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Recently, my husband and I were talking about the notion of work/life balance. He is going on 4+ months of working from home due to the global outbreak of COVID-19. While he actually enjoys it most of the time, it does not come without challenges: his former commute time has been swallowed up by work, his ears hurt most days after hours of phone-calls with Bluetooth earbuds, and turning “off” from work is more difficult than it ever was before.
I have been watching from the sidelines and trying to encourage a better balance for his health and happiness. I am no expert. But, as a solopreneur who has been working from home for a few years, I do have a basic grip on what healthy habits should look like.
I know that there are many professionals working from home these days and the end is nowhere in sight. In doing some additional research for this post, I found that much information from the early days in COVID-19 wasn’t totally geared towards a long-term shift from office life. If you are still struggling with working from home, you are not alone!
To me, work/life balance is about working more efficiently to allow for more life to happen. Read on for strategies to get that work done more efficiently and help control overwhelm to help achieve a better balance.
The spaces that you inhabit have more of a psychological effect than you realize. I’ll never forget this lesson I learned in a psych class wayyy back in high school: do not study in your bedroom. Your bedroom is for rest and relaxation; your brain has been conditioned to subconsciously know that. For better study results, use another room in the house.
The same applies with work: carve out a physical space in your home that can be set up for exclusively for work. Not everyone has a home office and that is okay- as long as the space is your designated work space. Set it up once and it is there for you when you need it. You want to train your subconscious so that when you’re in that physical space, you are getting work done. You are also signaling to other members of your household that when you’re in that space, you are doing work and are not to be bothered.
Bonus tip: Noise-cancelling headphones. Or honestly, cheap foam earplugs work, too. Distractions are plentiful at home. Numbing the noise really helps me.
This is a classic phrase in business when related to sales and profit margins. But what about time- do you know the numbers of how you spend your time? I listened to this podcast episode from The Product Boss last year and it totally blew my mind. This is the premise:
You quite literally only have so many hours in a week: 168 hours to be exact. What is your goal for utilizing that time? How are you actually utilizing that time? Do a deep dive into your “time numbers” and create what the hosts call a “time budget.” The idea borrows from what’s known as an envelope budget, a financial plan your parents likely used at one point.
How do you gather these numbers? Be honest with yourself! Or, enlist the help of a time tracker. Clockify has been recommended to me, but there are other things like Chrome extensions and apps that work with SAS’s like Slack and Asana. Even if you don’t do the math below, simply tracking your time for a week is sure to be eye-opening!
Start with the max 168 hours and work backward with what your current week looks like. Here’s an example I created:
That SHOULD mean I have 4.4 hours each day free. Be honest with yourself about where that time is going. If you wanted to go further, you could run the numbers of what you WISHED your week looked like. Then, compare both data sets and brainstorm ways to save time: ordering groceries ahead of time, finding a gym that is closer to home, batching work projects (I’ll talk about that later), etc. Small efficiencies add up!
This example is just taking a wide angle view of your week- what about examining your work day? Which leads me right into the next section . . .
It’s a fact: humans thrive with structure. One thing that working from home lacks is exactly that- structure. If you don’t create one for yourself, no one is going to do it for you. I love this quote from the book Essentialism that says, “If you don’t fill your time, someone else will.” So true, right?
What you may not realize is that “someone” could be also be yourself. Studies show that if you allow yourself all the time to complete a task, you will extend the task to fill that allotted time. How do you combat this issue and take back your time? Scheduling!
Time-blocking is one scheduling method that has helped me tremendously. This year, I purchased a Passion Planner with blanks for every 30 minutes in the day. I plan out my days in 30 minute chunks and it allows me to visually see how much time I have available to fill each day. You don’t need a fancy planner to get started! Build your own in Google calendar on the “day” view or use a printable template from Etsy. Doing this has made me more cognizant of how long tasks take, and in turn, has made my to-do lists more manageable. It’s forced me to be realistic about what I can actually accomplish in a day.
