The quest for work-life balance feels every bit the marathon it is. The moment we feel like we're gaining some ground, our kids hit a new stage or something shifts at work. We talk about 5 key things you can do to define and then create a better balance for your life and family. We also created a downloadable worksheet that walks you through 5 simple changes in 5 days you can make to see a noticeable change in how overwhelmed you feel - we promise we made it easy yet high impact.
I have a vivid memory from my previous job of sitting in what we called our “war room,” planning strategy for an upcoming political campaign. Maybe 10 of us sat around the shiny corporate table, and one coworker threw out an overly-optimistic scenario. Another colleague turned, and in a completely deadpan voice, said “sure, and then we’ll all just jump on our unicorns and ride around the city.”
That’s kind of how I feel about using a headline promising to help busy working moms create their best work-life balance. Like we’re galloping off on a mythical adventure toward a beautiful sounding – yet impossible – dream scenario.
So let me clarify.
Clarification #1: I didn’t say we were creating the perfect work-life balance. The reason for that is simple. Perfect doesn’t exist. We’re not going to chase that unicorn. But there are simple, practical things we can do to go after the best balance in our current season of life. The steps below also provide a customized plan, because my best balance looks different than your best balance. My best balance also looks different now than it did when I was a mom of toddlers.
I love this quote most because of the “normal is boring” bit. I’m not sure anyone who’s met me would describe me as normal, and for that I am both proud and grateful.
Clarification #2: I didn’t offer to help you find your best work-life balance, but rather create it. You can save your seek-and-find skills for your son’s missing soccer jersey or the last Diet Coke in the far recesses of the fridge. We’re creating balance, which means we’re being proactive – it gives control of the situation back to us as the creators.
A search for something that’s missing may or may not be successful. (After approximately 5 minutes of searching for said soccer jersey or Diet Coke, I throw up my hands, declare it an impossible task and pray my complaints were loud enough that my husband will swoop in to find my missing stuff and save us all from my adult temper tantrum.) The process of creating something results in something. It may not be perfect, but it’s a start, and we can work with that and continue to improve it.
Clarification #3: Balance is a feeling. It’s not a ratio of free time to busy time, or work time to home time. It’s not a magic number of activities that perfectly fills a day. Or a certain number of minutes devoted to physical, spiritual and mental health. We can feel balanced during a busy day or overwhelmed on a slow day. We feel balanced when we feel some level of control.
The catch is that we can’t control life. We can’t control circumstances. But we can control our responses. We can build a healthy foundation so that when busy or challenging or downright tragic days come, we’re in a better place to process those things in ways that maintain a feeling of balance rather than overwhelm.
Below are five ways to create better balance. Grab our 5 Days to a Better Balance worksheet for specific things you can do over the next week to see an immediate change.
Balance Builder #1: Hit the Reset Button
Working moms carry a heavy mental load. We’re thinking about tomorrow’s meeting, that upcoming deadline, the school forms on the counter, the 57 emails not answering themselves, the friends we haven’t called, the workout we want to find time to do, whether we’re driving the carpool tonight or remembered to reschedule the dentist appointment. We think about and do a lot – and the method to our madness becomes putting out one fire after another with no way to ever really get ahead. We feel behind instead of balanced.
Though there’s healthy debate over whether Henry Ford every actually said this, I still love the quote “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Sometimes we need to stop, take stock and hit reset on the way we’re doing things. If you’re not sure where to start, take the quiz in our post on How To Know If Your Family Is Overscheduled.
Making a change may leave other people feeling disappointed or out-of-sorts in the short term because we’re not giving them what they think they want, and that’s ok. Every time I get a new phone, I grumble about missing that button the old phone had, or about the time I waste learning to use the new phone. And every time, I finally see that the innovations from the genius tech people make my life better and easier if I bother to accept the better way. My new car gets me much farther than the faster horse I wanted. Well played, Apple. Well played.
But HOW do I reset?
- Pause and reflect on what matters most to you and your family (grab our family values worksheet for the step-by-step guide we used to stake out our family values). Then use those values as a guidepost for which activities to keep and which to ditch. Know what matters most to you and intentionally spend as much of your time on those things as possible.
- Set boundaries and say no. It’s not easy or fun. Raise a hand, all my fellow people pleasers. I’m right there with you.
- Take a break. A vacation or an activity-free evening.
This was how I spent the day before I started back teaching fall classes. I had 147,000 others things I needed to do that day. This was the better choice.
Balance Builder #2: Ditch the Multitasking Mindset
As a self-professed master multi-tasker, this one hurts a little. But research shows that switching between activities or trying to do multiple things at once doesn’t work. If we don’t give a task concentrated focus, we make more mistakes and take more time to finish. Boo. The Cleveland Clinic reports that only 2.5% of people can multitask effectively. That 2.5%, my friends, very likely does not include you or me. A science fair project at my sons’ school last year even proved (Cleveland Clinic backs this one up, too) that even listening to music negatively impacts studying, homework and learning.
But HOW do I stop multitasking?
- Do one thing at a time. Give that one thing your attention and focus. This applies to projects at work and time at home. Don’t stop working on something or talking to someone to check email or answer a text.
