Many of us crave a work-life balance. We are inundated by social media, tons of information to take on, staggeringly long to-do lists, and pangs of guilt as we fall hopelessly behind with our commitments. The better job we do in our professional work, the more responsibility we receive. We end up spinning even more plates and spending more and more weekends catching up on work e-mails.
New exciting projects entice us with opportunities which we do not want to miss out on. We may initially feel thrilled to be involved in new initiatives. However, our enthusiasm often wanes. We end up resenting the additional workload we have taken on and spending yet another Sunday afternoon leaning over the computer.
Within higher education, academics and professional staff are increasingly under pressure to meet their ever-increasing workload. According to the Times Higher Education’s global survey, university staff feel overworked and struggle to create a healthy balance between personal and professional life.
I have recently chatted with a friend, called Christina, who has been an academic all her life. She is passionate about working in higher education and influencing others through her research. Christina admitted that she is wearing far too many of the proverbial hats: being a mother, a wife, a leader, a researcher, a mentor, just to mention a few. She craved for a bit more time for herself.
As we talked, I noticed that Christina glanced at her e-mails a couple of times. She briefly mentioned that she is checking e-mails dozens of times a day. I suggested that she tries a little experiment: responding to her e-mails no more than three times a day at set times. This would create more balance and structure to her day, safeguard her time, and allow her to crack on with her projects.
When I have recently seen Christina, she acknowledged that this small change revolutionised her working life and helped her gain at least an hour a day. She feels more focused, energised, and productive. She is able to leave work earlier in the afternoons, and spend some precious time with her family.
Stanford University conducted fascinating research on the link between productivity and interruptions. Researchers at Stanford found that regularly checking electronic communication resulted in less productivity. When people switched back and forth from task to task, they slowed down, their attention decreased, and the quality of their work suffered.
Many professionals find it extremely challenging to say no. We struggle to find the right words. We want to help out. We want to be polite. We loathe missing out on potential work opportunities. We fret about making the wrong decisions and facing the consequences.
Saying no, however, is essential for our mental health. If we consistently pile on more and more things on the to-do list, we get burnt out. Whether it is in our personal or professional life, saying no is like developing a muscle. The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets. The more we practice, the better we become.
Consider for a moment the tasks which you secretly do not really want to take on because you feel you already have enough on your plate. It might be volunteering, entertaining others, a work related project, an event which you feel you should take part in or any other possibilities. Ask yourself: ‘What’s the worst that can happen if you say no?’ and ‘’What is the best that can happen if you say no?’
Plan your work and personal life strategically. You will create more balance between work, friendships, hobbies, and taking care of yourself.
Becoming more conscious of your naturally fluctuating energy levels can be very helpful with increasing your productivity. Did you know that completing complex tasks is often easier in the morning? People have a clear mind, they feel more rested, and their productivity is at a peak. It is easier to make critical decisions because our brains are rested.
Many of us experience the post-lunch slump. Concentration tends to dip between noon and 4 p.m. Our productivity drops and we feel signs of tangible tiredness. Our mood may change too, and we no longer feel as energetic as in the morning. It is best to avoid critical and complex tasks in this period, if you can. Instead, catch up on less important responsibilities.
People often find that their energy levels rise slightly late afternoon and early evening. If you always wanted to take up some creative courses or exercise classes, it could be the perfect time. You can take advantage of the increase in your energy levels, and pursue your interests outside of work. Managing your energy wisely, you will be able to work smarter, and possibly leave the office earlier.
The speed of modern life is unlikely to slow down. If we want to make a real difference in the world, we need to create more balanced lifestyles. Taking time out for reflection is essential because it enables us to make some empowering new choices. Creating boundaries around electronic communications will help with maintaining our focus and sanity. We will free up time to be with friends and family. Saying no to things will help us avoid resentment. Being aligned with our natural energy levels will make us more productive. Balance for a better life is achievable.