I love my job and I love to work almost all the time.
But last week I experienced something that had never happened to me before. All of a sudden on Monday morning, I found it really hard to summon the energy to do my weekly 1:1, or even to just keep my head up while typing out a blog post. I felt tired, sluggish, and completely disinterested in my work.
I was burnt out. What happened?
Leading up to the launch of Pop Star, I was working 7 days a week to prepare my parts of everything we needed for the launch, on top of everything I normally do — which at the time felt fine. It’s normal to work a lot leading up to a big event, and everything I was doing was important to do.
What I wasn’t expecting, though, was how tired and sad I felt when work just kept piling on after that launch. Instead of taking a break to celebrate our success or stepping back down to a normal work schedule, I just kept working long days every single day while starting to feel like the stream of things to do would just never end and losing sight of why my work even mattered.
It took a couple days of feeling this way before I realized I needed to step back, get my priorities in check, and reassess my work life balance. Things had gotten off-balance for a good reason (the launch!) but they needed to be set back in order.
When was the last time you checked in with your work life balance?
If you’re reading this blog, you probably work a lot and for the most part, you probably like being that way. But are you managing your energy effectively and bringing your best self to work?
Most of us tend to think that we’d have more free time if we could just be more productive. But I don’t that’s really true.
This week, I want to share my best tactics for maintaining a successful work life balance — one that allows me to shine at work, by managing my energy and focus to do the best work I can.
Why work life balance matters
At the end of the day, work will always want more from you and it is up to you to set limits that work for you.
Prioritizing free time is probably not something that comes to you naturally if you are reading this blog. After all, you are a superstar — you work hard, you say yes to opportunities, and you are always pushing yourself to be better than you were yesterday.
This mindset is not conducive to saying “yes” to free time, delegating work to other people, or putting something off until tomorrow so that you can go home for the evening.
But at the end of the day, managing your energy and not getting burnt out is the best thing you can do for your career.
Being great at your job is about more than just getting it all done.
The first thing you have to realize is that work never stops. People feel the most satisfied at work right before they go on vacation — why? Because it is a time in their work life when they truly reach a finish line; they can check every item of their to-do list and send every last email they need to get out before their departure.
But this isn’t possible in a normal workday. Projects are ongoing, people need things from you, small fires come up — the stream just doesn’t end.
Once you see that work will always want more from you, then you can see that your only option is to start setting your own boundaries.
What work matters? What must be done today? What can wait? What else do you need from your life today — because if you don’t prioritize it, no one else will?
It is proven that your brain needs a break every once in a while. If you are constantly in the stream, problem-solving, keeping on top of things, your brain never gets the time is needs to recharge and refocus. And when your brain is tired, you make less effective decisions than you would otherwise. You’re less prone to compromise and more prone to anger or aggression.
Making work and life balance requires making time for each one. If you love your career, this means managing your work energy effectively so that you’re still a superstar at the office, but you still have time to take breaks, do things you love, and connect with your personal life.
It’s quality vs. quantity. Work will keep on coming, whether you take a break today or not — it doesn’t stop, and you’ll never just be done one day if you work fast enough now.
That means it is up to you to set limits, and to make sure the energy you spend on work is making the biggest impact possible so you can still shine while maintaining a happy, healthy life.
Make appointments to unplug
Since I work from home, my schedule is almost completely up to me. While this is great for flexibility, it also means that I can end up working from 7am when I wake up until 11pm when I go to sleep if I’m not careful. Of course, not all of that time is *active* work, but checking emails, responding to social media, and editing blog posts still keeps your brain engaged and “working” even when you feel like you’re taking a break.
This means that your brain doesn’t get a break for 10 or 12 or even more hours every day. It’s a great way to exhaust yourself and work really inefficiently.
When your mind is exhausted, tasks drag on and it’s harder to prioritize the right things; you stop being strategic, you are more emotional and distracted, and you just power through things, rather than focusing on what matters most and investing in the work that really moves the needle.
The best way to combat this, I’ve found, is to make appointments where I have to unplug and to find other ways to not just passively work without stopping all day.
Set appointments for breaks where you have to unplug. I do yoga twice a week, not just because I like yoga, but because it is 90 minutes where cell phones and work thoughts are strictly prohibited.
Make time where you literally cannot access your email or other work tools. Most of us access apps and social media so passively that we don’t feel like we’re using our brains when we are looking at them, but it is like leaving your car’s headlights on — you’re slowly draining the energy in your brain. Instead, focus on strategically letting your brain power down so that you can use it to “drive the car” effectively later.
