How to Take Back Control Of Your Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance on scales

Executive Summary

  • If you don’t define what work-life balance means to you, the most demanding parts of your life will do it for you
  • Get intentional about what your ideal work-life balance looks like
  • Map out what your ideal work-life balance looks like by prioritising each area of your life and defining what the ideal future state looks like
  • Rate and assess how you’re currently going in each area of life and regularly check-in with yourself to track your progress

How to Take Control Over Your Work-Life Balance

With so many articles like this and this clamouring about our lack of work-life balance , it’s clear we’ve got a problem. I’m sure all of us could do with a little less work and a little more life right now. Don’t you agree?

For busy professionals like you and me, time is both precious and scarce. There’s always going to be more work to do. But we also want more time with our family, friends or to ourselves. So how exactly can we do that? How do you balance work and life?

Being Intentional About Work-Life Balance

A 2014 article the HBR surveyed  roughly 4,000 top executives about how they manage their time to try and get more work-life balance. A key finding was that many of these executives had to make deliberate choices about what success looked like inside and outside of work, and the kinds of opportunities they were willing to pursue and let go of .

This is a helpful model for how we should be thinking about work-life balance. Although some people claim that they’ve come up with the right level of balance based on science, no one can prescribe the right amount of time for you. Only you can do that.

The problem comes when we don’t have a clear picture of our ideal state of work-life balance. When the scales tip too far in one direction (most often it’s work), we may feel exhausted, mistreated, depressed or even angry at our employers. We might feel like there is too much work and not enough of other things, but we have trouble putting it into words.

You see, if we had a better idea of our “Goldilocks” zone, it’s simpler to work out if we’re on the right track. We’re able to spot any problems and openly communicate our needs with others. It means that we’re not trying to reactively solve problems like burnout or chronic exhaustion. Instead, we’re in a better position to proactively work on building a life and career that we’re genuinely satisfied with.

How do you go about doing this? That’s what I’m going to share with you here.

Finding Your Work-Life Balance Ideal

Many people think finding your ideal level of work-life balance takes a lot of time spent soul-searching and in deep thought. And whilst I whole-heartedly agree with that statement, I think we need to be more structured and deliberate about how we go about this process. Now you could just go with the flow and see how it goes, but I find that being intentional and deliberate puts you in the driver’s seat and lets you be proactive in managing your life.

Defining Work-Life Balance For You: The Structured Way

Now, you could just divide  your life between “work” and “life”, but our lives encompass so many other areas where we might have specific goals and desires. These areas often take on different levels of importance and meaning for each of us, and these can change as time goes on. It’s a lot more helpful and productive to get specific with what these areas are in your own life.

In his 4 Burners Theory, James Clear breaks down our lives into 4 discrete areas:

  1. Health
  2. Work
  3. Family
  4. Friends

I personally like to go a bit more broader than the above. Here’s the categories I personally break my life into:

  • Work & career
  • Personal growth
  • My Professional Pal
  • Spiritual & church
  • Relationship
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Health & fitness
  • Finances

If you like, take a minute or two to jot down the parts of your life that are important to you and are important to your sense of work-life balance.

Prioritise Each Area of Your Life

Life is full of compromises and trade-offs. When we spend our time and energy pursuing one thing, we’re also saying no to a lot of other ways we could have spent them. That’s why we need to prioritise certain areas of our life over others, because there will be times when we need to sacrifice progress in one area to get ahead in another. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all.

Some people choose to spend more time at work, because they want to get ahead, it brings them a lot of joy, or it’s part of their job description. Others prefer to work more reasonable hours and spend time pursuing hobbies or with family and friends. And in all honesty, either way is okay, but you need to decide for yourself what’s right for you and your situation. There will be times when you’ll need to choose between one or the other, so you’ll be glad that you’ve thought it through long before then.

So take the list of areas in your life, and put them in an order of priority that suits you.

Your Work-Life Balance: Current State & Future State

If you work in consulting, you’re probably familiar with the idea of current state and future state analysis . For the rest of us , this just means taking stock of where things are at now, and then mapping out what we want things to look in an ideal state in the future.

This is the perfect approach we can apply to defining what our ideal picture of work-life balance looks like. This is because it helps us see the gaps or issues so we can make changes that will bring our lives back into a healthy balance.

You may have noticed that I like using (a lot of) tables. Here’s a format you can use when looking at your work-life balance:

Current StateFuture State
Work & career
Health & fitness

1) Future State

I find it most helpful to start with the future state first, because it help sto know where you want to go, before you can work out how far away you are. After all, you need to define and understand the rules of the game, so that you know whether having a lot of points means you’re winning or losing. (Isn’t golf weird like that?)

