The mystery of work-life balance

This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.

How can I achieve work-life balance?

My office has a culture of being “always on”, where people will send e-mails at all hours expecting a response. I care about our company and want to advance my career, but I also enjoy doing other things, and want to spend evenings and weekends with my husband and friends. Also, I want to have kids soon, but I already feel guilty that I’m not working hard enough. How can I achieve work-life balance and not get too stressed out?

This felt like an appropriate question for this week, as I’m writing this from a plane flying to Paris. My husband and I have been dreaming of spending time in Europe for an extended vacation, but we’ve never managed to make it happen. Now that we have two kids, the idea of bonding as a family and creating memories together feels even more important, so we’re pulling the trigger. For the next five weeks, we’ll be together with our two kids and my parents visiting Paris, Ireland, Barcelona, and Switzerland. Wish us luck!

Your situation sounds so familiar, and is a common challenge especially in Silicon Valley. Work-life balance is a struggle at every stage in one’s career. Whether you’re just starting out in your first job and want to prove yourself, or you’ve taken on more responsibility and need to follow through, there never seems to be enough hours in the day. In my first few years out of college, I’d regularly stay at the office until past two or three am eating junky snacks at my desk instead of proper meals. I’d barely respond to messages from my friends, let alone see them. Of course this turned out to be unsustainable and unsatisfying, and in the years since I’ve built up some tactics for getting to better work-life balance:

Realize it’s all in your head: Everyone’s work environment is different, so if you happen to be in a particularly intense workplace where you’re being explicitly told to work at all hours, that’s rough. Most enlightened employers realize that success is a long journey, won over years of dedication, not a few intense all-nighters. As a result, even in my most unbalanced times, most of the pressure was internal. It’s mainly my own expectations that drove me to think, “I need to respond to this e-mail right now” even when now was Saturday evening at 9pm. Realizing this was self-imposed freed me up to take control of the situation.

Set clear boundaries: The first step is setting clear boundaries with yourself and sticking to them. For me, that self-agreement is often “I’m leaving the office at 6pm, and will only do one hour of work from 9pm to 10.” Make your boundaries clear to your co-workers as well. Discuss this openly with your manager to ensure you have her or his support, and take into account any concerns. There may need to be exceptions to your boundaries, and emergencies can always happen, but it’s good to be explicit about what these situations are, e.g. the site is down, tomorrow is launch day, a teammate needs you to unblock them, etc… That way, you can have a framework for how to decide that something requires your immediate attention. Then, in all other cases, it’s like texting in a movie theater: it can wait!

Set clear, realistic goals: The concept of “balance” implies there are competing forces, each pulling in different directions. However, if you don’t actually know what you’re trying to accomplish, both professionally and personally, then it’s easy to fall into the trap of working all the time. After all, if you have no way of knowing when you’ve “achieved your goal”, then work can be an endless treadmill of tasks. Similarly, if you haven’t set goals around your personal interests or relationships, it’s easy to neglect them, as they might feel less necessary than work. Make a conscious decision around how you want to spend your life with the limited time you have, balancing what would make you feel successful in work and what you’d find personally enriching. For me, vacations, friends, and eating well fill me up, so I take at least one weekend trip every month and plan ahead to see friends often for dinner at some new restaurant we’re excited to check out.

Minimize distractions: Since you don’t plan to work 24/7, you’ll need to be efficient in the hours you do spend working. The stress from work-life imbalance comes when you aren’t spending your time the way you want. I block out my day at work explicitly, with goals for every 30-minute chunk, and then I do everything in my power to stay focused. When you’re home, actually be fully at home. For me, I use a different computer so I can focus on writing, photo editing, or other personal tasks where I don’t need to be on VPN or have my e-mail one cmd-tab away. Sure, my phone can still ping me, but a quick glance will reveal if any messages qualify as an “exception” that requires my response — they usually don’t. When I really want to give myself the best chance of focusing, I turn off notifications or go on airplane mode. And for goodness sake, please don’t look at your phone while you’re out with friends — that’s not the point.

Prioritize quality over quantity in all things: What can you do with a few hours or a day that would be truly memorable? My husband and I will often throw at each other “life’s too short to watch anything you don’t truly love” which means we’ve watched the first episode of dozens of shows, but actually only followed through on a tiny handful (Game of Thrones, Sherlock, Death Note). We call each other out when one of us seems to be stuck in an Internet click spiral. With my children, I try to find new experiences that we can enjoy together. If it’s between going to a playground we’ve gone to before or traveling to a new playground, we’ll usually opt for the latter.

Get all the help you can: Since you mentioned starting a family, the main advice I can offer here is getting help. Having a partner who is a true partner, family nearby who can share the load, and a fully loaded spectrum of friends/daycare/nanny/baby-sitting/backup options to call upon when work or life pulls you away is hugely important. You don’t have to do it all yourself, and you don’t have to be perfect. Admitting that I needed help and training myself to ask for it was the most valuable lesson I learned in my first year as a parent.

Get enough sleep: Recognizing that stress is all in your head, you need to treat your head right. For me, that means getting enough sleep. I want to preface this by saying that I am the worst at going to sleep on time. For years, I’d set an 11:00pm bedtime and promptly blow through it every single night, fueled by some mysterious reservoir of late-night energy, even when I promised myself that tomorrow would be different. About six months ago, I made a breakthrough by going kindergarten-style with a star chart on my closet wall tracking whether I’ve put my head on the pillow each night by 11pm. It’s made me much better about bedtime (although in the spirit of transparency I must admit that I’ve slipped in the past month.) When I manage to get a full eight hours of sleep, I feel much better equipped to handle my day and whatever little hurdles pop up in front of me.

Take time to look back: I can tell when I’m slipping into a state of imbalance when I look back at the past month and I have trouble recalling what I did. I don’t want to just go through the motions of getting through the day, the week, or the month. Instead, I want to make memories and appreciate them. One of the ways I’ve found to best do that is through writing and journaling, as well as taking lots of photos and videos. I write about what I’m learning with my kids every month. I keep a private journal called “Life Memories” that I imagine our family reading a decade into the future. My friends know me as “the paparazzi” in all our outings because of how many photos I take. I love looking back and cherishing past events, and looking back also motivates me to plan my coming year and get the most out of it. Like spending five weeks in Europe :-)


To ask a question or follow along weekly with more Q&As like this, subscribe to The Looking Glass mailing list.