The new approach to work-life balance (that actually works)

It was 7 p.m. on a Friday night, and I was heading out to dinner with my husband. My phone buzzed with a text message from my then-CEO. Then my phone rang.

Me: “Do you need me to come back to the office?”

CEO: “No, no, if you can just tell me where this file is. Oh, also, can you update it with these additional slides? Actually … ”

Me: “Are you sure you don’t need me to come back to the office? It might be easier for me to just come by and get this done instead of going back and forth on the phone … ”

Unfortunately, this conversation is familiar for many people. CareerBuilder found that nearly half of American workers check email after they leave work, and 45% say they do work during non-business hours. And this phenomenon crosses global borders, prompting new laws in France and a campaign in Japan to limit working hours.

Of course, we’d all love a little more balance (I’ll take more beach time thankyouverymuch!). But it’s more than that. We need it. Because today’s “always on” mentality has serious consequences. Stanford professors Joel Goh, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Stefanos Zenios found that more than 120,000 deaths per year and approximately 5%–8% of annual healthcare costs may be attributable to workplace stressors including long working hours, job insecurity, work-family conflict, high job demands, and low social support at work.

Lowering exposure is key, but Project Time Off found that more than half of American workers are not taking all of the vacation days they’ve earned, despite finding that those who take vacation and travel are happier in their personal and professional lives. Many other countries offer or mandate additional vacation days, resulting in greater happiness and balance.

For example, The Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the United States is the only country surveyed that does not have a law requiring paid leave, compared to Germany with 20 days, the United Kingdom with 28 days, and Australia with 20 days. With the exception of the United States, laws in other countries mandate a minimum of 10-30 days of paid leave per year.

If you’re struggling with stress, mental clarity, and generally feeling the effects of “the grind”, it’s time to reclaim your work-life balance in 2019!

The work-life balance matrix

Work-life balance can (and should) look different for everyone, based on what is most important to you. There may be times in life when you are focused on career and personal development, and other times when your focus turns to family or a favorite hobby.

Before you can address areas that are out of balance, you must first understand what you value and how satisfied you are with the time you’re allocating and the goals you’re achieving in each area. When I was touring colleges, I used a weighted decision matrix to score each campus on the things I cared about. Ever since, I’ve used this handy tool to evaluate a number of options, from jobs, to apartments, to vacation spots. So, how can you use this very objective tool to measure a very subjective metric?

Here’s a sample of a completed matrix, with steps to complete your own outlined below:

Step 1: Create a list of 4-6 categories that most contribute to your satisfaction in life. I recommend using categories that are broad enough to encompass changing life phases, but narrow enough to act upon. You can use anything that contributes to your satisfaction, from hobbies, to career, to family, to spirituality, and volunteer work. I also recommend that these categories have a significant effect on how you make life choices, how you spend your time, and have actionable and measurable steps associated with them. For example, while it may significantly increase your satisfaction to “be a successful person”, a better category might be career. Or, if your satisfaction is impacted by “helping people”, a more actionable category might be “volunteer work”.

Step 2: Assign each of the chosen categories a percentage for the amount that the category impacts your satisfaction. For example, if your categories include family, career, hobbies, charity work, and education, you might say that family is 30%, career is 25%, hobbies are 10%, charity work is 20%, and education is 15%. Be honest with yourself when choosing and rating each category. If you honestly don’t receive much satisfaction from hobbies, don’t give it more weight than career.

Step 3: Assign a percentage for your current satisfaction in each category. Are you 100% satisfied in your career? Are you only 50% satisfied with your family life? Go through each category and give an honest percentage with how satisfied you are with that area of your life.

Step 4: Multiply the satisfaction percentage with the weight of each category. Now add the categories up… and the end percentage is how satisfied you are with your life. What’s your total? It’s rare than anyone will be 100% satisfied, but maybe 90%? What if your percentage is low, say, 30% satisfied?

Step 5: Analyze the results, and determine which areas of your life are causing the most dissatisfaction. What steps can you take to change that? How much of your satisfaction is built on choices and situations within your control, and how much is not in your control?

Seven work-smart strategies

Once you’ve quantified your life satisfaction, it’s time to start tackling areas with lower scores. Most people struggle with finding enough hours in the day to fit it all in. Working smarter helps you free up mental capacity, physical hours, and emotional space to accommodate more of the activities you love.

Just say “no” to low-impact work

We all want to play as a team, but helping out on too many projects sucks up your time, leaving too little for the work that really matters. Setting quality OKRs (objectives and key results) is the key to knowing which activities are high-value, and which will distract you from accomplishing your goals.

