I was talking with a coworker not too long ago, and he asked me about how to achieve a better work-life balance. The truth is, there’s no silver bullet. There are some strategies and tactics that I’ve found useful, and I’ll share them with you here.
The first one (which I got from My Not So Humble Wife) is to make a list every day when you first get to work of three things you’re going to accomplish that day. Make sure it’s a realistic list; for example, don’t make “I’m going to finish Project X” one of those three things if you haven’t even started it yet and it’s a long-term project. Be aware of how long each list item will take, and set yourself up to succeed. If you accomplish all three things by 10 AM, great! You have the rest of the day to catch up on other things, or else get ahead on other work. If you have to stay until 8 PM to get them all done, then that’s what you need to do. If you find yourself staying until 8 PM on a regular basis, you either need to be more realistic about what you can accomplish in one day, or you need to figure out where all your time is going (usually it’s time thieves, which I address a little more later).
In terms of being able to accomplish those three tasks, honestly assess how long tasks take to finish and budget your time accordingly. Give yourself some leeway; if you think something is going to take 15 minutes, give yourself twenty minutes to do it. You never know when something is going to divert your attention or if something is going to go wrong, and if you always assume the best case scenario, you will constantly be running to catch up to a worst-case world. The extra time you budget will also help deal with those time thieves I mentioned earlier.
Those time thieves I mentioned? You all know who I’m talking about, mostly because we all do it to everyone else. Whether it’s the email that pops up and diverts our attention, the phone call we have to take, or even the person who pops by with “a quick question” or “just to chat”. Sometimes you can afford it, but other times you can’t. Be aware of where you stand on things, and if you’re in the middle of an important project where losing focus will cost you large amounts of productivity, politely but firmly let them know, “I’m sorry, I’m working on a very important project. Is this a critical issue or can I get back to you later?” In most cases it’s not a time sensitive matter, and as long as you follow up with them in a reasonable amount of time you’ll actually improve your reputation for professionalism. If you made sure to build in some extra time for your “three things”, you can also address anything that they believe is time sensitive without coming off as peevish or harried as well.
Another good tactic is to make sure not to schedule out your entire day. Instead, try to schedule out no more than 80% of your day. You’ll need to take breaks, check email, and there will be unexpected issues that come up that will need to be addressed immediately. Schedule time for breaks, but don’t screw around. “I need to brainstorm this project” might sound reasonable, but is it necessary? With that in mind, having a schedule, at least a framework, will help give you structure and an idea of what’s coming. In fact, the further out you can schedule things (whether it be a day, a week, or even a month or more) the more awareness you’ll have of coming events and the less likely you are to be blindsided by something. In my experience most of “putting out fires” is a matter of dealing with things that were foreseeable issues; solving problems before they have a chance to become problems not only saves aggravation, it saves time and money.
You should always know what you priorities are, and know the difference between “want” and “need”. Something you “need” to get done has to happen, without question. Things you “want” to happen are the things you get done with the time you have left and should be the first things to go. Your “need” list is always your top priority. If you cut out all of your “want” list and still don’t have enough resources to accomplish everything that’s left, either reconsider what you believe is a need, or else delegate some tasks or (if that’s not an option) discuss the matter with your supervisor. That’s what their job is, to make sure you’re able to succeed.
If you do find yourself in a position where you are constantly putting out fires and you don’t have an opportunity to get on top of things, the first step is to re-prioritize. Again, your supervisor can be an excellent resource for this. You should always know what your priorities are and in some cases, particularly when you don’t have sufficient resources to cover all the tasks at hand, you need to accept that some things are going to need to fall by the wayside. If you don’t have time to accomplish everything on your plate, again either delegate some tasks to someone else or talk with your supervisor.
I’ve mentioned delegating a couple of times. When delegating tasks, the most important thing to remember is that the goal is important, not the process. Everyone approaches a project in a different way, and as long as the end result is satisfactory, how they got there is unimportant (within reason). Be honest with yourself about the goal; I have occasionally found myself saying “my goal is to have this task done in this way”, when the truth is I was focusing on the process rather than the product. This is likely to frustrate both you and the person you assign the task to, and result in a case where you waste more resources farming the project out than if you had just done it yourself. If having something done a certain way truly is the goal, what you likely have is multiple tasks that cumulatively roll up to a project. Separate the goal from the tasks, and trust people to accomplish the tasks in their own way. Feel free to verify that they accomplished their individual portion, but as long as the work got done right and well, don’t let your attention be devoured riding people while they do the work they were hired to do.
While this may seem like a lot, it’s actually not. What it comes down to is knowing your priorities, planning accordingly, and using your resources effectively. If you can accomplish that much, the rest should fall into place.