Taking breaks or days off from work is starting to feel like a waste of time.
While I’m watching TV, I could be brainstorming the next article. When I go for a walk, I could hop on a call with a potential client. Heck, it’s not too much of a burden to touch up my website a bit over lunch. Right?
While some might praise such behavior as having impressive “hustle” or being an “enthusiastic worker,” these habits can harm our health and job performance. These tips will help you put your wellness first to balance work and life healthily.
“The individual perception that work and nonwork activities are compatible and promote growth in accordance with an individual’s current life priorities.”
This balance “fosters not only job satisfaction, job performance and organizational commitment but also life and family satisfaction.”
Source: Work-Life Balance: Weighing the Importance of Work-Family and Work-Health Balance
Why do we work so much?
The first thing you need to do when correcting a poor work-life balance is assess the causes. What’s making you feel like you have to work more than normal?
“Normal” is a standard set by your industry, employer, position in the company, and personal circumstances.
For example, as a full-time undergraduate college student, I worked part-time at a vet clinic. Any more than 20-25 hours was too much for me, considering my course load and extracurriculars. The clinic was also small, and my part-time shifts were sufficient.
Nowadays, anything over 35-40 hours weekly is excessive, even though it’s double that of my past standards. Being self-employed with more bills and the capacity for full-time work has altered the maximum workload. That said, there’s no fixed hourly limit that defines what is or isn’t excessive work.
(Although the World Health Organization says that excessively “long working hours” were linked to heart disease and a shorter lifespan, especially for men. Fifty-five or more hours of work per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher stroke risk and a 17% higher chance of fatal ischemic heart disease, compared to 35-40 hours weekly.)
Identifying negative external pressures that are unique to your circumstances is crucial to effective time management and a healthy work and life balance. These examples from my life should help set you on the right track.
Disorganized correspondence: The gateway to no work-life balance
You need a hierarchy for communications. Not everyone needs a response within 48 hours. And convincing yourself that they do will leave you drowning in emails.
Only primary contacts get urgent responses. Others can wait up to five days, or even ten. With this structure, you won’t leave superiors or clients hanging or overwhelm your communications capacity.
This is where a lot of people go wrong. When you allow an employer, client, or colleague to demand your time and attention on any day of the week or any time of day, you give them too much power over your work-life balance.
Think about it: How many times have you been kicked back on your day off, only to hear that voice in the back of your mind say, “Check your email.”
It may seem inconsequential. But every time you succumb to this urge or respond to a Slack message on your weekend, you trade a bit of “me-time” for company time.
It’s hard to undo this habit. Believe me, I’ve been there. (I’m still there sometimes.) But a few simple steps can help you break out of it.
Resolution: Make a communication hierarchy
Develop a correspondence hierarchy. Determine who your “primary contacts” are. This can include your superiors within the company, such as managers or CEOs, or paying clients. Basically, this list should contain important people who have a direct say over your performance, reputation, and/or income. Primary contacts usually need responses within 24-48 hours.
Secondary contacts, such as newly inquiring prospects or professional acquaintances, can wait for up to five days. This is because you’re not on their payroll (yet), but they’re still important to your professional standing. Plus, five days is still considered a timely response. You don’t want to be rude by leaving someone hanging in your inbox for work-related matters.
Finally, you have your tertiary or personal contacts. These are essentially your work friends who might get in touch for non-work stuff. Of course, how quickly or slowly you respond to personal contacts is up to you. But if an acquaintance you met at a conference is emailing you with a podcast suggestion, that correspondence shouldn’t take precedence over a client requesting a meeting.
Resolution: Schedule correspondence
Once your hierarchy is complete, you need to set clear times when you will or will not respond to phone calls or emails. No more peeking at your inbox during family dinner. No more taking phone calls in the middle of date night. Set your terms for communications firmly, and do not waiver unless you deem it urgently necessary.
Another trick that’s helped me is setting aside an “email hour” each day. I start or end the workday reading and responding to emails without any other pressing tasks. Without such a time block, you’ll be obsessively checking your messages every hour of the day.
Misplaced identity and fulfillment hurt work-life balance
“I’m a writer.” There’s a certain pride that comes with saying that. But is that all I am? Well, no. Yet, my past actions suggested otherwise.
When you center your identity on your career, you leave little to no room for other parts of you to grow.
For example, my work-life balance had gotten so bad at one point that I had almost no life outside my writing assignments. I rarely left the house—COVID lockdown didn’t help—and I’d lost interest in my most beloved hobbies. I was exhausted and depressed.
But I was a writer. I wrote interesting, educational stories that people enjoyed. And my earnings kept me afloat.
This led me down a slippery slope. Ultimately, I developed what felt like a work addiction.
Recognizing work addiction
Work addiction and “workaholism” are not the same thing. While researchers consider the former to be a serious condition, the latter is usually used more casually. “Workaholic” typically describes someone with “high involvement” in work, whether for good or bad.
Scientists contend that work addiction should be taken just as seriously as drug and alcohol addictions. It can be socially, psychologically, and even physically damaging. And like substance use disorders, work addiction can result from a warped social identity. In other words, balancing work and life is not worth the trouble because being a “hard worker” is socially desirable and acceptable.
People who develop work addiction might display these six signs:
Salience: This refers to your awareness of excess working hours
Conflict: The workload negatively interferes with your personal life
Mood modification: How the workload makes you feel about your job (e.g., energized, motivated, respectful, overwhelmed)
Tolerance: Your willingness to continue taking on more work or your inability to say no, despite negative mood modification
Withdrawal symptoms: Feeling like you need to work because otherwise you’d be irritable or anxious
Relapse: You end up working on your time off
If you’re displaying all these symptoms and showing negative “mood modification,” there’s a strong chance your identity could be getting lost in your career. You could be succumbing to an unhealthy dependence on work as fulfillment.
