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3 Ways to Find Work-Life Balance in the New Normal

Kristi Anderson
Startup marketer
・9 min read

You want to find the right work-life balance. But balance too often implies separating work and life into equal halves -- which is nearly impossible to do in an age where they so easily bleed into one another. Who hasn't booked a vacation from the office, or conversely, responded to a work email on vacation?

The recent shift to remote work has made it even more difficult to keep your personal and professional selves separate. You can no longer rely on a commute or the confines of office walls to divide your lives into parts. If this is really the new normal, your wellness relies on throwing away the notion of life and work as separate halves.

This starts with expelling the idea of balance, and instead striving for work-life harmony. This approach helps you to prioritize both professional fulfillment and personal well-being without battling rigid symmetry, permitting work and life to be fluid and embrace their natural ebb and flow. Instead of fighting to achieve a neat distribution of your time, you shift toward accepting that career and personal demands will fluctuate and adjust your focus as that happens.

Here are three ways to thrive in the new normal and make work-life harmony a reality that reflects the growing complexity of managing work and life.

1. Audit your calendars across work and life

To begin achieving work-life harmony, you first need to evaluate and understand how you're prioritizing your time on a weekly basis. Think about asking yourself these kinds of questions:

  • Are you finding yourself pushing work and meetings well beyond your working hours into evenings and weekends?
  • Do you have sufficient free time during the week to keep your schedule flexible? In other words, if things change, can your calendar accommodate those changes?
  • How frequently do you find yourself betraying your intended routines, pushing them off in service of meetings or other kinds of distractions?
  • Similarly, is your to-do list filled with stuff that you're falling further and further behind on, so much so that you're forcing yourself to work overtime to get it all done?

While this isn't a complete list of questions that tell you whether or not you've achieved work-life harmony, it's a great way to start thinking about how your calendar is oriented (or not) toward a solid balance of activities across work and life. It's also a great way to uncover areas where your priorities are clearly misaligned with your agenda, and to start pushing yourself to better map the time you're spending to the things that truly matter.

The best way to answer these questions is, of course, with actual data! By auditing your calendar, you can start to draw some quantitative conclusions about the trends that govern your weeks, and take steps toward bringing your calendar into a state of work-life harmony. Gathering this data manually can be challenging, so it's helpful to use tools that help you to automate the process of extracting meaning from your calendar data:

As we mentioned earlier, it's understandable (especially in the era of remote work) that your work and personal lives are blending together throughout the day. The important part is making sure you aren't completely absorbed by one or the other, particularly given that for most folks working remotely, their work days have gotten longer and their personal lives have become even more demanding. During the early days of the pandemic, the average workday for employees actually went up by 48.5 minutes, an 8.2% increase, and workers received 8.3% more emails after business hours adding more pressure on employee well being in an already highly stressful situation. Another poll found that 60% of executives were working remotely with family responsibilities like caring for children or older relatives

So, as you are auditing your calendar at the end of the day or week, check to see if one is causing too much strain on your work life balance. 

Another way to ensure you're achieving flexibility and harmony across work and life is to sync your personal and work schedules. Too often, work tramples over our personal commitments because our coworkers simply can't see those times as blocked. Calendaring platforms don't make this an easy problem to solve, and so you end up in situations where you might be -- for example -- en route to a doctor's appointment, only to see a calendar invite pop up for a sales call that starts in 5 minutes. By syncing your personal calendar to your work calendar, you can block time for your life without sacrificing your privacy.

Lastly, it can be extremely useful to color-code your calendar so that you can visually inspect how your week is divided across different categories of events. Just like auditing your calendar, color-coding your calendar manually can be an arduous task, so it's helpful to have a tool that does it for you automatically:

Once you have a true understanding of how you're prioritizing your time, you can begin to make positive changes to correct your schedule towards the balance you want to achieve.

2. Create your ideal plan -- but expect it to change

It's hard enough to sit down at the beginning (or end) of a workweek and plot out exactly what your schedule should look like. What makes it even harder is the reality that once you make the "ideal plan" for your week, it's almost certain to change. All of the effort that goes into planning a perfect week goes right out the window once Monday morning rolls around, and suddenly you're inundated with meetings and requests for your availability.

A recent survey found that on average, busy professionals spend roughly 20% of their time managing their calendars every week. That's basically an entire workday lost to just moving events around and playing the not-so-fun game of Calendar Tetris. A lot of that time is spent in the initial planning, where you craft your ideal week -- but a lot of it also gets lost due to the domino effect when changes occur on your schedule that you have to react to.

