Every month, lots of people head to Google and ask “how do you balance both your family and your job?” and other similar questions. Work life balance is a huge challenge for many people, and this article is intended to help you find yours.
Although this article is published on HomeWorkingClub.com, it’s relevant whether you you work from home, freelance, or have a traditional job – especially the tip about sticking up for yourself!
Finding Work Life Balance
I’ve been on a quest to “work to live” rather than “live to work” for a long time. It’s a quest that’s seen me move from one of the world’s biggest cities to a tiny Portuguese village, then back in the opposite direction to a medium-sized town. I’ve got work life balance badly wrong, leading to burnout, and taken things too far the other way and ended up with social anxiety.
So, just in case you’re wondering what qualifies me to talk about this topic, I think I’ve arrived at a place where I’ve finally got the delicate balance right. After years of trying, motivated latterly by the addition of two wonderful children to my little family, I’ve arrived at a place where I enjoy my work, get everything done, and (usually) have consistent time and energy for family life.
If people ask me “how do you balance both your family and your job?” I feel I’m qualified to answer without any blagging. It took me a long time and work to get to that point.
So let’s move on to some actionable tips.
Protect your Routines and Boundaries
The first thing to do to ensure work life balance is to become fiercely protective of certain routines and boundaries. This isn’t about enforcing strict regimentation on yourself or your family. It’s more about defining boundaries that employers, clients and business associates have no option but to respect.
Obviously the routines you want must be rooted in reality. You can’t decide you want all evenings and weekends off if you’re a chef, or that you won’t answer the phone during mealtimes if you’re on call! However, that doesn’t mean you can’t set other sensible boundaries.
For example, these are my own non-negotiable boundaries. They’re not etched in stone anywhere and inevitably, from time to time, life gets in the way and forces compromises. But as a general rule, these are the things I try to stick to:
- I finish working by 6pm every weeknight, and make sure I have some time to spend with my children before bed time. I often do more work in bed after they’ve gone to sleep, but that’s because I love what I do and do so by choice!
- I don’t work weekends unless I choose to.
- Despite being self-employed, I treat time off as “annual leave.” I set “out of office” responses during these times and limit how much I check email.
These may sound like pretty simple rules, but it’s taken YEARS of practice to get to the point where I can enforce and stick to them.
Up until a couple of years ago I had a client who was always dragging me into largely-pointless Slack discussions in the evenings; For years I worked loads of weekends because I could do IT work that paid well; And when it comes to the third point, I still often get about five days into a holiday and clear away the spam and clutter from my inboxes!
But broadly speaking I stick to these rules. And that’s not all for my own benefit.
It’s all about laying down what other people can expect – from your family to your employers or clients. Just as my clients now know very well there’s no point in asking me to work over the weekend, my four-year-old son knows that that’s when he can count on doing something fun, whether that involves going out somewhere or just snuggling up with snacks and movies.
Communicate with your Children
Work life balance gets much more complicated and much more vital when children are involved.
However, it’s no bad thing for children to see a strong work ethic in action and understand from a young age that the toys and the holidays don’t come for free.
Whether you work for yourself or for an employer, there will be times when work needs to consume a little more of you than usual – perhaps for a seasonal rush or when working on a new product. Children are resilient and understanding when this happens IF you communicate with them.
A couple of years ago, I stopped working with a client, and one of the reasons was that I was required to travel a lot. My son used to get sad when I went away, and while I know he would have been just fine if I’d continued, the reality was that it was making ME sad too! I do still have to get away from time to time now, for certain projects or conferences, or sometimes just to grab some breathing space!
The thing is, it’s possible to handle these trips without it knocking the balance out of whack. It’s all about communication and setting expectations. If there’s a trip coming up, everyone knows ahead of time and a special effort is made to ensure extra quality time in the run up. A single night away might warrant just a day or two of advance warning, whereas a ten day trip will mean rather more preparation, arrangements for FaceTime calls and a probably a couple of presents in the suitcase afterwards!
But I cannot emphasise enough how easy it is to get this stuff wrong. Coming and going and not managing expectations is really confusing for young children. Time at home should be about moving family relationships forward, not about a stressful process of recovering them to how they were before.
All it takes is subtle adjustments and your children will be proudly telling their teachers where you are when you’re away – and waiting for YOU at the airport and not the presents.
It makes no difference if your work doesn’t involve travel at all. The importance of communication applies to different shift patterns, a temporary need to work longer hours or any other change that might cause your loved ones to wonder why things feel different.
Stick up for What you’re Entitled To
This point is particularly aimed at those who work for a traditional employer, but it’s just as valid if you have demanding clients.
We live in a world where jobs for life don’t really exist any more, wages are often low and jobs feel unstable. Yet it still surprises me how unwilling people often are to stick up for themselves and get the things they’re entitled to.
When I speak of entitlement I don’t mean it in its negative sense. I’m talking to things like entitlement to annual holidays, lunch breaks and time to attend doctor’s appointments.
If you have a family engagement that’s months away, that should always mean there’s enough time to organise time off, yet many people seem too timid to ask. Yes, there are some jobs where time off may be off limits at peak times, but everyone is entitled to a life. Often it’s not company culture that dictates people getting time off when they want, but the assertiveness of each individual within that company. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as the proverb goes.
Now I’m certainly not saying that you want to be the relentlessly squeaky wheel who always needs or wants something! We all know people like that and they are invariably last in the queue for promotions and extra work! However, it’s just as bad to be the pushover whose marriage is suffering because they’re always late home. If you’re doing a good job, no employer or client is going to turn down reasonable requests. If they do, then it’s probably time to work out what you want to do and move on.
Step Away from the Smartphone
This one’s pretty simple!
I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say that I’ve completely conquered resisting the allure of a shiny iPhone screen – especially when I recently upgraded 😉 However, it’s not rocket science that being glued to a device isn’t good for family life or work life balance.
In fact, there are even studies proving that really young children hate to have to feel they’re playing second fiddle to a smartphone.
It’s not actually difficult to take small steps to reduce smartphone use and be more present with your family. One thing I try to do if we have guests, or are visiting others, is not to look at my phone at all when I’m socialising. (That means that if you ever see me at an event and I’m using my phone for anything other than taking photos, I’m either bored or struggling with some social anxiety!)
Banning phones from the dinner table is a good move too, especially for big family meals.
About 18 months ago I went through a particularly persistent bout of depression. I saw a motivational quote on Instagram that said something along the lines of “mental health first – everything else must follow.”
I’m not big on such quotes but I think this is one of the wisest pieces of advice I’ve ever come across.
If you’re not right in yourself, you’re not going to manage to nail work life balance. As Lauren Hill said: “how you gonna win when you ain’t right within?”
Sometimes the best thing you can do for the people you most care about is put yourself first. Heroic though it can seem to push past the point of exhaustion, it’s never likely to end well. Work life balance isn’t always about ticking off as many things as humanly possible. Sometimes a ten minute bedtime story with a child does more for them than a day out where you’re swearing at traffic and frantically tapping out emails.
I recently read a great book on this called The Self Care Project by Jayne Hardy. My wife tells me I’m bad at putting myself first. I do still feel very guilty about it sometimes, and this book has helped. Whether or not you believe in self help, the need to look after yourself before you can properly look after anyone else is common sense.
So there you have it – the five main tips I’d give anyone asking me the question of how do you balance both your family and your Job?
It’s rarely easy, and it takes a lot of work. Work life balance is something you have to continually work on, and sometimes you have to pull yourself back when things start to slip. But sometimes tiny changes can reap huge benefits.
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