Many believe Jack Welch was the greatest leader of his era. As CEO, he transformed General Electric from an appliances company to a vast, multinational corporation.
“There's no such thing as work-life balance,” Welch once said. “There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”
But there’s another part of Welch’s legacy. The thrice-married Welch also eliminated so many thousands of jobs that he meaningfully reduced the U.S. manufacturing base. His fervor for mergers and acquisitions helped make the American economy more concentrated and less dynamic. And he helped pioneer corporate "financialization."
Whatever you think of Welch, work-life balance definitely exists. And it’s vitally important for a meaningful, healthy life. This post will cover why a good work-life balance is important, and offer three tips to making yours more sustainable and healthy going forward.
Why work-life balance matters
In our research, we found that 77% of US workers are currently at least somewhat burned out. A major culprit? First, there’s our always-on work culture, which has only gotten more pronounced since many of us have gone remote. It’s not unusual for workers to be answering Slack messages and responding to work emails at night, over the weekend, and even when we’re on vacation.
This overwork leads to an unsustainable balance between your professional life and your personal life. Poor work-life balance is costly to individuals and to companies.
Ashley Whillans is a Behavioral Scientist and Harvard Business School Professor. In a TED talk, she described her research which found that employee depression, often caused by stress and burnout, costs the average company 32 days per year in lost productivity.
Staying in work mode when you’re trying to live your life just makes you worse at both. Whillans described a study in which parents who checked their phones more often while showing their kids around a museum later reported that the experience felt less meaningful and that they felt more lonely than parents who were more fully present. She then mentioned another study showing that people who had their phones out while touring a historic church remembered fewer details a week later.
Luckily, this doesn’t have to be a permanent state of affairs. Below you’ll find three healthy work-life balance tips to help you make sure you’re making time for the things that give your life meaning.
1. Implement a few healthy routines
It’s hard to be fully present in your off hours when your unfinished work is still on your mind. In a recent Office Hours, Anna Dearmon Kornick pointed out that routines have many powerful benefits, including:
- Decreased stress levels
- More restful sleep
- Improved physical and mental wellness
Routines that clearly delineate work and home are great for healthy work-life balance. If you go into the office, try to leave your work there when you head home. If you work from home, try to make sure you’re still “commuting,” establish a few daily routines and stick to them, and use rituals to delineate work and free time.
Research shows that we can train our minds to associate certain places with specific thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. If you have the space, dedicate one room to work and only go into your “office” when you're working. This routine teaches our mind to only think about work when we’re in our work environment. If you don’t have a whole room free, try to dedicate one desk to work and another space to computer playtime. Or, simply listen to different music when you’re working than you do when you’re off.
Just like it’s important to physically separate home and work life, it’s important to set digital boundaries as well. Put your devices on DND at the same time every evening and communicate your availability to your boss and colleagues. (Pro-tip: When you sync Slack with Google Calendar, Slack will update your status automatically based on whether you’re OOO, outside your work hours, taking your lunch break, or in Focus Time.) Or, try putting your work laptop in a drawer at the end of the day.
One last tip: End your workday with a calming ritual. Shut down your computer. Put it away. Change your clothes. Take a walk. Do some yoga. Run errands. Anything to signal to your brain and body that work is over.
2. Prioritize your task list
One of the best ways to separate work and life is to get through everything you need to get done in a day so you can fully enjoy your personal time outside of work. Research shows that the average employee spends up to 41% of their workday on low-value tasks. And, 53% of employees waste at least one hour every day dealing with distractions.
The unfortunate reality is that for most of us, there’s just no way to do everything we would ideally like to get done in a day. So one key to work-life balance is to stop wasting time on low-value tasks. It’s useful to identify the things we really want to get done and prioritize those tasks and when those are done, call it a day.
Very basically, Getting Things Done (GTD) is just three steps:
- Compiling everything you need or want to get done in the near- and long-term into one list.
- Categorizing your big list of to-dos into separate lists based on when and how you’ll do them.
- Starting to check items off based on your lists, priorities, and deadlines.
GTD creator David Allen recommends reviewing your list weekly and reprioritizing your list based on new information and/or needs.
Like GTD, the first step for using the Eisenhower matrix is to gather all your to-dos into one list. Next, you’ll create a box with four quadrants:
- Top left: Tasks that are both urgent and important
- Top right: Tasks that are important, but not urgent
- Bottom left: Tasks that are not important, but urgent
- Bottom left: Tasks that are neither urgent nor important
In addition to these frameworks, here are four tips for prioritizing your tasks:
1. Prioritize your Genius Zone
Say you have a long list of tasks (unrealistic, I know). You’ve prioritized them, but you’re still not sure they’re in the right order. Consider which tasks fall inside your Genius Zone. These are tasks that you love and are good at doing. You’re passionate, proficient, and really enjoy the work. It’s much easier to get into a state of flow when doing these tasks.
