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Six Steps to Better Work-Life Balance

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The world of work has been changing dramatically, placing increasing workplace demands on parents and families. Consider:
  • In 1950, women constituted about 30 percent of the labor force; in 2009, they comprised nearly half.
  • The fraction of full-time workers who were parents in full- time working families (defined as families with children where all parents work full-time) has risen from about 18 percent to 26 percent since 1968
  • Approximately 43.5 million Americans - the majority of them women - served as unpaid caregivers to a family member over the age of 50 in 2008.
  • Nearly one-fifth of employed people in 2008 provided care to a person over age 50.
  • Americans put in the equivalent of an extra 40-hour work week in 2000 compared to the ten years previous-nearly a month more than the Japanese and three months more than Germans
  • Three-fourths of employees believe the worker has more on-the-job stress than a generation ago.
  • Seven of the top selling drugs worldwide are either anti-depressants or anti-ulcer medications, and stress is cited as a prime factor in the need for both.

So, given the challenges people face in balancing the various demands of work, family, personal life, personal health and mental well-being, how can a father, mother or caregiver better manage these competing demands on their time and attention.

Define what you value. It is so easy to get caught up in the ebbs and flows of life. Much like a rudderless ship in the ocean, every new wind and wave can move life to and fro. So it is important to set and maintain your navigation system. Defining what it is that is most important to you is the critical first step. Developing a personal and family mission statement and values statement will help you think deeply about what is most important. Bringing definition to your values will make the other steps easy.

In thinking about work-life balance, it is important to remember the long term perspective. You will only have children for about 25-35% of your life, and then they will be away and on their own. The influence you will have on them in their growing up years is not replaceable later in life. So things that need to be put off or postponed for parenting are usually things that matter less.

Understand the good, better, best principle. As a child, I remember my parents getting the Sears and Roebuck catalog at Christmas time. Frequently, in that catalog, there would be items for sale for the home, the yard and the workshop that would have three grades. For a bargain price, a good quality item could be bought. For a bit more, one could buy the better quality variety. And there was always a best quality purchase that would be a bit more but would likely last longer and bring greater satisfaction.

In life, we are constantly faced with choices that are good, better, and best. For example, when you have a free evening at home, consider your choices. A good choice might be to watch television together. A better choice might be to read a book or play an interactive game with your child. But the best choice might be a walk around the neighborhood engaged in a meaningful conversation.

To maximize the value of your time in any situation - work, home, social gatherings, or family events - consider all your choices and opt for the best one. By getting the most value out of the time you have to invest in a given activity, life will be better focused and more balanced.

Give up the marginal. Some activities, when carefully analyzed, may not even rise to the good level. Sitting idly at the computer screen and mindlessly surfing the web is a marginal activity. Getting to the next level in that addictive online game is similarly unworthy of your precious time. Identifying ways to simplify your life and multiple priorities can be a cleansing experience. Look for the things in your life that give you relatively little value for the time investment required and figure out how to get them off your calendar.

Practice good time management skills. For years, I found myself wasting a tremendous amount of time waiting for things to get done that are outside of my control. I have a natural tendency to want to get in, get something done and then get out. But so often, there are stumbling blocks between the start and finish of a project. Or, I may delay starting a project because I am not sure I can get it all the way done before I have to move on. For me, embracing the Getting Things Done model has revolutionized my thinking about time management and personal productivity. I also use a single calendar for all the demands on my time, which has helped me miss fewer important things and have fewer scheduling conflicts. Whatever strategies you use, make time management a key priority.

Be flexible in application. With all this planning and forethought, it is critical to remember that things don't always go according to plan. There will be opportunities for things of great value that may need to interrupt your plans. Don't feel bad about grabbing those opportunities when they are available. Just make sure that you are operating within your overall personal mission and if you do find yourself out of balance, get back in line.

Work for an employer that shares your values. Often, the time demands our employers bring into our lives can be really disruptive to our efforts to find personal balance. One of my supervisors several years ago would send emails all hours of the day and night and be frustrated if I didn't respond immediately. The demands were simply unrealistic and just because he was a guy who could ignore his family and survive on four hours of sleep a night didn't mean I was. While family friendly employers are in high demand, they are out there. If you are in an organization or industry that demands that 24/7 focus, you may want to consider making a change to a circumstance that better reflects your mission and values.

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