Is It Time To Press Pause And Reset Your Work-Life Balance?
How to create space and to hold yourself accountable to your ‘you time’
Hands up if you are already feeling like this year is not going to plan? Has your resolution to create more work-life balance already fallen by the wayside? Three weeks in and the pressures are back. Demands on your time are pulling you in so many directions. That free time, the fun things you promised yourself more of, have already dropped to the bottom of the pile. You have turned the page twenty times since starting that to-do list and the actions just keep on coming.
Perhaps it’s time to press the pause button. Reset the scales and revisit those plans.
I am going to share with you some examples, backed by independent research*, of how you can do that right now. To introduce a little more ‘you time’ — and protect it when those outside pressures try to steal it away.
It’s all about you
Here I am going to focus on the practical things you can do to place even small amounts of ‘you time’ in your busy schedule.
1. Mindful moments
I know, I know. Everyone bangs on about mindfulness don’t they? Yet I am not talking about taking specific chunks out of your day here. Nor am I speaking specifically about meditation or yoga either. I am simply reminding you that there are times in the day when you can train your mind to be quiet. To settle yourself.
The ten minutes immediately after waking, before you kick start your day. The final ten minutes before you switch out the lights. Instead of taking your coffee back to your desk, take it outside (okay maybe not if it’s minus 30). Linger a few minutes more in the shower or the bath. Look for the activities or times when you don’t need to think at all. And just breathe.
2. Turn free time into you time
Never waste a gift of time.
Your day is probably full of gifts of time, the key is to spot them and then use them wisely.
Whether it’s your morning coffee, your lunch, sitting in the car waiting for your kids’ after class to finish or your half-hour commute on the train. Instead of reaching for your phone (probably for the twenty-eighth time already today) or the laptop, make use of those times to press pause? Watch the birds outside the window? Watch the world go by. You could read a chapter of your book, start a crossword, do some knitting or crochet. Paint your nails, or call the friend you haven’t spoken to in a while.
3. Set a lights-out time
I don’t mean bedtime lights out here. I mean technology lights out.
It’s a well-documented fact that screen time close to bedtime affects our sleep patterns. Yet how many of us are thinking, I’ll just quickly check one more time? You are in control. How much of it won’t wait until morning?
Choose a time to switch devices off or to aeroplane mode, or leave them in another room entirely. Start with just one hour each evening. You will soon see the world doesn’t come crashing down because nobody could reach you. Build the separation up. If you are out walking or having lunch with friends, put it away. Take a whole day away from social media. Decide what works for you and then do it. Be present in your moment — not in 2.4 billion someone else’s moments.
4. Get a dog
I am really not suggesting you go and get a dog to create a solution.
But have you ever uttered the words ‘I’d love a dog but I just haven’t got the time?’ Ask any caring dog owner what is one of the great things about a dog in the home and many will say ‘it makes me get outside and walk’. Others will say it is their thinking time.
Before work, after work. Even during the day, if you freelance. When did we stop taking screen breaks? Er, no, switching devices is not a break. Use that 15 minutes to slip your coat and boots on and take a walk down the lane. Come back refreshed and probably more productive too.
If you have to break, you can walk a dog, right? Those fifteen minutes soon add up. From a thirty-year long dog owner, trust me, that I do know.
5. Take up a challenge
Eek! What? Are you kidding me? How have I got time to do a fundraiser?
I get it, you haven’t. None of us has. Yes, that’s a total red herring. Stupid idea! But…before you skip to the next bit can I tell you a story. It’s very short, I promise.
I ran a busy wedding and events company until two years ago. Mega busy, seven days a week, 50 weeks of the year, totally crackers. No spare time. So I joined a challenge to trek 100 km in the Sahara. Was I crazy? How the hell would I fit all the training in? Well, I did! One million boot steps. Hold that thought…
6. Phone a friend
Twiddling your thumbs? Stop texting. Pick up the phone and call a friend. Ten minutes is all you need to check-in, say hi. I bet your WhatsApp chat takes more of your time than that? And it’s good for you too.
7. Get outdoors
While there are the obvious options here — walking and gardening for example — don’t forget even short bursts can bring stress levels down. Sweep the path, gather the leaves, prune the roses or simply take your diary outside and plan your week (more of that later). Five or ten minutes is all you need. Take your coffee with you (can you see there is a theme here).
