15 Smart Tips for Work-Life Balance That Aren’t a ScamBecause forcing yourself to shut it down at 5 p.m. isn't always possible.
Since you’re reading this, you—like any full-grown, full-blown, full-adulting human—are most likely having a hard time crushing whatever thing you do for work AND having a life. As you probably know, when Corporate You leaves less time and energy for Non-Corporate You to do stuff like date or just fold laundry, it can have a huge impact on your well-being. Actually, and not to freak you out, if your work-life balance has been off for a while, you could be at risk for things like depression and burnout, says licensed psychotherapist Robin M. Johnson, PhD, LICSW.
While that’s a major bummer (and is maybe also the reason you landed here in the first place), this PSA can take some pressure off: For most of us, there’s no such thing as a perfect 50-50 work-life balance, says Dr. Johnson. There’s just not. So instead of trying to find that equilibrium, figuring out what’s realistic for you week to week or even day to day can help you feel less hopeless and take care of yourself and others the way you want to, she adds.
Sure, in theory, work-life balance means that you’re giving as much attention to your job as your non-work commitments, says organizational psychologist Ellen Ernst Kossek, PhD, a professor of management at Purdue University who studies work-life balance. But most of the time that’s not possible. Maybe you can’t spend as much time on work because of a family emergency or your priorities shift altogether after you start raising a kid. And sometimes you have to cancel plans with friends so you can work late while vying for a big promotion. All of this is to say that work-life balance really means having the flexibility to give, say, 30% to your job on days that non-work things need 70% of your attention and vice versa, notes Dr. Johnson. Work-life balance isn’t one-size-fits-all, she adds.
While being more flexible with how much energy you dedicate to your job on any given day sounds simple enough, things like strict corporate policies (see: paid leave and PTO) can make it tough, says Dr. Kossek. Still, there are some easy mindset changes and actual strategies from real people and mental health pros that can help you manage all the shit you’ve got going on. Whether you work a 9-to-5, clock long shifts, or hold multiple jobs, take what works for you and leave what doesn’t.
1. I weigh whether I want to focus on money or time.
“It boils down to priorities. While professional success is important, it isn't the only thing that matters to me. My father has always told me, ‘You can make more money, but you can never get back time.' I try to keep this top of mind when making decisions about how to balance my work and life. If I'm on top of my work and I have the option to work late or go see my little sister’s recital, I will always choose the latter. Those are going to be the things I look back on in life and remember (and she will too!) versus a few extra hours of work I accomplished.” —Olivia P., 33
2. I turn off work notifications.
“I use settings on my phone to hide work-related notifications after work hours. This keeps me from casually checking messages or emails, which can spiral into taking on a task that really could wait until tomorrow. If I get sucked into a conversation or start working on a project, I don’t pay attention to my boyfriend or I get distracted while we’re cooking dinner together. So no notifications helps me stay present in my relationship.” —Elisabeth E., 36
3. Use the buddy system.
“Work with your team and your boss to find a designated backup buddy to fill you in on anything you missed while you were away and vice versa. So if either of you ever have to miss a meeting or need to leave early, you’ll know what’s going on at work. That gives you more flexibility.” —Ellen Ernst Kossek, PhD, organizational psychologist and professor
4. I plan to do something fun every day.
“I schedule workouts, plan meals, and figure out dinners with friends for the week on Sunday nights. I make sure I always have at least one thing outside of work to look forward to, even if it’s going for a walk or cooking a new recipe.” —Amanda R., 28
5. I make a daily checklist of things to do.
“I have a tendency to get laser focused on tasks and will do them for 10 hours straight without even noticing. I bought a notebook and created a daily checklist of goals—basic things I need to do every day. For example: floss, code, Duolingo, go for a walk. I tell myself that if I do any of these things for one minute, I can check them off my list. The goal is to check all the boxes every day. This helps me strategize my day and forces me to take breaks, stop work at a certain time, and do things for my mental health.” —Sam G., 35
6. I don’t measure my worth by my productivity or job title.
“As someone who is lucky enough to do what I love, I've struggled with my career being my whole identity, which can make work-life balance tricky. But, at some point, I realized that even in the most values-aligned job, your happiness and self-worth cannot hinge on something that is fully out of your control. For instance, I was laid off from a job that I gave my absolute best to simply because I didn't fit a new boss's vision. A decade later, I was working (and stressing) more than ever before for a job that cut my pay during a literal pandemic.
