How To Find That Elusive Balance Between Work and Life

coins, calculator, budget

“Balance is beautiful.” –  Miyoko Ohno, Japanese bridge designer

By Leo Babauta

I have a close friend named Norm who is a great photographer and a great person in general … recently he was telling me that all he does is work.

That might sound familiar to some of you — I’ve certainly been there at different points in my life, although these days I have to say that I’ve found a pretty good balance between all the important things in my life, including work, family, and other things I’m interested in.

Norm asked me to write a post about work-life balance, because although I think Norm is pretty happy with his life, he’s interested in expanding his life beyond work. I think it’s an interesting question that most of us have to address at some point or other.

Work *Is* Life, To Some Extent

The first thing to point out is that work isn’t separate from life — it’s a part of it. For some people, it’s not a fun part of life, but for others, it’s a passion. Either way, it’s a part of our lives, good or bad.

Of course, when people talk about a work-life balance, they mean that we should find a balance between work and our personal lives, which is definitely true. But it’s important to realize that if work is really something you love, you don’t need to cut it short in order to spend more time at home in front of the television.

So the key is to remember that what we’re looking for is a balance between the things we love — not just work and the rest of life, but work and family and hobbies and chores and everything else.

What Do You Love?

What are the things you love to do? That’s the question to start with. My friend Norm loves photography, but I think he also really enjoys jiu-jitsu and spending time with close friends, among other things. For myself, my favorite things in the world include spending time with my family, writing, reading and running. What’s on your short list?

One of the things on your list might be your work — or the work you want to do (as opposed to the work you’re doing right now). But others could include your favorite hobbies or other passions, ways to relax and have fun, exercise or other outdoor activities, reading and learning, shopping or eating or entertainment, volunteering, or spending time with people who are important to you. There are as many other possibilities as there are people in the world, of course.

Create your short list now, and then continue to the next section.

Creating Space in Your Life

It’s time to take a Big Picture look at your life — how are you spending your time right now? How long do you work (and how much of that time is spent on doing what you really love about your work)? What do you do before and after work? What do you do on your days off?

Now think about all the things you do, and how many of them are on your short list. For the things not on your short list, what can you eliminate? Some things might be big commitments that are hard to get out of — but over time, you can get out of them. Learn to say no, and learn how to tell people that you can no longer commit to doing something. It’s not always easy, but remember that this is your life, and you should do what you really want to do, not what others want you to do.

Really think hard about how you can eliminate the non-essential things in your life (the non-short list stuff). Work on this over time, and create the space in your life that you need for the things you love. Be sure to allot that time you’ve created to the things on your short list — don’t just use it up with television or other space fillers.

Finding That Balance

Once you’ve created space in your life for the things you love, it’s just a matter of finding the right balance between them. You could have a life filled with all the things you love doing, but it could still be almost all work. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with that if you love your work and it doesn’t have negative consequences (on your health or family relationships, for example), for many people it’s better to have other things balancing out their lives.

Why is a balance between several things that you love better than just one thing that you love? Well, there are a number of reasons that would depend on your situation. For one thing, if you have an office job you might not be getting outdoors enough, or getting enough exercise, and your health might suffer. Another reason is that you might have family and/or friends and if you work all the time you’re neglecting them — and those relationships will suffer. You might also get lonely if you work all the time. Another major problem is burnout — working all the time (or doing any activity all the time) can lead to stress and fatigue, and could make that activity less enjoyable.

Variety is a good thing — it keeps life interesting. So mix things up a bit. Here are some ideas for doing that:

  • Schedule time blocks. This is good for those who use their calendar a lot or can stick to schedules well. Schedule chunks of time throughout your week for all the things that are important. I suggest scheduling everything but work first (unless you’re on a set work schedule and always start and end at the same time) … this will ensure that you get everything in and that work doesn’t overwhelm the schedule. Be sure not to overschedule, filling up every free minute, because no schedule is kept to the minute. Better to have space between your time blocks than to have to skip something because the previous block ran too long.
  • Set limits. This is good for work or anything else that you tend to do too much. If you work 10-12 hour days, for example, set a limit of 8 hours per day, and stick to it. If you have a flexible schedule, you might consider working even less if you’re trying to make more room — many people have figured out ways to make a four-day workweek work for them (or a 4 Hour Workweek). What I’ve found is that if you set a limit (of 8 hours or 4 days or whatever), you’ll find a way to do the essential tasks within that limit. That might mean eliminating the non-essential tasks, cutting back on time-wasters such as casual Internet surfing, or automating or delegating or outsourcing things you don’t absolutely need to do yourself.
  • Make dates with family and friends. Instead of just saying, “I want to spend more time with my family and friends”, try actually making dates with them. That might mean romantic dates with your spouse or significant other, or non-romantic dates with your friends or kids or other family members. You don’t have to call it a date, but just schedule time with them on a regular basis to do something together. It doesn’t even have to cost a lot of money — it could be something simple like taking a walk in the park or playing board games or cooking dinner for each other or watching a DVD with popcorn.
  • Make dates with yourself. Often we make time for our family or other loved ones, but we neglect ourselves. Schedule time for yourself, doing something you love doing by yourself. For me, that’s reading and running, but others might like crafts or meditation or yoga or going on hikes or surfing or whatever. Just make the time and don’t miss that date!
  • Have a partner. Sometimes it helps to make an appointment with a partner, whether that be a training partner (my sister is my training partner) or someone who is going to help you with a project or do a hobby with you. This works well whether it’s first thing in the morning, or right after work, or during lunch or on the weekends. Oftentimes you’re more likely to stick to an appointment if you have a partner.
  • Examine your life regularly. I use my running time as a time of reflection, and you should use your alone time similarly if you can. Often our lives become derailed from the track we set it on, and as a result we don’t realize where our lives are going until we really examine them. Or we can get so caught up in a routine that we don’t realize we can change it. Regular self reflection is the answer: think about how your life is going, how you’re spending your time, and decide whether you need to make changes. Then schedule time to make those changes immediately — or make the changes right away if possible.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” – Albert Einstein