Career advice: 5 crucial steps to better work-life balance


Imagine your ideal life: Sunday through Saturday. How would your weekly schedule look different in a perfect world?

What's missing from the real thing?

Unless you're very lucky, you probably aren't wholly satisfied with your current balance between work, relationships and "me time." A survey from 2010 found that nearly 90% of Americans say work-life balance is a "problem" in the United States.

While there's no right or wrong way to split your time, it is risky to fall into choices unconsciously. This particular danger was colorfully highlighted by former Coca-Cola CEO Brian Dyson (one of the brains behind Diet Coke) in an oft-quoted 1991 speech:

Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them — work, family, health, friends and spirit — and you're keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls — family, health, friends and spirit — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.

Obligations aren't all created equal, Dyson explained, so it pays to be thoughtful when setting priorities. 

If you know your schedule needs an overhaul, don't stick your head in the sand: Follow these five simple steps to make your real week — and life — better reflect your ideal one.

1. Root out your biggest sources of imbalance

When you are constantly putting out fires in one corner of your life, it's easy to let other parts suffer: Skipping the gym once because of a work emergency can easily turn into never exercising at all, for example. And letting sleep deprivation become a recurring problem can literally shorten your life.

To break your worst patterns, take a breather to assess yourself — and how deliberate you are being in allocating your time and energy, workplace consultant Stephanie Marston said. 

"Take five minutes every day to think about what you choose to do," Marston said. "Not just what you 'have' to do."

Keep a detailed, running "to-do" list and a well-maintained calendar. These won't just help you stay organized; they will also allow you to be more self-aware and track which obligations are eating all your time.

Beware if work or other professional obligations have made you skip important healthy personal activities, like running outside, exploring new haunts with your friends or boo, pleasure reading or even simply giving your eyes an occasional rest from emails and other digital distractions.

2. Define and rank your priorities

Once you've identified the imbalances in your life, focus on what's been getting short shrift — and bump those priorities up a notch or three.

If you love travel, for example, but are constantly chained to your desk, don't ignore your yearnings: Start looking into more flexible career paths that would allow you to make your fantasy of working from a beach into a reality.

More worried about making time for your significant other — or kids?

You'd be in good company. Nearly 3 in 5 working parents say balancing job and family responsibilities is a struggle.

While working mothers are doing less housework today than 50 years ago, somehow the hours women spend weekly on work and childcare are both on the rise. And, despite stereotypes about men's roles as providers, fathers increasingly want to "lean out," too, especially if it means more time with children. Nearly half of fathers — compared to only 23% of moms — say they get "too little" time with their kids.

If you know you need to make more time for family, get specific. Do you want more time to read to your children? Or to cook with your significant other?

Narrow down and write out your three to five very top priorities, in order, keeping in mind that it is better to balance a few important responsibilities well than a bunch of more trivial ones poorly.

By establishing concrete, realistic goals, you'll make it easier to commit to lasting change.

3. Take control of your time

Once you know what you're up against, seize the day!

Get ahead on life chores, like scheduling doctors appointments and picking up dry cleaning, by front-loading tasks to weekdays and weeknights — thus freeing up your weekends. Or, if that's too much to ask, try to knock out your most pressing duties early on Saturday, to clear the way for a stress-free Sunday.

Chronically stuck late at the office?

Every morning, set a specific time you plan to close up shop for the night, and stick to it: Start winding down and finish last-minute tasks at least 20 minutes before your goal time.

Also consider overhauling any moments in your day that go wasted.

For example, instead of zoning (or stressing) out during your commute, make that time do double duty by using it to reply to long-neglected work emails.

Or, if the last thing you need is more opportunities to do work, fill underutilized time with actions that will nurture and further your relationships, career strategist Barbara Safani said.

"Use downtime on the bus or while you are stuck in traffic to think about what recipe you'll use to cook a nice dinner for someone you care about that weekend," Safani said.

Likewise, if you have children, gamifying chores like washing dishes can help you keep a tidy home while still enjoying time with your kids, Safani said.

Finally, you might consider asking your manager about your company's policy on remote work: Valued workers can have more negotiating power than they sometimes realize, and a growing number of employers permit telecommuting — a huge timesaver for both bosses and workers.

4. Selectively satisfice

It goes without saying that you'll need to crank hard on work to catch up, especially if you're far behind. But you must also choose your battles wisely: Working your tail off on all fronts is a recipe for burnout.

Instead of trying to do everything perfectly, choose a few areas where you can be a bit more lax. It's okay if you occasionally fall behind on work emails, say, or fitness goals, as long as you are hitting a certain baseline of effort.

"Instead of saying you need to run exactly five miles every day," Safani said, "be willing to settle for one mile or some miles."

Creating boundaries is especially hard if you're a maximizer, or someone who always seeks the very best outcome. A healthier attitude might be, at least selectively, that of a satisficer, or someone who sets a certain minimum requirement and then settles for the next option that clears the bar.

As it turns out, satisficers are happier in life: Just don't look back — or feel guilty.

5. Rest, and rest some more

When you get into the aggressive mindset needed to produce a high volume of work, it can be hard to get out of that head space, and tell yourself, "Hey, I deserve a break."

But breaks are necessary. Getting snippy with coworkers, feeling apathetic or losing sleep are all signs you may need to take a mental health day.

If it's chores that are weighing on you, don't be afraid to communicate clearly with your partner or roommate, and lean on him or her for help.

And for those who truly can't spare time for a day off work, don't underestimate the power of a short mental break, career expert Kerry Hannon said.

"One great way to center yourself during a crazy work day is to hit the pause button," she said. "You might pop out for a 10-minute walk... Fresh air is good for the brain and the soul."

Those unable to take midday walks, Hannon suggested, should consider putting a photo someplace in their offices far from the computer and spending a few quiet minutes meditating on it — or finding a mental image that promotes a calm, centered feeling. Since Hannon loves to ride horses, for example, she visualizes herself cantering in a field with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background, she said.

Finally, just make sure that you carve out at least one activity — whether a relaxing massage or a quick but delicious meal — that you're actually looking forward to every day. 

And if that proves impossible?

It's probably time for a career pivot.

Natasha Noman contributed reporting.