For example, maybe you've blocked out your entire calendar between meetings and heads-down focus time for the week, and on Monday morning you get an invite to a meeting that you have to attend. You now not only have to renegotiate your schedule to replace whatever time was lost, but you also have to decide what else you might trade off (or not) to ensure you're getting sufficient time for your priorities. 

This is why it's so important to build flexibility into your schedule, particularly when it comes to balancing your routines and tasks across work and life. Instead of filling up your entire schedule with "busy" blocks, which inevitably get interrupted and force you down the rabbit hole of endlessly tinkering with your calendar, use tools that let you establish dynamic policies for your to-dos and habits, which can automatically adjust and reconfigure your schedule as your week fluctuates between priorities.

By making your calendar smarter, you diminish the amount of time spent doing low-value, toilsome scheduling tasks and spend more time on the things that really make a difference in your week: deciding where to make tradeoffs, where to allocate time, and which priorities to focus on. You can also use these tools to automatically reprioritize your entire schedule when things change, which means you're no longer sweating the process of moving events around every time a new event interrupts your work-life harmony.

An even simpler thing you can do is add buffer time around your calendar events to decompress after meetings and leave room for transition between activities. This allows you to keep flexibility in your schedule so that you're not constantly hurrying from event to event without a moment to travel, take a breather, and prep for the next event. Executive coach Dina Smith recommends adding a 20% buffer to your tasks to account for "unexpected obstacles, delays, and interruptions."

Work-life harmony requires you to have a plan, but that plan shouldn't be so rigid that it can't accommodate changes -- which are an inevitable part of every workweek -- and it's imperative to leave flexibility in your calendar so that your plan can adapt.

3. Stay focused by communicating context

Saying no to other people's priorities is hard, and sometimes it's just not an option. But you can empower yourself to stay focused on your own --- and let your colleagues know when your high-priority work is happening --- by asynchronously communicating context.

There's a belief that if you keep your calendar open, your time will be stolen. Basecamp Co-Founder Jason Fried believes shared calendars invite your colleagues to rob you of your time: "You can see everyone else's schedule? That makes any spare time, any free time, any unclaimed time like seams of gold stuck between rock in the quary [sic]. Mine it!" Fried believes that every block of time should be negotiated individually. But that's not practical for most organizations.

You're more likely to have success setting boundaries in a remote, always-on culture if people understand the context of what you're working on. The title of your calendar event is a great place to start. For example, if you have a 4-hour block of time on your calendar that just says "busy", it's all-too-easy for someone to look at that event and think "Well, since I don't know what the context of this thing is, I'm just going to interrupt it." A simple change to give the event a title of "Write important strategy doc" can immediately signal that the time is less interruptible to others.

Mike Monteiro, a design leader at Mule Design, puts this extremely well: "Let's start with the premise that you have a 40 hour week...That's 40 hours of time to do your job. Now look at your calendar. If your job is to spend a very large part of those 40 hours in meetings scheduled for you by other people then you're fine. If your job is to produce things such as code, comps, analyses, flow documents, etc., then why isn't the time to do that on your calendar? People rarely schedule working time. And when they do it's viewed as second-tier time. It's interruptible."

Similarly, you can be just as intentional about your Slack status. By letting other people know when you're busy for different kinds of events -- and even setting "Do Not Disturb" for the moments where you really need to be heads-down in a meeting or focused work session -- you can cut off a ton of notification noise and proactively communicate your availability (or lack thereof). Again, doing this manually is challenging to maintain, so an easy way to convey this context is to use tools that sync your schedule with Slack.

As mentioned above, you can even set your Slack status to "Do Not Disturb" for events where you really don't want to be interrupted. If you've paused your notifications, your colleagues will be less inclined to interrupt you since they know what you're working on and for how long you'll be away. And even if they do decide to interrupt, you won't get distracted by a Slack ping.

Lots of people focus on the idea of blocking time to prevent interruptions, but too little attention gets paid to the importance of communicating context asynchronously. The littlest amount of context can go a long way toward defending your time, and can often be the difference between your time being interruptible vs. not.

Achieving work-life harmony in the new normal

Work-life balance is no longer a useful way to think about our workweeks. Instead, we have to find a way to dynamically shift our focus from day to day as our schedules and priorities change, and we need to understand that it will rarely -- if ever -- look like a straight 50/50 line.

By auditing your calendar regularly, building flexibility into your weekly plan, and communicating your needs to others, you'll find that you're struggling less to maintain a kind of stasis between your work and your life. You might even get a bit more time to take a breather now and then.

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