benefit your work-life balance.
A Good Work-Life Balance Doesn’t Have to be a High-Wire Act
As we’ve seen, work-life balance takes effort, and it isn’t always easy. But it doesn’t have to be really difficult or scary either.
And it definitely doesn’t need to look the same for everyone.
We’ve looked at seven ways to make the most of your flexibility and set necessary boundaries between your professional life and personal life, even if those boundaries are fluid and flexible.
Experiment and see what works for your situation and work style.
Keep what helps, ignore what doesn’t.