2. Prioritize motivating tasks
Consider your “why.” What are your long-term goals in work and in life? What are your deeper values? Instead of just writing down all the things you need to get done, write a list of your bigger life goals. Then compare your tasks to those goals. Which tasks get you closer to your goals, and which take you further or are irrelevant?
3. Prioritize your frog
“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” This Mark Twain quote means you’ll get more done if you tackle your most panic-inducing task first.
4. Prioritize time for deep work
Because interruptions kill productivity, profitable work requires stretches of uninterrupted time. “Attention residue” means that context switching can cost as much as 40% of your productive time. When you switch tasks, it takes 25 minutes and 26 seconds on average to get back to the level of efficiency you were at before you were interrupted. Try Clockwise to create more blocks of Focus Time in your day.
Another tip for making sure you have time for your most important tasks is to timebox your calendar.
I love writing. When I have more time than tasks, it’s easy for me to spend many long hours writing each blog post. But when I’m pressed for time, I have to set a limit on how much time I’m willing to spend on any one post so I have enough time to get through all my responsibilities without working longer hours.
Timeboxing is the subtle art of putting limits on how long you’ll spend on a task. It’s part of time blocking, a time management technique where after you prioritize your task list, you choose what you want to do in a day or week and block off chunks of time on your calendar for each task. Time blocking helps you waste less time deciding what to work on when. It also helps you ensure you have enough time for all your important work.
Timeboxing is just making a decision to not work on a task longer than the time you’ve set aside for it. So if you have to write a report, for example, and you block two hours off on your calendar for writing the report, you try hard to finish it up before the two hours elapse so you have enough time to get to your other tasks.
(Pro-tip: If you integrate Asana with Clockwise you can time block your calendar from your to-do list in a few clicks.)
3. Reframe rest
In 2019, researchers found that Americans let 768 million days of vacation time go unused in the previous calendar year. Workers are feeling worried that they’re replaceable, and feel the need to deliver above and beyond all the time.
In her talk, Whillans suggests that changing the way you view rest can help promote better work-life balance and create a more fulfilling home life. Our culture tends to downplay or even shame any time not spent working as lazy and unproductive. But rest is neither lazy nor unproductive. Rest is absolutely necessary to long-term productivity and a healthy, sustainable workload and life.
The reality is that people who take time off and keep a healthy work-life balance are able to bring more to their jobs and live healthier and more fulfilling lives all around.
Take a day off to rest and recharge. Wondering how to spend your day off? Consider these suggestions:
Spending time outside can help you deal with stress, boost your productivity, and improve your mood, according to the American Psychological Association. Plus, you can feed two birds with one scone with your downtime by combining being outside with getting your recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week.
For example, you could go on a hike, play a game of tennis, or do something more exotic like ride a horse.
It might not be your first thought when contemplating how to spend a day off, but cleaning can have a positive effect on your mental health. Self-care is essential, and cleaning your spaces is part of that. A study from Indiana University found that a clean home can even positively impact your physical health. Dr. Cowl from the Mayo Clinic has four tips for cleaning safely: Make sure your area is properly ventilated, store cleaning chemicals and batteries safely, label things you put away clearly, and dispose of waste properly.
Take some time to turn off your phone, shut down your computer, and tap into your more mindful side.
Mindfulness meditation can greatly improve your well-being without taking up your whole day. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, point to studies of mindfulness meditation that show that in just a few minutes per day it can improve our mood, increase positive emotions, and decrease our anxiety, emotional reactivity, and job burnout.
If you’re new to meditating, there are many apps that can lead you through an exercise, including Headspace and the Calm app.
Or, start with a self-guided meditation. Just find a comfortable, quiet place to sit and set a timer. Try setting it for five minutes. Come to an intention that you want to take with you for the rest of the day. For example, you might want to lean into being more calm, present, powerful, or centered.
Then take several long, slow breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Pay attention to the surface beneath you, how the air feels going in and out of your body, your chest rising and falling, etc.
(Pro-tip: To protect your time off, Clockwise automatically syncs your OOO to your team calendar so everyone knows you’re out.)
Not all of us can be Jack Welch. And there’s a good argument to be made that none of us should follow his lead too closely. Very few people get to their deathbeds and say they regret not responding quickly enough to Slack messages. Much more often, people wish they’d spent more time with family members and other loved ones.
A healthy work-life balance is a must for a happy, productive, meaningful life. To make your life more manageable, try implementing a few new healthy routines, prioritizing your to-do list, and reconsidering the role rest plays in your life.