Batching tasks is a popular idea in entrepreneurship circles. This means doing all of a certain kind of task at once. For example, rather than calling customers and vendors randomly throughout the week, spend one morning each week making all the calls back-to-back. It will allow you to get in to a rhythm and likely save you time. Other people accomplish this with “themed” days- Tuesdays are for content creation, Wednesdays are for marketing, Fridays are for financials, that kind of thing. Think about the repetitive tasks in your workweek- is there a way to group them together and knock it all out at once?
Pay attention to your bodily rhythms and habits- then use them to your advantage. Some people refer to it as your “zone of genius”- when you are able to relax and get into the “zone” of the work you’re trying to do. For me, I’ve noticed that I’m better at reading and writing in the morning. I spend that time working IN my business. After lunch, I work ON my business, doing more repetitive tasks that don’t need the same level of brain power. I find that I’m most creative in the evenings, so I save any brainstorming until that time. What times of the day do you crush it and when do you struggle? Schedule your work accordingly to maximize efficiency.
If you are concerned about not having enough time for yourself or your loved ones, SCHEDULE IT. Make it intentional, so when you go back to work, you know that you spent your time off doing what you love and feel no guilt. If it’s in your schedule, you have to do it, right? Down time is important for your brain and your body to recharge.
The close sibling of structure, establishing boundaries is more about communicating to the outside world what your structure is.
Turn off email notifications on your phone and your computer. There are plenty of studies showing how they cause stress, anxiety, and cloud focus. YOU ARE NOT DOING YOUR BEST WORK WHEN NOTIFICATIONS OF ANY KIND ARE INTERRUPTING. I’m not saying ignore your email entirely- just be intentional about when you are checking it. A good rule of thumb is to check 3x a day- once early on, once mid-day, and once shortly before the end of the work day. That is it. Close out of email and don’t touch it until your scheduled time to do so. It will ALL be there for you waiting, I promise.
To piggyback on this, I find scheduling outgoing emails to be helpful as well. Gmail allows you to do this now, too! Say your email “zone of genius” is after work hours, like 8pm. Okay, no problem- use that scheduled time to bang out those emails. But rather than hitting “send” right away, schedule your email to send itself the following day, within work hours. Why? This sends the message that you are not available for others to contact outside of work hours. But, you’re still getting efficient work done on your own terms.
Communicate about your communication. Huh? If you’re having a hard time turning off your notifications, this might be a harder pill to swallow. But allow me to offer an example: a colleague in my industry has an auto-responder for her work email: “Thank you for your message! I respond to my email on Tuesdays and Thursdays, between the hours of 9am-11am EST. I look forward to serving you and thank you for your patience.” What? Email two days a week? That sounds like a dream! This is her batching work AND communicating to customers that her time is precious, but they will receive it in due time.
Only 2 days of email likely won’t work in an office setting, but what about an auto-responder for when you’re in the middle of a big project and can’t have interruptions? Or an auto-responder to establish daily “office hours” for your team? You’re never saying “no,” you’re just saying “not right now.” People hate to hear the word no, but they will almost always happily accept an alternative if offered.
First and foremost, know that small, incremental changes are more sustainable in the long-term than huge, sweeping ones. If you’re reading this post and try to implement ALL the things at one time, don’t be surprised if you fail. Charles Duhigg, in his book “The Power of Habit” equates this idea to dieting; which is more realistic, saying that you want to lose 50 lbs or that you will start taking the stairs in lieu of elevators? Start small, but start somewhere!
Also, know that work/life balance is exactly that: a balance. It is not realistic to expect that every day is a 50/50 split of each. In fact, if you go back to the “knowing your numbers” section and do the math, you’ll see that it is physically impossible! You have to give yourself grace. Some days you are going to crush at work, but life takes a backseat. Other days, your life has to take priority and THAT IS OKAY. Again, to me, work/life balance is about creating structures to work more efficiently in order for more life to happen. We only get this one life, so let’s live it as much as possible!
Essentialism by Greg McKeown
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
How to Get Away by Jon Staff and Pete Davis
168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam
“How to Actually Enjoy Working From Home” by How To!
“Dealing with Overwhelm: Creating a Time Budget” by The Product Boss