- If you have a big goal you want to tackle and don’t know where to start, check out the book The One Thing. It outlines a research-based strategy for achieving extraordinary results centered around knowing what your “one thing” is and carving out time - even small increments - to continually make progress toward that thing.
- Unplug. Put the phone away while you’re helping kids with homework, reading or listening to them talk about their days so they have your full attention. Research shows that even having your smartphone nearby reduces your ability to focus. Harvard Business Review backs it up, putting device-free time right up there with work-life balance in terms of importance.
- Make a plan and stick to it. Schedule an hour for a task followed by 30 minutes to catch up on missed texts and emails. You can focus for the first hour because you know you have an upcoming window allocated to respond to messages. Many work environments now offer employees flexible schedules or unlimited paid time off - and it’s hurting work-life balance. The lack of structure and sense of being constantly connected translates into higher stress and worse balance for the majority of employees.
Balance Builder #3: Specialize and Socialize
Remember that crushing mental load we carry as moms? Another way to lighten the load is to let others help us both physically and emotionally.
Rather than delegating tasks while still hanging on to the “invisible labor” of the entire mental load, we can choose key areas where we’ll be the specialist and then stay in our own lane. A spouse, or other committee members or coworkers, can specialize in other areas. We decide what we’re responsible for (and this should include an honest conversation with the other people involved) and focus on doing that well. Setting us free to let the rest go.
Choose the people around you wisely not only to expand your bandwidth, but to boost your spirits and fill your bucket. The article 7 Ways to Feel More In Control of Your Life published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley talks about how much we’re impacted by the people around us. The recommendation?
“Surround yourself with friends, family, and communities who encourage you to reach your full potential, nurture your talents, affirm your values and difficult decisions, and give you a reality check when you’ve behaved badly or are stuck in negative thinking.”
But HOW do I specialize and socialize?
- As Elsa so wisely touts, let it go. Even if we obsess that we can do something better or faster or that we just like the way we do it - not even the best among us can do everything herself. My husband has made it clear he will take care of the dinner dishes. Yet I start to stress if I see them sitting there throughout the evening. I may even start to do them, which frustrates both of us. Let it go, crazy lady with other things to do! My husband doesn’t have to do the dishes when or how I would do them. I need to focus my energy on my areas of specialty (prepping my classes, ordering the groceries and keeping the family schedule organized). In one article I read, a mom said she and her husband swapped months on taking kids to appointments. If a kid missed an orthodontist appointment on her husband’s watch, she would literally toss out “not my month” and move right along with no stress.
- Don’t get too busy to connect with friends and other supportive moms. Professor of psychology Suniya S. Luthar co-authored a study on the physical and emotional harm caused by the mental load moms carry. She says it’s vitally important for moms to connect with other empathetic moms in friendships where women are "giving to each other the very best of what you think of as good mothering that you offer to your children — it's solicitous, tender, kind, thoughtful, vigilant, honest, with appropriate and firm boundaries."
My friends love when I post make-up free photos from camping weekends on the Internet😉 This group of amazing moms has extended their good mothering to me since I had my first baby.
- Check out The Power Of Agency (the authors also wrote the 7 Ways to Feel More in Control of Your Life article above). It talks about seven tools for breaking through overwhelm and managing competing demands. One of the tools is to associate selectively.
Balance Builder #4: Have an Attitude of Gratitude
These last two balance builders focus on a change of perspective. Research shows that an intentional focus on gratitude impacts physical and psychological health. It helps us sleep better, feel better about ourselves and have stronger relationships. Gratitude can tip ours scales back to balanced in almost every area of life. Of course, eating better and exercising and sleeping more contribute to a healthy and balanced life. But we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of stress management, and our mental and emotional health. Looking for reasons to be grateful shifts our focus from what we didn’t do or didn’t do well to what went right and what did work.
But HOW do I have an attitude of gratitude?
- Add a gratitude column or page to your planner or calendar and note the small things you’ll forget by the end of the day.
- Send hand-written thank you notes for gifts or help you’ve received, or just because.
- Grab our Ultimate Guide to Raising Grateful Kids download because gratitude can be a major ingredient in raising resilient and positive kids who are able to create a strong balance in their lives.
Balance Builder #5: Give and Receive
Helping others also fans the flame of balance, even though it requires a little thought or time. There's such an energy to anonymous and unexpected kindness.
In a past post about the Best Way to Build Resilient Kids in an Anxious World, we talked about pediatrician and professor Dr. Ken Ginsburg and his model of "The 7 Cs: Building Blocks of Resilience." Building block #5 is contribution, because when kids see the importance of their contributions, they gain a sense of purpose and they realize the world is a better place because they’re in it.
Building resilience in ourselves creates balance -- and contributing has the same benefits for us that it does for our kids.
But HOW do I make time to give back?
- Check out our list of 71 Unexpected Ways to Volunteer as a Family. There are options that will work for any family with any schedule. In this case, adding something to your schedule might be the best way to create a better balance.
Creating Your Best Work-Life Balance
Now it's your turn to create a better balance in your life and family. We created a free worksheet with five simple steps you can take in five days that will create an amazing difference. Give it five days, and then let us know on Facebook or Instagram what the change looked like in your household!