Work can be stressful. From busy work-loads to tight schedules, fitting in everything we need to get done at work, as well as having a life outside of work, can be a challenge. Trying to manage that stress and staying on top of everything is something that has left me feeling overwhelmed in the past, particularly since having children. I’m definitely still learning how to juggle the work-life balance, but there are lessons that I have learnt over my 16 years’ of working that help me manage my work on a daily basis (though admittedly, some I find easier than others!). Below are some tips that have helped me, and some that I am still working on to be honest, but if you are struggling with work-life balance and find yourself getting stressed over work, I hope these will help you too:
- ‘To-do’ lists. At the start of each day I write a to-do list. The items on my list can be as big as planning a new research project or smaller items like responding to emails. I literally list everything I need to do as well as when I need to complete them by. Quite often I break down bigger tasks into sub-tasks to help with prioritising. Seeing the list in writing is really helpful to manage my working day and to make sure I don’t forget anything. It’s also very therapeutic to see things being ticked off the list!
- Prioritise. There are only so many hours in a day, and it’s unlikely that I get through my entire ‘to do’ list in one day (in fact, rarely!). So it’s really important to know which items are the priority tasks on the list that absolutely must be completed that day. This is where breaking down bigger tasks into sub-tasks really helps. For example, if I’m evaluating a new product for a client, then I know that planning the research and recruiting participants needs to happen early on and is high priority, while producing the evaluation materials can wait a day or two and lower priority.
- Plan your day. Armed with my prioritised ‘to do’ list, each morning I make a point of planning my day to make sure that I can fit my tasks around meetings, calls and breaks. Sometimes this means booking out time in my diary that I can allocate to those tasks.
- Try not to get distracted by email. It’s so easy for us to see an email notification and drop what we’re working on to check the email. I find this can be really counter-productive. It distracts from my current task, interrupts my thought processes and means I can find myself annoyingly jumping from task to task. A few years ago, I started checking my emails at certain times in the day. So I now check my emails first thing, after lunch and towards the end of the day so that I can respond to anything urgent before I finish for the day. I have to admit, this is one that I do find quite hard because I worry I’ll miss something important, but in reality, the time between checking my emails isn’t that long, and there’s always the phone if people really need to reach me quickly.
- Accept that things will happen to disrupt your plan! Whether it’s sick children, a last-minute proposal to get out or new research brief to write, it’s not uncommon for new tasks to come in that mean I need to review and re-plan my day. The most important thing I’ve learnt when this does happen is to reprioritise. If I don’t, my daily ‘to-do’ list gets longer, my working day is never-ending and I begin to feel stressed and overwhelmed by everything I need to get done. There are days when I just need to get everything done and that means having to work longer hours or catch up in the evenings, but I try not to make this the norm.
- Ask for help. If you really are struggling to keep up with everything, do ask for help. I used to say ‘yes’ to everything and end up in the cycle of having a never-ending ‘to-do’ list and feeling like I was just over-stretching myself. Inevitably working in that way did affect my stress levels, but it also made me less productive and less efficient. I realised that asking for help isn’t a weakness but a smarter way of working that means I can focus on the priority tasks, produce better quality work and also manage my own stress levels more effectively.
- Have set working times. Since working from home, this has become probably more difficult for me but also more important. In my previous post ‘Lessons and tips for working from home’, I mention that the boundaries between work and family life can become blurred when working from home, but having set working hours as much as possible is really important. It allows me to switch off from work and help to manage my work-life balance.
- Take regular breaks. Breaks are essential for making sure we don’t burn-out. I also find it helps increase my productivity and the quality of work. I take a lunch break every day, even if it’s only 20 minutes on very hectic days, and I try to take regular breaks throughout the day. Just stopping to make a cup of tea gives me a breather from my work and helps to recharge my batteries.
- Utilise status options on your communications tools. I use Lync and Skype to stay in touch with colleagues and clients. If I’m busy or away, I make sure I utilise the statuses on these tools to let people know. The ‘do not disturb’ status is essential if I need to get a task completed or if I’m working on something that really requires my full, undisturbed attention.
- Get away from your desk. It’s easy for me to get engrossed in my daily tasks and realise that I’ve been sat at my desk for hours. Scheduling the day helps to limit this from happening, but I also make sure that I leave my desk when I’m taking a break. Getting outside is a great way to recharge my batteries, so whether it’s a walk around the block, a run or even just a cup of tea in the garden, getting some fresh air is a great way to add some calm to my day.
- Find time to relax. I’m a new convert to mindfulness, but if I do find myself getting overwhelmed by my working day, I take ten minutes out to switch off from everything and focus on my own relaxation. It’s one of the best things I’ve found for keeping calm.
- Enjoy your work. I did wonder whether to add this to the list, but I think it’s really important to managing my own stress levels, keeping calm and managing work-life balance. I’m lucky to love my job and I really enjoy my work. I find it much easier to cope with the daily routine of work, in being engaged in what I do and in feeling like I have a better work-life balance when I enjoy my work.
The changes I’ve made to my working day have really helped me in managing work-life balance, but also in making me more productive, less stressed and in staying focused on what I really need to get done, both inside and outside of work. I hope these learnings help you too and would love to know what you do to manage your working day.