But you’re not stuck there. Perhaps I can help you find your way back to you.
Resolution: Simple boundary-setting tips
There are lots of ways to address a “work-as-identity” situation. What’s right for you depends on how far along you are in neglecting your personal interests and needs for the sake of more work.
Activating your phone’s “Do Not Disturb” mode on weekends is simple yet immensely helpful. Leaving your phone at home while you’re out for a walk or meal is even better. Scheduling quality time with friends and family (who will hold you accountable) is enough to keep some folks on track.
But if you’re where I used to be, you need more drastic measures.
Resolution: Weekend task assessment
Not all tasks and activities are suitable for your time off. Assess your plans carefully to ensure you’re not slipping back into work mode by asking yourself the following questions.
Is this urgent? Issues that can dramatically impact your career trajectory or earnings in a short period are “urgent.” Most things are not. And even urgent work matters can wait until the next business day.
Does this give me rest? Even if you enjoy your job, being happy on the clock is not the same as “resting.” Rest away from work is essential to stay alert, creative, productive, and motivated.
What does this require of me? A task or activity that requires you to use company assets, formally correspond with professional contacts, or that checks off your job’s to-do list is probably work, or what I call “work-adjacent.” It doesn’t belong on your off-days.
Does this fulfill an interest or need that’s unrelated to my job? If the answer is “no,” you probably need to alter your plans for the day.
Do I feel compelled to do this? It’s generally not good to feel forced into doing anything on your time off. You should feel free to do what rejuvenates you during this time. Feeling like you have no choice will build resentment and may be a sign that you’re caving to work addiction.
If the activity doesn’t pass this assessment, reject it. Otherwise, you risk becoming resentful of and burnt out by your work. Such negative feelings seep into your mindset and conduct on the clock and might harm your business in the long term.
Resolution: Block off time
Let’s assume that your work schedule follows the standard 8-hour workday. Let’s also consider WHO’s research showing that 35-40 weekly working hours are better than 55 hours or more. In this case, block off at least one to three days weekly in which tasks that don’t pass the above assessment are off-limits. This will better protect the integrity of your time off.
Additionally, it’s helpful to have an accountability buddy. Surround yourself with people who will invite you out of the house and gently call you out for doing business on the weekend.
It takes a village to achieve and maintain wellness. Remember: You’re not in this alone.
Resolution: Renew your interests
When your identity is tied up in your work, it’s easy to forget what actually brings you joy. Making a list of your interests can help remind you.
Write down 10-15 things that made you happy before you started working too much. Take it out on the weekends and pick one or two interests to engage in during your time off. You can do these things at home or out-and-about, alone, or with a friend.
I find it best to get out of the house with a loved one. If I’m out playing video games, being too close to my work equipment makes it too easy to backslide into work addiction.
Economic hardship as a barrier to balancing work and life
We’re all feeling the pinch right now. Gas is high, groceries are expensive, and the bills just won’t stop.
This is the perfect storm for anyone to justify working overtime. I get it. I’m right there with you. Still, we have to draw the line somewhere.
These shifts have been normalized over the last two years. Current inflation and the impending recession make it much easier to double down. Fortunately, workers are more empowered than they have been in a long time.
For the employee, this could mean seeking out a better-paying job or negotiating a pay raise. Here’s what a self-employed person can do.
Resolution: Improving your rates
Start by determining your desired income. Do market research by assessing your competitors’ rates and comparing your offers to theirs. Then, consider your expenses, adjusting for inflation:
Cost of living
State and federal taxes
Make sure to factor in a “value tax” and your desired savings, too.
Once you’ve settled on a monthly earnings goal, translate that to an hourly or fixed rate. Finally, assess your prospects’ willingness to pay this price, then adjust accordingly. When you’re done, you’ll earn enough to eliminate the need to work overtime.
Resolution: Adjust your schedule and capacity
Think about the times when your schedule needs more flexibility. Maybe you need an extra day to revisit your marketing strategy. Perhaps the company website needs some light reformatting.
Since these things are work-related, you shouldn’t do them on your off-time. But you can’t fit it into your standard schedule. In this case, you need to factor the extra work into your earnings. Consider options like these:
Temporarily adjust your schedule and earnings goals from a 5- to a 4-day workweek. This might entail a small, temporary rate increase to make up for the time you’ll spend on tasks that aren’t typically compensated. (For example, a sole proprietor’s direct earnings come from contracts, not website upkeep.) That way, you’re fully compensated for the week, and you don’t have to cancel any of your days off.
Don’t be afraid to outsource the work. This one is tough, and admittedly, isn’t for everyone. But if you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, it’s a solid alternative. If you need extra help, adjust your rates to compensate the hire. Adding an average 10% profit margin to your normal rates (on top of the “value tax”) is the simplest way to avoid losing money on a task you couldn’t fit on your calendar.
Learn to balance work and life again
Overworking is a much more significant hazard than we give it credit for. It creeps up on you slowly, starting with answering a few emails and becoming a serious habit or addiction that damages your personal life.
For some, it’s easy to draw the line between work and personal life—and hold it. But for others, this compartmentalization is much harder. The effort requires a multifaceted assessment of what’s appropriate for your time off and what’s not.
Set standards for communication, develop questions to assess the burden of a specific task on your time off, and improve your pay structure to enhance your schedule’s (and income’s) flexibility when need be. Once you’ve got these pillars down, you’ll be in a much better position to adhere to a healthy work-life balance.