And this doesn’t stop with office tasks. If the committee you’ve chaired for three years no longer brings you joy, step down and get back to participating in a way that feeds your soul. Are too many hobbies making you feel stressed and frenetic? Pare it down to the activities that bring the most pleasure. If an activity is not bringing you joy and helping you progress towards your goals, give it up! This is easy to say, but hard to do.

When going through these steps last year, I recognized that I was feeling stressed and guilty about my role as a board member for a local community theater. I kept skipping meetings because of other commitments and I felt like I wasn’t contributing. I still wanted to volunteer on an ad-hoc basis, so I sent a note to the board president explaining that while I didn’t have time to make the required commitment to board duties for the coming year, I would love to still participate by helping staff auditions, contributing time and money to opening night festivities, and acting as the house manager for productions. This allowed me to keep the things that brought me joy, and provided much-needed support on a more reliable cadence for the theater.

Stop multi-tasking

Seriously. How many browser tabs do you have open right now? Multitasking makes you think you’re getting more done, but research from the American Psychological Association has shown it reduces productivity by as much as 40%.

Instead, break each project into time-bound tasks, and spend focused amounts of time completing each element. Prioritize the tasks that require input from others for completion so that you can finish your portion of the project and hand it off to the next worker. Parallelizing work (where multiple work streams happen at the same time by different people) is an efficient use of time, but trying to do it all yourself is a recipe for disaster.

Break work down into achievable tasks

Create a project plan that includes all the tasks you need to accomplish for the quarter. Then, divide the tasks in monthly and weekly to-dos. These can be kept on a team whiteboard, personal notepad, or shared Trello board. Whatever method you choose, make sure that you can check things off the list when complete, and move activities to the next phase of the project when ready.

Make your meetings matter

Many people assume a weekly check-in meeting is needed for their projects… but is it? Do you really need to get in a room for 30 minutes to talk about the status of the checklist, instead of looking at the shared board or exchanging comments in writing?

Useless meetings waste tons of valuable time, so get ‘em off the calendar if they aren’t adding value! If you want to take a bold step, delete all the recurring meetings off your calendar for the next quarter. Ask organizers to re-send the invites to meetings you should attend, and confirm why they feel your presence is valuable. You might find that check-ins for old projects never re-appear, and the meetings that remain actually do help you move work forward each quarter.

Create checklists

Don’t procrastinate on checking things off your list. Sometimes we waste more energy worrying about doing the thing than actually doing the thing itself . David Allen, who wrote the book “Getting Things Done” and offers training on how to be more productive, says that the mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

He advocates for making a series of lists to capture and process all the things that you need to accomplish in a day. Once captured, do. Sometimes we get so mired down in the need to make the list perfect, make the steps perfect, make our desk perfect, that we forget that the act of starting means we’re one step closing to finishing our task. Once you’ve got a plan in place, take action.

Evaluate your daily schedule

A long commute is another area that eats up time and contributes stress to most peoples’ lives. Want to reduce these effects? Try negotiating for a work-from-home day once or twice a week. Gallup found that in 2017, 43% of Americans said they worked remotely at least some of the time, and with collaboration tools like video, chat, and email, you can stay just as connected to your team.

If a long commute is non-negotiable, use that time for something that you’ve deemed important to your work life balance. For instance, if you have a goal to advance your knowledge or learn a new skill, you can listen to podcasts or audiobooks, or if you want to focus on well-being you can use apps like Headspace that offer guided meditations for relaxation.

Make time for self-care

As you’re thinking about your daily plans, revisit your routines for physical health. You can gain time and nutrition benefits by meal planning and cooking in bulk on the weekends. Freeze meals in pre-portioned containers for easy reheating in the evenings. The time and stress you save each evening allows you to spend more time unwinding with your family, and getting to bed at a reasonable hour. Speaking of which… how’s your sleep schedule? Are you going to bed at a reasonable time, getting a solid night’s rest, and waking with energy? If not, commit to a bedtime routine for 30 days, and see how you feel at the end. Keep the elements that improve your rest, and experiment with changes to ensure you get a good night’s sleep.

Of course, all of these new habits take time to build and practice to maintain. Some tactics, like deleting all your meetings and negotiating a regular WFH day, can be done right away. Others, like declining low-impact work and focusing on tasks individually, require diligent attention throughout the year. Need a partner on your journey to reclaiming work-life balance in 2019? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter for tips on working smarter.

This article first appeared on Atlassian.