Questions ask yourself

You should write down what your ideal future state looks like in each area of life. You could ask yourself things like:

  • What does success in this area look like to you?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • What sorts of things will you be doing if you could do what you want in this area of life?
  • Are there any non-negotiables or must-haves for you in this area of life?

Stay realistic about work-life balance

Now, while you’re thinking about these things, it’s important to make sure that these goals or ideal states are realistic or achievable. For example, if you want to rise to become CEO at your current workplace, write a book every year and become a world-class athlete, all while being home by dinner time, you’ll be hard-pressed trying to make this a reality. 

Achieving work-life balance is about making the right sacrifices to give you the time and space for the things that matter to you the most. If you don’t define what this looks like for you, then guess what – the loudest or most demanding areas of your life are going to do that for you.

Don’t sweat it if you’re not too sure if what you put down is exactly what you want or whether it’s doable. Your idea of work-life balance will definitely change and grow with you, so look at this more as a living document that will help you keep on the right track.

Now that you’ve cleared up where you want to go, it’s time to evaluate how you’ve been going in each area.

2) Current State

The current state is all about how you’re going now and how far off the future state you are right now. Id doesn’t matter how “badly” you’re doing – you should 100% be brutally honest with yourself so you can see the areas of your life that you’ve been dropping the ball on, and find ways to fix the problem.

Questions to ask yourself

When trying to assess the current state of each part of your life, it might be helpful to ask yourself these questions:

  • Has the current state of this area reached your future state? If not, what’s the difference?
  • What’s stopping you from achieving your future state in this area of your life?
  • How is the current state of this area of your life making you feel and why?
  • What could you start doing more to move from the current state to the future state?
  • What should you stop doing to move from the current state of this area towards your desired future state?

Once you’re done, you should have a table with all the cells filled out.

An example of my work-life balance review

Using my example from earlier, here’s what the table looks like once it’s filled in:

Current StateFuture State
RelationshipAlthough we aren’t able to go out due to lockdown, my fiancée and I have been spending a lot of quality time together
I have made an effort to make sure that I am available and present when talking to my fiancée
I want to have 1 date night per week with my fiancée
I want to set aside at least 30 mins each day to spend quality time with my fiancée
I want to be available and there for my fiancée when she needs me
Work & career Started new role
Working reasonable hours
I feel like I have enough time for the other parts of my life
Becoming a key member of the team and recognised for my technical knowledge and analysis
Constantly broadening my knowledge of tax
Working reasonable hours so I have time for pursuits outside of work
Health & fitnessI haven’t been able to run or strength train with weights due to the gym being closed (because of the C-word)
I’ve been pretty slack with working out; I’ve been doing 1-2 body weight workouts each week
Run 3 times per week
Strength training 3 times per week
I want to feel fit and feel energised during the week

Looking at my short example above, I’m doing pretty well in terms of work and my relationship, but abysmally in terms of my health and fitness. At a glance, I can see that I need to pick up my game and start working out more regularly. Doing this exercise helps you identify the parts of your life that you’ve been neglecting so you can do something abut it.

Monitoring Your WOrk-Life Balance: Regular Check-Ins

As this article published in The Atlantic asserts, work-life balance isn’t an achievement or goal that you tick off – it’s an ongoing and iterative process that evolves as you do. But if you take the time to reflect and take action and ownership over it, you can find a happy medium where you’re able to spend time with people and doing the things that you value the most.

So with that said, you shouldn’t just do this exercise once and forget about it. You want to revisit it regularly so that you can hold yourself accountable and catch yourself before you end up feeling unhappy and dissatisfied with your work-life balance.

The exercise might feel like you’re going through the motions when everything’s going well, but when you’re going through a rough time, it can really give you some clarity on where things are going wrong and where you can start making some positive changes.

I go through this once at the end of every month as part of my monthly review so that I can take stock of the month that was, and plan for the new month ahead.

Conclusion: Get Intentional and Take Back Control Over Your Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance is something that each of us will wrestle with for the rest of our lives; it changes with our work, family and social situations. According to Charlie Gilkie (author of Start Finishing), we’ll face some sort of change in life or work every 3 to 5 years. So it’s inevitable that our ideal picture of work-life balance will need to shift to accommodate these transitions.

But if you and I can take ownership and make better decisions about how we spend our time and the kinds of opportunities we pursue and pass up, we can start taking back control of our work-life balance and building a rich and fulfilling life.

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