As a business leader, there are constant and competing demands for your time. Your days are overscheduled. Your to-do list seems to never end. And don’t even think about the perpetual pile of follow-ups. Here’s the question: Is this the way work has to be in the 21st century?
Absolutely not. I have spent years trying various approaches, learning from my successes and failures, and refining how I manage my time. Based on this experience, there are definite things you can do to take control of your schedule, increase your productivity, and achieve a reasonable work-life balance.
Taking on the Imbalance
The New York City Council is considering a law that would make it illegal for businesses to require employees to respond to messages or phone calls outside of working hours. While this is clearly a reaction to the ever-increasing demands of the modern workplace, it also says something about corporate culture in the United States. Employees who choose to maintain boundaries between work and personal time should not have to worry about the consequences of responding to an email at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday instead of at 10 p.m. the night before.
Achieving a balanced schedule is different for everyone. About 63 percent of employees admit they would still work after hours even if it violated a company policy. Despite this self-sabotage, another study found that 53 percent of American workers want a job that provides greater work-life balance.
While the balance between life and work is important, it’s also highly subjective. What one person considers long hours might cause another individual to struggle to psychologically detach from work. A heavy workload can quickly fuel workaholic behavior, which has been linked to chronic stress, depression, sleep issues, and physical ailments.
If your work-life balance is askew (or you are already a workaholic), these four suggestions can help you set priorities and spend your time effectively:
1. Divide and conquer your daily schedule.
Creating some degree of equilibrium between your personal and professional life boils down to how you manage your schedule. Take control of your days by establishing a routine, with set times for specific tasks.
As an underwriter, I have adopted a “divide and conquer” approach for my schedule. My responsibilities largely fall into one of two categories. One involves reviewing and making decisions on cases my underwriters have prepared – I must review and authorize the risks based on their analyses. My second main responsibility is focused on delivering on our commitments to clients. If there are losses, I need to understand the liability and determine the plan of action.
In both roles, I must maintain consistency and high standards. I optimize my efficiency by splitting my day into two distinct parts and grouping similar tasks. Having this set routine in terms of how I schedule my days also helps me hit the ground running when I get into the office.
It’s worth noting that every leader’s job is different. There will always be unexpected tasks and issues that need your attention, but establishing routines (and sticking to them) helps drive productivity without adding extra hours.
2. Detox digitally.
Technology improves our lives in so many ways. New gadgets and apps help us solve problems and accomplish more in less time, but they also blur the lines between work and personal time. Be strategic in how you use technology by undergoing a three-step digital detox.
Step one: Adjust the notification settings of your smartphone. Turn off or mute work email and other associated notifications during your off hours. Refrain from checking your work accounts unless you absolutely must.
Step two: Use technology to guard your time during the workday. Try using the FocusTime feature in RescueTime to block out distractions so you can spend uninterrupted time working on a project or brainstorming to solve a problem.
Step three: Set specific times to respond to email during the day. Once you establish a schedule (it could be as simple as 9 a.m., noon, and 5 p.m.), commit to it for at least a few weeks. You will quickly find that you’re getting more done during the day rather than wasting time sending and receiving messages. If you feel tempted to cheat and check your email more frequently, consider that research shows employees spend an average of 28 percent of their days managing their email – that equates to one entire day each week.
3. Make time for reflection.
It’s not unusual to wrap up a busy workday and wonder where the time went. To better understand how much time different responsibilities take and identify opportunities for efficiencies, try keeping a journal.
Allocate 15 minutes at the end of the day to write about what you did and how you felt. Research shows that employees who spent more time reflecting on their work performed about 23 percent better than their counterparts who did not. Once you understand where your time is going, be ruthless about what should get your attention and what should not.
4. Prioritize vacation time.
Leaders (particularly entrepreneurs) are notorious for their dedication and ambitious work schedules. The most important thing you can do to improve your productivity and work-life balance is to take time away from work. Don’t worry if you cannot afford to take a weeklong vacation; taking occasional days away to completely unplug from work can help you feel rested and recharged when you return to the office.
Make it clear to your team members that vacation time is important for their own health and the growth of the company. Demonstrate that it’s OK to take time away from work, and empower employees to handle things while you are out of the office.
If we are not mindful, work can easily overtake our lives. While you cannot plan for every contingency in the office, you can find the balance that works for you and your business if you stay focused on your priorities and commit to healthy habits. Managing your time should never be an afterthought – take charge of your schedule, and you will be happier and healthier as a result.