8. TV and movie nights
This one is a personal favourite of mine.
I had forgotten how to watch live TV I was so emersed in work. Now my week has certain time slots marked out for things I want to watch. I turn off my phone, leave the laptop in the office, and I settle in. Focus on the story. And then I go to bed relaxed. No work thoughts here, move along.
Meanwhile, my brother and his wife have two boys. Every Friday night, to mark the end of the week, they do a movie night. They make pizza together, pick a film, all pile on the sofa with a big cosy blanket and chill. Yes, they just chill. Granted it’s not solitary ‘you time’, but it is priceless. And it’s a regular date.
9. Do something for someone else
I am going to attach a caution to this one. Volunteering can become as big a burden as paid work. The ability to pull away, or only to fit in the time you can, needs strong boundaries. But it can also be very satisfying to give some of your time to someone else, especially if that gives you greater satisfaction than a lonesome activity. Remember, this idea of balance is not all about being alone — it’s about satisfying your own needs, creating personal happiness, outside of work. But picking up someone’s shopping when you do your own, that counts too.
10. Social activities
I am going to combine all these as there are so many variations. Cinema nights, date nights, lunch or even breakfast with a friend (breakfast, before you both head your separate ways to work — genius!). A theatre or a concert. A spa day. Go for a swim. Join a class.
All of these have one thing in common. Commitment. Either to another person, to a group, or simply because you bought a ticket or a membership and have to use it.
So that’s ten generic ideas for creating pauses. But we can all find at least one that would work to inject even a small amount of balance back into our busy lives.
Hell, yeh, I can do that. That’s given me something to think about.
That’s right, drop it onto that to-do list. That list which is up to page 21 now. No. Because now we are going to talk about action. How to make it happen.
Make it happen
So we now have all these great things we want to do, we just need to find a way to anchor some of that ‘you time’ into your schedule.
But we are busy working people. We have commitments. Life is unpredictable.
Sure it is. But guess what? By treating your personal time in the same way as your other commitments, by fixing them in place, three things start to work in your favour:
- It becomes so much harder to shift something upon which you have made a firm commitment. So you are more likely to follow through.
- It’s more problematic to try and drop something into a vacant slot at short notice especially when everyone else has scheduled their time already. So book it in now. You can always nudge it if a real emergency comes up. But the probability of that happening on that day at that precise time? Tiny. Really tiny.
- You are setting boundaries. And by setting, and continually reinforcing those boundaries, you start to retrain yourself, as well as those who expect you to be there 24/7
Okay, let’s see if we can put some structure to our ‘playtime’ then.
a. Make a little space — daily
So, what do your next 24 hours look like? Map it all out. Every single thing. Hour by hour, minute by minute. No cheating.
Look for the voids. The small voids. Your natural breaks. Now look for the little things you can do for yourself, in those spaces.
If you really don’t think you have any space, try logging everything you do for a week. How much time did you waste? Honestly? You’ll never get that back you know?
But if you truly are working every waking minute to fulfil work goals and targets, ask yourself. How fair is that to anyone else — or to your ‘you time’.
b. Schedule your entire week — or month
“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion” — C. Northcote Parkinson
There is never a truer saying, especially for a workaholic like me. How often have you made a mental note that you might make it to the gym on Wednesday, only to reach Friday and realise you worked on through. Excuse after excuse, you just kept right on working through. Because using that spare hour to do ‘just a little bit more’ is all that matters, right?
Wrong. You also matter.
So you need to feature in your diary. Sit down once a week and plan the next one. All seven days of it. Whichever method suits you. I hear lots of folks talk about colour coding their planner now, with their favourite shade being their personal time.
So remember to include some of the personal activities we talked about above. They may be regular activities (a class, a trip to the movies). Or simply voids or spaces to be used for those impromptu moments. Just be careful not to let that work steal those spare slots back though, yeh?
c. Look way ahead
Now is the time to look further. A whole year. Next year too. We are talking about big events now. Holidays, celebrations, treats.
Now you are going to need to be brave — and a little bit ruthless. If you were employed you would take holidays, because you are entitled. Well, guess what? You are entitled.
But there is only me and I have no cover?
