Top 10 Tips: Getting a Work-Life Balance

     
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by Melanie Allen

This article is written for people who work too hard, too much or for too long, whether it's at home or in the workplace. These 10 tried and tested personal development suggestions are relevant to both work and home situations. If you're tired and overloaded with things to do, these tips can help you!

When I started designing training programmes in the early 80s, Britain was coming out of the 70s slump, and all efforts were bent towards productivity and growth. Consequently, the aim of time management training was to help individuals to improve each shining hour - stuffing activity into every corner and pocket of their lives. There were skill-development tapes to listen to while travelling and even tapes to play during the night, so as to absorb the content subliminally while sleeping. Work was the focus. Efficiency was the watchword. The dried-out husks of burnout victims are testimony to this fevered approach.

20 or so years on, we've learned that balance and sustainability is important, although the trend will probably move in the direction of short-term productivity again in the wake of the recent downturn. Most of us are aware of the need to get the balance right, but find that doing so isn't always that easy. Forward-looking organisations and academic institutions are also aware of that need to have a work-life policy in place.

Despite this, a British Labour Force Survey (LFS) conducted in 07/08 indicated that 13.5 million working days were lost because of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in that year. That makes it the most common reason for lost working time.

According to new research conducted by American Express Insurance Services, 82% of working people neglect important things in their home lives every week. Do you?

1. Find your own balance

There are no rules. Balance is an individual thing and everyone has to find their own equilibrium. It's up to you to prioritise, make adjustments and decide what you are and are not prepared to do. Don't tell yourself ‘I should be able to...' or ‘She/he can do it, so I ought to be able to.' And, most importantly, don't listen to anyone else telling you what you should or should not be able to do!

Pay attention to your own needs and wellbeing. Stay in touch with how you are, physically and emotionally, and listen to your intuition. If you feel you're out of balance day in, day out, then you are! It's time to look at what's going on and re-evaluate.

2. Beware of - adrenaline addiction

Adrenaline will keep you going, but it also keeps you in a state of readiness for danger, fight or flight. It's exciting and it's productive and it feels like energy, but it isn't. You can only run on it for a short time without experiencing its downside. Too much adrenaline for too long makes you stressed and tetchy - and wanting another high. If you continue to be in that state for long periods, it will eventually run out, leaving you with no energy, anxious, depressed or even ill. If adrenaline is your addiction, you may need some of it to get going. That's how it starts. Then it's too easy to keep pushing yourself, never giving yourself time to come down. Sooner or later you're running on empty, unable to relax, sleeping badly and on a short fuse. These are the warning signs.

Cooling down time is as important after an adrenaline high as it is when you exercise. So do something soothing or undemanding in between the highs. Schedule some methodical, routine tasks after a big burst of work, a successful presentation or a period of strain or activity at home. Give yourself time to come down and feel tired. Don't worry if you feel depleted, low and twitchy for a while - it's the adrenaline draining away. Given time, it will pass.

3. Beware of - martyrdom addiction

‘I've got so much to do'. ‘I've got to do everything round here'. Do these sentences ring a bell? Do you feel put upon and resentful while at the same time hogging all the work? If so, martyrdom could become an addiction for you, pushing you to take on more, draining you physically and emotionally and raising your stress levels.

And here's the hard word - it's ego inside out. The motivation for martyrdom, and the big payoff, is that it makes you feel important - a hero. And you think it makes you look busy and important. It doesn't. It's annoying and infuriating for people around you and it makes you look like... a martyr! Be alert to this if it's your weakness and let other people take the weight off your shoulders.

4. Ask for help

Asking for help is so often the best way out of stressful situations and dilemmas. Sometimes all it needs is for you to stop hugging the problem to yourself and get it out in the open - talk to someone. It's not so hard to do, and on the whole, people like to be asked. That's what managers and colleagues are for! Common reasons for not asking for help are:

• pride in your work and/or not wanting to look as if you can't manage on your own
• not wanting to bother anyone, be a nuisance or make a fuss
• perfectionism and lack of confidence: you're afraid to show something that isn't complete.

The answer is firstly to recognise when you need help, and secondly, to understand why you don't ask for help. Don't leave it too long - the sooner you ask, the better

5. Choose ‘good enough' over ‘perfect

When something needs to be done, ask yourself the question: is it important that the job is simply done, or that it's done perfectly? 9 times out of 10, the answer is that it needs to be done rather than done perfectly. A twist on this - which is about delegation - is to question whether the job has to be done and finished or done your way, by you.

For example, Martha has always done the family laundry, and she's developed a system that works. However, now she's working full-time, she just can't handle that task in addition to everything else. She ignored her husband's offers of help because she didn't trust him to do it properly. Finally, after it had become a huge issue, she let it go. Her husband Ben shares it with her now. He doesn't do it her way, and she can still get irritated by the way he flings mangled baby t-shirts with their sleeves still inside out on the radiators, but she can turn a blind eye. Better that it's done each day than to have a mountain of laundry that takes all weekend.

6. Say NO

This is not about saying no all the time or saying no to work within your job description! This is about the extra responsibilities you're asked to take on both at home and work. If you are someone who tends to say ‘yes' and thereby takes on too much and gets overloaded, here are a couple of techniques.

First up: if someone asks you to do something extra, STALL. Say you'll get back to him or her in five minutes or when you're near your diary, then use that time to think clearly about whether to say yes or no.

Second: If your answer is going to be NO, the Transactional Analysis technique of ‘broken record' is really useful.
• Keep your eye on the goal - that of saying ‘no'
• Actually say the word NO and keep saying it at every opportunity, every time another appeal is made to your good nature, your impeccable skills, etc. This is important. Don't justify your actions or give excuses. There's no need to be nasty or rude. Simply saying ‘No, I'm sorry. I don't have time', or variations on that idea, is enough.

7. Project in - project out

If you want to say yes to taking on an extra responsibility or project and have no time for it (see the last suggestion), review your commitments and get rid of another project or task. If you're already overloaded, then in no time at all, even the most wonderful-looking project will become another chore.

8. Keep a weekend free

Keep one weekend every 4-6 weeks free from any commitments, plans, work, activities etc. Spend it with your partner, your family or just dossing at home by yourself. This doesn't necessarily mean that you do nothing, but rather that you don't structure the time in advance and fill it with plans and ‘to do' lists.

9. Do something for yourself one evening a week

This must be something you enjoy and look forward to. It doesn't apply to things you think will be good for you or things that your children or partner would enjoy. This is for you. Whatever it is - having a meal with someone, reading a novel in the bath or lolling on the sofa with a glass of wine, watching TV - make it non-negotiable. Turn off your mobile, don't check your emails, screen incoming calls and only ring back if it's an emergency. Stick to it and don't put it off.

10. Draw a line between home and work

If you're rushed and overloaded, what can happen - and it's very common - is that while you're at work, you worry about things at home and when you're at home, you're preoccupied with work. Crazy, isn't it?

Download the things on your mind before you leave work (or home). Write a note in your diary, on your PC, on your Blackberry or on a piece of paper and list the things you need to do when you come back. Keep your mind focused on the fact that this is the end of that activity, workday or tasks at home. Shut the diary, turn off your PC, save your message and LEAVE IT!

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