How to improve your work-life balance
I have thought about work life balance for a long time. I thought about it when I was getting my PhD and working 70 hour weeks. I thought about it before my first child was born and I was building my career. I thought about after my first child was born and I was managing a team of 12 people. Then I thought more deeply about work-life balance that I had ever thought possible after I found out that I was paid 47% less money than my counterpart at work. That knowledge made me question my value in the workplace and my own values in life. Ultimately, I quit my job and started my own healthcare consulting company, doing essentially what I had been doing in my job, but working for myself.
I am now busier than I have ever been at any point in my life. I have two kids including a school-aged five-year-old who gets driven around to activities, and a toddler who still wants me to sit on the floor with him every minute he is at home. I own my own company, which means I’m responsible for bringing in the money, doing the client work, and the admin responsibilities such as paying staff. My own learnings and self-discovery as I decided to quit my job inspired me to start Balancing Bravely, which I devote more time to than I would probably like to admit. I have a house and a mortgage, and an amazing husband, and life is just busy. Busier than it has ever been.
So it seems hard to believe that I feel more balanced than ever before. For years, I believed the way to achieve work-life balance was to be less busy. I thought the busyness caused stress, which made work and life feel off-kilter. But it isn’t busyness that causes our work-life balance to feel off. We feel unbalanced when our lives don’t reflect our values and priorities.
Think of a really busy day when you were doing the things that you love deeply. You might have been busy, but thinking back, you were also probably really happy. When your days are full of tasks and activities and interactions that drag you down and drain your energy that is when you lose balance.
I’ve learned that there are 3 steps to creating better work-life balance.
Step 1: Understand what you really value and care about deeply
Your ultimate goal is to spend more time doing the things you love and less time doing the things you don’t. In order to do that you need to really understand what it is that you love doing, the activities that tap in to the person that you really want to be. This isn’t the person that you imagine you should be, or the image of yourself on Instagram or Facebook. This is about the things that you really truly value.
I’m not gonna lie to you and tell you that this step is easy or fast. This is the hard stuff. This is accepting yourself for what you truly value and care about. That might not be what your parents value. It might not be what your friends value. It might not be what your colleagues value. But this is the key to your journey to find happiness and balance in your life.
Step 2: Release the mom guilt
I was recently talking to a friend from grad school. We both have PhDs in human development and family studies. I must have been projecting some mom guilt, because she stopped me mid-sentence and said, “Julia, don’t you remember that research we read about working moms?”
I immediately flashed back to the results table from these research studies that showed that if mothers wanted to be working and were working or wanted to be at home and were at home, their kids had great outcomes. Even moms who wished they were at home, but worked (probably because they had to financially), still had kids with good outcomes. The worst outcome was for kids who had moms that wished they worked but were at home.
I know that I want to be working. I get so much satisfaction and enjoyment out of the intellectually stimulating conversations, working with people, the impact that I’m having on my community and the world. I do not want to be at home. So I should not feel guilty for working. My kids are no worse off and we would all be worse off if I was at home all day.
I know this is true, but it is still really hard to release this mom guilt. So I need to keep reminding myself.
Step 3: Be present and in the moment with your kids, with your spouse, at work, and when you spend time alone
Part of what makes us feel disconnected from our lives is the fact that our minds are often thinking about something that is not what we are doing at that moment. You’re at work, thinking about your kids, what you’re going to cook for dinner, how you’re going to deal with the latest family or friend melodrama, and how you really just wish that you could lay on the couch and watch Netflix and fall asleep.
Then you get home with your kids, and instead of really being there playing cars, dolls, monopoly, or building forts with your couch cushions, you’re thinking about the super uncomfortable interaction you had with your boss that day, how one meeting totally didn’t go as you had planned, the weird conversation you just had with your mom, and how you are possibly going to get the house clean before company arrives next weekend. When our brains and our bodies are not in the same place we cannot find work-life balance.
So you have to train your brain to be in the moment. When I wrote “train your brain”, I mean it. This actually is a training exercise, just like you would train to run a marathon. There’s this amazing research by Shauna Shapiro (she even has a great video about it) where she talks about how we have these super highway pathways in our brains (this is thinking about all of the other things in life instead of what you are doing right now), and when we learn to be more in the moment, it’s like we’re digging out a country road. Watching this 6 minute video was the start of a major transformation for me.
At the beginning it is hard and slow going. But the more you practice, the more you established that road becomes, and eventually your brain can automatically go to that place of being in the moment. That is when the magic really happens, when your day reflects your values, when you release the unnecessary mom guilt, and when you can be really in the moment, that is when you start to feel balance. It does not mean that you will not be busy. It does not mean that every day is going to be fun or easy. But it does mean that you are living a life that reflects who you want to be. That is amazing.
Get started creating work-life balance that you love
If this feels really far off from the life you’re living, do not be discouraged. You can absolutely get there, every journey starts with one step. Just take one step forward. Be a little more in the moment with your kids. Release just a bit of that mom guilt and know that you are enough. You are good enough. Go to bed thinking about things you really value. The more you think about it, the more they will infiltrate your thoughts and you will see progress towards the balance that you deserve.