These moments and others led to a mindset shift that forever changed my work-life balance: I could both love what I do and do it to the best of my ability while also realizing that my worth is not defined by my job title or hitting certain numbers. That shift helps me stop stressing about things I don't have control over in my career and, instead, focus on the things I can control—like how I show up in the workplace, how I can learn and grow in ways that will be useful and marketable if this job were sadly gone tomorrow, and how to make a difference with whatever we're working on at the moment. That shift keeps me present and, honestly, sane in moments of uncertainty, which is something I wish I was able to do earlier in my career." —Casey G., 34
7. I say no when I need to.
“After experiencing a ton of burnout and mental breakdowns, I began working with my therapist to create more boundaries in both my personal and professional life. This way, I’m not stretching myself thin trying to accommodate everything and everyone. I assess what to take on based on urgency, time, and mental capacity. If I can’t take something on, I offer some sort of solution so no one’s left hanging. For example, at work, if I don't have the bandwidth to do a client project, I let them know when I will have time. If the deadline can’t be extended, I reprioritize and shift other deadlines [so I’m not overwhelmed]. If a friend wants to go out, I offer another day that I am available to hang.” —Andrea H., 32
8. I put things into perspective.
“During the pandemic, I realized most companies do not value me as a person, so why should I allow them to take up more time than they’re paying me for? It’s taken time, but stepping back from giving 110% when I’m making barely above minimum wage is doable. And you know what? I’m not getting fired. I’m still getting accolades and high fives. So, Slack gets snoozed after 5 p.m., and I don’t have my work email on my phone. I’m enjoying life outside of work considerably more, using 100% of my PTO days, and not missing any fun things my family does.” —Anonymous, 28
9. I make space for non-work stuff in the a.m.
“Unplugging in the beginning of the day instead of jumping straight into work helps me a ton. I go for a walk with my dog, I make breakfast, I stretch and exercise. It gives me such a boost of energy. I feel more focused and productive while I’m at work, which allows me to be happy and satisfied with the quality of my work without sacrificing my personal priorities and goals.” —José P., 27
10. I only use work apps at work and personal apps at home.
“When you’re switching back and forth between non-work and work communication, [that can make it hard to have boundaries]. I don’t have my Gmail on my work computer. Separating that stuff or just turning off [personal] notifications when you’re working ensures you’re fully present. If you’re constantly looking at texts while you're working, there's no way you can do good work. And it’s the same when you're at home: We've all been at dinner or with people, and they keep wanting to go look at their phones [to check in with work].” —Ellen Ernst Kossek, PhD
11. I prioritize keeping my mind right.
“[As a nurse,] I make sure to meditate before work and when I get home to clear my thoughts. I struggle with pre-work anxiety, and this has helped me a lot! Having a support system to vent to is also important since working in health care is super stressful. Although it’s tempting to pick up extra shifts at the hospital, I usually decline working overtime to stay mentally healthy.” —Abby T., 28
12. I have daily rituals.
“I work from home, and that was really hard at first. But I’ve been able to ritualize my day in a way that allows for predictability. My most consistent one is my morning routine: wake up around 6 a.m., do a 30- to 45-minute yoga flow, get ready (shower, brush my teeth, do my skincare, get dressed), have breakfast, read The Morning newsletter from the New York Times and/or the Wondermind newsletter, and log on to work by 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m.-ish. It makes me feel like a human being and leaves my evenings open for reading, catching up on TV, reaching out to friends, or making plans.” —Brooke C., 25
13. I wind down doing non-work things.
“When I have to work late, I do crossword puzzles or sudoku before bed so that I’m not thinking about work before I go to sleep. If I’m thinking about a work problem, I’ll have dreams about it that keep me from getting a restful night's sleep, which turns into sleeping in and being cranky the next day.” —Elisabeth E., 36
14. When life gets hectic, let your people know.
“When you can’t be available as much as you normally would [for people in your life], have a conversation with them about how else you can stay connected in meaningful ways. If you’re a parent and it’s a busy season at work, have a conversation with kids to say, ‘I won’t be able to pick you up from school every day, but it’s still important that we make time for each other. So, we can talk before you go to bed or we can go get ice cream this weekend so we can catch up.’ Really put an emphasis on the meaning of that connection and have clear communication when there’s a [work] change. If you don’t have talks with important people in your life, that can cause tension.
Have those same convos with people at work. Discuss with your boss or team what it would look like for you to be less available. It’s helpful to have some clear conversations about key deliverables and how you can create an alternative and temporary work plan that still makes sure those professional goals are being met.” —Robin M. Johnson, PhD, LICSW, licensed psychotherapist
15. I spend time with people who actually believe in work-life balance.
“We live in a career-obsessed culture, and it can be easy to get sucked into that mindset. So I try to surround myself with people who share a more balanced approach. It helps because seeing other people successfully (and happily) take a balanced approach to work and life inspires me to do the same and also proves to me that it's possible to do so without sacrificing things like career growth. It gives me more confidence because people I admire and respect are doing it too.” —Jessica S., 32
Quotes have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.