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I’ll admit I’ve long been a slave to trying to achieve The Ultimate Work-Life Balance.
And like many others, I’ve failed, and then felt even worse because of my failure. And this is really unfair as our perception of what constitutes Work-Life Balance is like a unicorn; magical and mythical.
It assumes that we are simple beings who can easily compartmentalise the various facets of our lives. Or that we have only two facets: work and life. And we don’t. We are complex beings, with many many facets. That can overlap like colours in a prism, creating further shapes and colours.
When I first began my professional working life, I got a kick out of getting into work early and staying late. But it wasn’t just me. Many of the people around me were the same. We took pride in how hard we worked, based on how long we were at the office. And there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your work and having a strong work ethic.
But back in those days (yes, those ye olde days of about 10 years ago) it was much easier to leave work, at work.
Now technology is a many splendored thing, but it has been a key factor in blurring the line between “work” and “life”. Internet, laptops and smartphones make it possible to work anytime, anywhere, so we do.
But instead of bragging about how hard or long we’re working, many of us are now just wanting a friggin’ break! And it’s tough.
Being a solo operator, who manages other business’s websites and online assets, it’s not feasible for me to be disconnected for long periods of time.
And now having a toddler adds another facet to my life, and something else that requires balance.
Articles, blog posts and news items appear regularly touting how to manage your email overload, how softening work hours can increase productivity, and how some countries are even going so far as to ban after hours emails (or not).
I hate to say it, but I honestly believe there is not one perfect fix for this situation we have gotten ourselves in.
Like most problems, there are multiple people involved, and unless you can get them to all agree and do the same thing (like follow email etiquette) then the problem persists.
The best you can do is determine your own balance and boundaries, and own it.
Which brings me to: What Works For Me.
I bumbled through the first year of my son’s life trying to make everything fit. I got through it, and loved the time I had with him, but the work situation wasn’t great.
So when he started spending a few days a week in childcare, I thought it would solve all of my problems and allow me Work Days and Mum Days.
What I was quickly reminded of though is that kids get sick. There are public holidays. Basically, life happens, and my perfect split of Work and Mum just does not work.
I percolated on this for a while, and like most good concepts, something valuable eventually rose to the surface: I’ll never have complete Mum Days and Scout Days (so just accept it already!), but what I do have is Mostly Mum Days and Mostly Scout Days.
I’ve mentioned this to a few people since and they’ve agreed. Regardless of whether you run your own business or not, we all have different facets of our lives that need attention on the same day, and so can’t be perfectly segmented. So let’s accept that the whole day may have an overarching bent in one direction, but leave some space for the expected or unexpected other items that are going to need attention.
Being prepared for it makes it much easier to embrace when it happens. And scouts are all about being prepared!
So what else works for me?
Be focused (and communicate your needs and actions with those around you)
I decided very early on that I did not want my son seeing me on the computer or phone working too much.
Initially, I tried “not at all” but quickly found that wasn’t possible, so I try as much as possible to do my work when he’s not around.
If something does need my attention, I tell him what I need to do and about how long I think it will take. He might not be able to talk yet, but I don’t see that as a reason to not talk to him. It’s also useful for me to verbalise what it is that I’m doing and how long I plan to take so that I don’t allow myself to get distracted by other things. It keeps me very task-oriented, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when it’s complete.
This also allows me to be present with, and appreciate whatever it is that I’m doing at the time. I love my work. I love being a mum. I find that if I try to do both of those at EXACTLY the same time, I tend to do both very poorly and not enjoy them. Not fun.
Email on my phone
I know some people find email on their phone very invasive, but I could not survive without it. It allows me to make the most of little pockets of time that are available to keep on top of communications. Not every email can be answered on my phone, but I feel more relaxed knowing what is going on, and it helps me plan ahead (but see below re having a cut off time…)
Make use of the cloud
I use a cloud-based document management system that is synced across all of my devices. This means I can access my files anywhere, anytime. It’s awesome.
Sync ALL the apps!
Similarly to using the cloud for my files, having my email/contacts/calendar etc sync across all devices keeps me up to date as well. It takes a little while to set it up, but is worth it in the long run.
Bonus tip: Take the time to add client and supplier contact details into your address book or whatever CRM tool you use. It’s invaluable when you need to contact someone unexpectedly.
Turn on ALL of the notifications!
I manage social media accounts for clients as well as myself; so I make use of notifications to alert me to when activity occurs on their channels that I need to respond to, rather than having to check them constantly.
Be honest with clients and suppliers (when I need to be)
Some of my clients know I’m a mum. Some don’t.
While it’s an important part of who I am, it’s not an essential part of my work-life, so I do pick and choose if and when it needs to be mentioned.
I also don’t try to hide it though, as it is part of who I am, and shouldn’t be embarrassed about. I was quite proud that a client asked me recently during a phone call whether I was at the playground (I wasn’t. I was at Big Digital Adelaide. Similar, but different).
As much as we think we can do many things at once, we usually end up doing them poorly. I’ll admit I still get stuck on this one and often jump between tasks, but I KNOW that I’m more effective and efficient when I focus on one task at a time, and…
Use a to-do list and calendar block time
Whether you use an app or a pen and paper, WRITE IT DOWN! But as well as documenting my list of tasks, I also:
- Estimate how long each task should take (being a little more generous as things always creep over, and if they don’t, bonus time!)
- Put a $ next to tasks that are billable or generate income, either immediately or in the future (it helps prioritise and keep focused)
- Use the tasks time estimates to block out my calendar and this becomes my daily and weekly planner (and it’s like playing tetris, so it’s fun too)
Track time spent (especially billable versus non-billable)
Again, whether you write it down on a piece of paper or use a time-tracking tool (I use WorkflowMax) track how you’re spending your time.
WorkflowMax also allows me to mark whether tasks are billable or non-billable, and then generates a productivity report. It has been insanely useful at keeping me focused on what is important, and what is fun, but doesn’t pay the rent… (*I’m talking about you personal social media use!*)
Have a cut off time for technology and online communication
As mentioned above, a downside of technology is that it now makes our work life available 24/7 so it is important to impose some guidelines around when you are online.
While I do have email on my phone (and tablet) I don’t check it after about 8pm. I find that if I do, an email about a situation I can’t do anything about until the following day tends to ruin my night (and sleep) and sleep is pretty awesome.
Accept that life will happen (and enjoy it when it does)
This one is a little more difficult, but simply accepting the “Mostly Mum” / “Mostly Scout” mindset approach that I mentioned above has helped incredibly with being able to just go with the flow. Accept that things will happen, and deal with, or make the most of them when they do.
Scouts are all about Being Prepared, and I also like to: plan for the worst, but hope for the best.
Well, that is some of what works for me. I would love to hear what tips you have for helping to balance – or accept – your own life.
Please share them in the comments!
Feature image by qwerpy5485 on Deviant Art. View license here. It has been cropped to suit the format of this page header and the homepage slider.