Set social appointments. If you work in an office, schedule an afternoon walk with a friend. Even just a 15 minute lap around the building can get your creative juices flowing again and recharge your mind. And if you work at home, make a point to get lunch or coffee with someone during the week.
Making time to socialize during the day has the added benefit of sparking new ideas and creativity in the middle of your work time. KateM taught me one of her favorite tips, and now I do it all the time: bring an issue or problem you want to solve to the meeting. Get an outside perspective from your lunch date; they might just give you a great idea or solution you never would have thought of, and at the very least will provide interesting new ways to think about the issue.
Turn off notifications. Even if you don’t handle or respond to an email the moment an alert pops up on your phone, your brain is expending energy noticing and processing that alert. When you take a break, make sure that work cannot pop up and bring your mind back to the office during that time.
Set office hours in your day. When I answer emails right before I go to bed, they are almost always worse than the emails I send during the day. Why? Because I’m tired, so I almost always will opt for the easiest solution rather than the best one so that I can be done with it faster. (And if I go with the best solution? Well, then I am choosing engage, wake myself back up and sacrifice an hour of sleep, which means I’ll be more tired tomorrow.) Plus, at night I’m likely typing on my phone rather than a computer, which means shorter, less friendly answers because typing is harder, which can hamper good communication.
Again, it’s a quality vs. quantity issue. Why not do your work when you are best at it, and use the time when you’re not your best work self to recharge and engage in other areas of your life?
When I am done for the day, I shut down my email and social media accounts. Don’t tempt yourself; when you unplug, do it for real. Give your energy and focus completely to the other aspects of your life, so that you’re not “half-on” when you should be fully disengaged.
Be deliberate about your free time. Stepping away from work to just watch TV or hang around the house can be hard to justify if you love your job or have a lot going on at the office. Think about how much free time you really need and then think about how you want to spend that time. For example, I will often take 30 minutes off in the middle of the day to take a walk and listen to a business audiobook. It feels productive for my career, but still allows me to get away, relax, and think about something besides work.
Be sure you spend your time away in a way that is satisfying for you, so that you’re not tempted to stay half-plugged-in. Whether that means having family time, going on a date, exercising, reading a book… Be deliberate about how you spend your free time so that you can see the value of taking time away from your work priorities.
Use some productivity hacks (but not all of them)
Work life balance is all about expending your energy wisely. You want to work smart at work, so that you can have time to take off and actually enjoy that time off too.
At Popforms, we are advocates of working hard on the things that matter most, and prioritizing the things that move the needle forward (rather than trying to do everything). That’s why my favorite productivity hacks aren’t about Gmail shortcuts or using fancy apps to track your time — my favorite tools for working smart are all about focus.
Your energy is a finite resource. Apply it smartly, by using productivity hacks that help you get the most important work done faster and better.
Here are the ones that work best for me:
Monday Ninja Planning Sessions. I check in with KateM every single Monday and we set our priorities for the week. Why? Because when you know what work is most important, you can make sure it gets the best time on your calendar. When it is fully planned out, you make sure that these tasks get priority and don’t slip through the cracks.
Any time that is then left over in my week can then be free time for other activities — instead of scrambling to do it all, I find out what’s important, prioritize that, and then I can comfortably step away and unplug, knowing I have made a huge impact every single week.
Time blocking. One of the biggest burnout-inducing bad habits I have is multitasking. While I’m waiting for a blog image to upload, I’ll check social media, add a new subscriber to our launch list, and follow up on an email. I overload my brain with tasks in an attempt to be crazy efficient, and end up either feeling stressed over tiny projects or forgetting to complete something.
Instead of multitasking, now I get hyper-focused on activities. I block off time *just* for writing a blog post, and close every other tab until I’m done or need to take a break. I block off time for checking social media, rather than looking throughout the day. The time blocks don’t have to be huge — 5 minutes a few times a day for social media, 2 hours for writing a blog post, etc — but by focusing my energy on one task at a time, I make sure I am maximizing my energy spent and doing one important task well, rather than 10 semi-important tasks not that well.
Inbox Zero. I find email really stressful, so having a clear inbox helps me maintain a lower general anxiety level at work. Every time I get an email, I either respond right away or I add the key information from the message to my to-do list and then archive the message. Doing this allows me to rest assured that every task is taken care of (it’s on the to-do list, where I can see it and make sure it gets done) while still maintaining an empty inbox.
Make work life balance a priority
What are your best strategies for maintaining work life balance? We are always tweaking and perfecting our strategies, and would love to hear from you!