Achieving a work-life balance is easier said than done. It reminds me of a unicorn, in the sense that it is “highly desirable but difficult to find or obtain” (from Oxford Dictionaries). There’s no easy formula that’s going to help you create and maintain balance between your work life and home life, mainly because everyone’s job obligations vary greatly. In addition, most jobs have a certain ebb and flow, in that some days, weeks, or months are busier than others. As a teacher, my job gets extremely hectic at the beginning of the school year and around report card time. In the same way, our home obligations can change, whether it’s adopting a new puppy, joining a bowling league, or taking your children to after-school activities. Even with demands always changing, you can create a routine for yourself that can aide you in finding a balance between work and home obligations.
Let me tell you a story about my experiences with an unbalanced life. When I began teaching for the first time as a long-term substitute teacher, I was completely overwhelmed by work. I lived forty-five minutes away from my school and wanted to do an amazing job so that I could be offered a full-time teaching position. I have always been a perfectionist and worked the only way that I knew how. I created to-do lists every day of the week, including weekends, for what I needed to get done for school. I left for work at 5:45 in the morning and left my school around 6 most evenings. I spent nearly all of my weekend time writing my lesson plans.
I remember often calling my mom crying and overwhelmed on my drive home from school. She would try to distract me with random stories after I had sufficiently vented. I would actively try to plan other things to do during weeknights and during the weekends with friends, so that I could get my mind off whatever needed to be done for school. I can distinctly remember going outlet shopping with my two best friends from high school and later going out to eat. I kept looking at the time ticking away and felt like I was going to crawl right out of my skin. We were talking about something completely different, and I blurted out whatever school-related thing was on my mind. My friends looked at me blankly and I realized how my unbalanced life was affecting the people who were the most important to me.
It would be a lie if I said that my life changed at that moment. I became even more depressed and anxious about the many tasks that I had to fulfill. They say that depression occurs when you feel like a bad situation is permanent and you feel powerless. I knew that the tasks that I needed to accomplish for school were necessary, because lesson plans and other tasks need to be handed in on time, and there were a lot of new centers or worksheets that I needed to create being a brand-new teacher. I knew I couldn’t suddenly spend less time on any of these things in order to keep my classroom in order. The thought that I could not achieve the balance that my brain and body needed and craved made me go to a dark, sad place. I couldn’t enjoy the things I once did with friends, I had trouble falling asleep, and I lost 10 pounds super quickly. Even when I did stay after school late, I had difficulty concentrating on my to-do list and often felt like I was aimlessly flitting from one task to the next.
I did seek help from my family doctor and went on an anti-depressant, which seemed to help. I bought a book called, “100 Ways to Happiness: A Guide for Busy People” by Timothy J. Sharp. It seemed like an apt title for what I had been experiencing. I read the book front to cover, but also added my own notes in the margins (which I never do with books). It honestly just helped me to change my mindset and understand that my situation was not permanent, it was temporary, and that all good or bad events in life are temporary.
I’m happy to say that I was offered a full-time kindergarten position for the following school year, and my depression fog eventually lifted. I still stayed late in the evenings, because I had to make new centers and materials for my own classroom, but my weekends were mostly free. I was feeling a little bit more and more like myself. Fast forward to now, after 8 years of teaching kindergarten. I have never since had to go back on anti-depressants, but still experience anxiety every now and again when my workload gets intense. Being able to maintain a good balance between my work obligations and doing the things that I love has really helped me.
Teaching is one of those professions that you can’t prepare for while you are doing it. You have to either arrive early in the mornings, use your prep periods effectively, stay late after school, come in during the weekends, or any combination of these. There’s almost inevitably some task that needs to be done on the weekends (usually lesson plans, but sometimes report cards or parent communication). Here are my recommendations for using that precious time most effectively.
- Carve out time specifically delegated for your work. Don’t just do it whenever. 2 things can happen. One scenario is that you won’t dedicate enough time to do your work and consequently be stressed out during the week. OR you’ll get stuck in work mode, and it will spill over into your much-needed time for yourself and your VIPs (very important people).
