If your workload is increasing, your workout time is decreasing and your personal life is falling flat, the last thing you need is someone telling you that achieving an optimal work/life balance is simple. It almost never is.
However, there are some things you can do today that will steer you to a more balanced place. Here are four tried and true tips to help make 2014 the year you establish personal and professional feng shui.
1. Lower your expectations -- of yourself
Cut yourself some slack. No one can do it all. Tradeoffs are a part of life, and if you walk around thinking they don't apply to you, you're bound to feel you're letting people down. So be honest with those around you about the demands of your job and the amount of time you actually have available for social commitments.
If you have to work late unexpectedly, don’t let it get to you and ruin your evening or following morning. Chances are you’re working on something that really matters to the success of the company – hopefully a company that you care about. So accept the demands of the job you’ve chosen and be proud of what you’re doing. As much as you might like to, the reality is you might not be able to attend every one of your child’s soccer games or swim meets.
When I’m home enjoying time with family, I sometimes get the unsettling feeling that I should be working. The opposite is also true – when I’m at work, I feel like should be spending that time with family. Don’t let yourself get trapped in this “dammed if you do, damned if you don’t” limbo. Instead, I’ve learned to immediately jot down a list of things I think I should be doing instead of what I’m currently doing. Then I ask myself if I can accomplish those tasks later or if they have to be done now. Try it; you’ll find the quick exercise helps clear your mind to make better choices with your time. You’re also likely to prioritize family activities because those activities have firm timetables. After all, you can’t postpone “dinner with the kids” until 10 p.m. or the next morning.
2. Schedule dedicated spouse time
As I've mentioned before, scheduling is critical. We book dentist, doctor and haircut appointments far in advance; doesn’t your significant other deserve the same commitment? It may seem calculated to send your S.O. a meeting request (and it is), but it guarantees you a slot of time where you can both put work duties aside and enjoy each other’s company.
Get a calendar out right now and pick 12 date nights over the course of the year. Selecting these nights in advance will dramatically increase the odds that you’ll stick to the date night. Plus, this will give you the chance to make reservations at those popular restaurants booking weeks or months out.
If you have kids and you don’t have a reliable babysitter around, email a handful of your friends and ask if they’d be open to swapping date nights with the kids. You’ll be shocked how excited they are that you’re taking the initiative to help them get out of the house.
For extra credit: schedule an overnight with your spouse at least twice a year. You don’t need to go anywhere fancy, but pick somewhere for you to relax, sleep in and order breakfast in bed (splurge on those pricey eggs!). You’ll come back from that 24 hours feeling recharged and ready to continue conquering your year of balance.
3. Schedule “me” time
As you give into increasing demands from other people for your time, you may find that you don’t get enough (or any) me time. Being a little self-centered is important, because without some alone time, there’s no way for you to be a great colleague, companion or parent. My wife is understanding when it comes to granting me personal time because I’ve told her how important it is to me. (And, let’s face it, she likes me a lot better when I’ve got my head on straight and thinking clearly.)
So go find that me time! Run marathons, bake cookies, learn to rock climb. Your specific activity of choice really doesn’t matter, but finding a passion outside of work that you can do by yourself does. Not only will you find something you love and learn to be happy in your own skin (if you’re not already), but it will give you something to talk about on those date nights!
4. Develop a hobby that excites you and your kids
Whatever time you have with your children should be quality time, so find something you and your kids can call “your thing.” I know a dad and daughter who bake bread, which is both easy and cheap. (Google “Rosemary Focaccia” and you’ll see what I mean.) Plus, start to finish, it takes only about three hours. The great part about baking bread is that you and your child can learn together, make a mess and share a meal in the end. They’ll have the culinary skill for life, and think of you whenever they exercise it.
Don’t forget to make sure the activity is really fun for your child. Another dad I know is a huge baseball fan and takes his son to games all the time. How did he get his toddler to love baseball so early in life? It wasn’t by showing him historic games in black and white or memorizing player numbers and stats; he would make their stadium experience about the things his son likes. They wouldn’t get expensive seats, but the dad would treat his son to hot dogs and ice cream, which created a very positive association for the child. In no time, the child learned how to score the games and has become a diehard baseball fan right alongside dad.
The perfect ratio of time dedicated to work verses personal life is subjective, so it’s important to be honest about what your priorities are at a given time – and then make decisions about how to use your time accordingly. If you’d rather be watching soccer games than wrapping up a work project, go watch soccer games! You’ll figure out how to meet the professional deadlines, too.