So? If you have blocked the time out in ten months, start to put something in place. Can you staff it? Could you consider collaborating with someone you can trust — reciprocate for them?
But my client won’t accept anyone but me.
Is that true? Or is it something we tell ourselves out of fear they may replace us. Perhaps it’s time to have an honest conversation about your plans. Working with them to create a solution for that period might surprise you both. No big website or rebrand launch that week, hey guys?
d. Be accountable
In short, this is about making your ‘you time’ something which you cannot duck without comeback. A bit extreme? Maybe.
Whether you publically announce you will dance naked on the palace steps if you fail, or simply share your plans and ask folk to support you with encouragement, you are creating a form of accountability. There are many ways. Having a buddy who is trying to achieve the same, is a start. Why not get together with a few fellow workaholics and make a pact to share your weekly plan? Then check in each week with a show and tell on each other’s wins, and challenges.
e. Set boundaries and manage client expectations
By setting boundaries here I mean setting time boundaries. The times, the limitations of your availability to those you are accountable to. To succeed fully it requires transparency and clear communication. This helps those you interact with understand why you might appear to be missing in action. Optimistically, it also helps them to manage their requests and expectations too.
If you are contracted to a client then be really clear in your conditions what hours you are available. And the process and pay for out of hours should the job require it. Do you need to advertise your working hours generally, on your website, social media etc? 24-hour stores and online shopping has created a world that expects an instant reaction. Yet even helpdesks and online companies finish at their stated time.
Now you have set the boundaries and communicated them — don’t break your own rules!
If you state you finish work at 6 pm then don’t answer that e-mail at 9 pm. What message does that give? That your hours are not accurate? That you are only kidding? That they are special and you will bend the rules for them?
The technology is everywhere to advise those contacting you of your response time (and emergency contacts) if that is appropriate. They will still be there tomorrow. And if they are not, and if they do go find someone else, then they don’t respect you. Do you really want to work for a client like that?
I am still the worlds worst when it comes to making time for pleasure. I am a complete workaholic. I get my dopamine fix from little and big wins. I am results-driven. I don’t mean reaching the summit of one of Scotland’s Munros, my walking days are done. But I do mean starting and finishing a job, handing it on, getting sign off, taking the next one off the shelf. But I have reached a time in my life where I am beginning to even resent myself and that is making me make my own changes.
“No one ever said on their deathbed ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’ ” — Harold Kushner
If you have no time, then make time. Everyone’s work-balance is different, I completely get that. If you don’t create even a little balance then you will burn out. Of course, you have a responsibility to your team, your family, your clients. But don’t you also have a responsibility to ‘you’?
If you agree then perhaps it’s time add some pauses to your schedule. Put down the phone, go drink your coffee outside. And make today the day you start colouring in those ‘you’ blocks of time— and sticking to them.
[*Research backed by an independent survey among busy Scottish Business Owners and Professionals]
So what happened with my one million boot steps story? How did I manage to fit in weekly training days when I said I worked seven days a week?
Forward plan and commit — I looked for weekends or days where I could see the potential for no events and I blocked them out completely. Then I committed and booked to entire days away to make sure I couldn’t give that time back to work.
Never waste a spare space — in a crazy week, I would look for even the smallest of windows. Drive to a venue, set up, and then drive to meet one of the girls and walk, even for a couple of hours.
Flexibility — if I started to see a gap opening up as a multi-event week started to drop into place I grabbed it. And made it a training slot. The technology is there to advise those contacting you of your response time (and emergency contacts) if that is appropriate. They will still be there tomorrow. And if they are not, and they go find someone else, then they don’t respect you. Do you want to work for a client like that?
And the result was I discovered I had way more time than I first imagined. The stress of arriving in the desert poorly prepared was freaking me out, initially. But, by scheduling my time carefully I managed to find time almost every week for the final six months. And with the support of a team who kept me motivated, and accountable, I walked five hundred miles! Now wouldn’t that make a great line for a song?
©Marie T Smith (She Wordsmiths..) writes for a number of Medium publications. She has already been credited as a top writer in Food, Travel, Humor, Cooking, This Happened To Me and Satire. She is also a published writer in Travel Magazines and a keen photographer of wildlife. She Wordsmiths is where it all began and is where she manages her newsletter updates.