- Know which time of day you are most productive. I’m most productive in the mornings. There is no doubt in my mind that if I need to get something done, I better come in early and take care of it. After school, my brain is swimming with everything that happened that day, and I’m ready to go home. Even on the weekends, if I sit down with my cup of coffee in the mornings, I can bust out those lesson plans like it’s nobody’s business.
- Also make time for the people you love and your hobbies. I used to try to hang out with my friends or family once during the week and once on the weekend, but now it’s mostly during the weekend. These are the important things in life- it’s what makes you feel like yourself.
This means working smarter, not harder. If you need to, ask advice from your co-workers about how they manage their workload between work and home. They probably have some great tips for you! Having a system of organization can make you more efficient and effective. It may be more work at the beginning, but being organized saves you time and makes you feel less stressed out in the long run.
- My tips for working smarter are geared more towards teachers, but I’ll try to generalize for everybody else. Don’t re-invent the wheel every time. Make sure that you are re-using what you already have in purposeful ways.
- File similar papers, documents, or materials together in a way that makes sense for you. That way, you won’t waste time looking for it, and instead you’ll be able to locate it quickly.
- Organize as you go along rather than having to waste time later going back and decluttering your work or home space. Organization is admittedly not my strong suit. I take one day a week to go through my classroom, home, and bedroom (specifically putting my clothes and jewelry back where it belongs), and it’s a definite time waster. I’m going to try so hard to not let this happen when the new school year begins.
- Prioritize your most important tasks and make sure to get those done first, preferably BEFORE you go home. I make a point to never fill my school bag with papers unless I absolutely have to (interim reports, report cards, and so on).
- Eat the frogs first. What?? Mark Twain once said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” In other words, do that task that you are dreading first. Every other task after that will not seem like a big deal and hopefully will be that much easier for you.
- Try to focus on one task at a time. You would think multi-tasking would be more effective. However, the truth is that when your attention is split between many different pieces of work, your tasks take longer to complete.
- Plan one day a week to complete various menial tasks. It can be one day that you stay later to get it all done, or my personal preference is to pick one day Monday through Friday during which you do only ONE of those tasks. For example: Monday make copies, Tuesday laminate, Wednesday file student work, Thursday pull materials for the following week, and Friday write my communication log and grade student homework.
- If you have a big vacation or special event coming up, try to work ahead if you can so that you can fully enjoy yourself and not have to worry about work.
Let Yourself Recharge
I have one conversation from my beginning years of teaching that really changed how I thought about work-life balance. I was talking to a teacher who had been teaching for 10-15 years, and lamenting about all of the tasks that I needed to get done for my classroom. She told me that I would always be able to think of more things that I wanted to do, but to only focus on what my classroom really needed. She understood my sentiment of wanting to be the best that I could and being a perfectionist, because she was the same way.
- You can always get more done. Your workload will be endless if you let it. Don’t do that to yourself!
- Try to leave work at work (if possible). I know for myself that I focus better on report cards and lesson plans at home, so I do it at home.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your co-workers and family members can give you advice or possibly take some of the workload, depending on what it is. Make sure you are giving help back in return.
- Remember that being stressed out can make you sick. Nobody wants to feel out of control. Find ways that work for you to help yourself calm down (if you are feeling anxious) and change your mind-set about your workload (temporary instead of permanent). I would take a hot shower, drink a cup of hot tea, and read a book when I had trouble falling asleep, and it still works wonderfully for me.
- Stop checking your email at home (if you can) and turn off your email notifications. When you see a work-related email or especially negative emails pop up, it’s easy to get pulled into anxious thinking. Have you ever heard that worrying steals your joy in the present? You are so fixated on what might or might not happen in the future, that you can’t fully enjoy yourself in the moment.
- If your previous workday was bad, try not to dwell on it when you go home (for the same reason as above). Dwelling does not solve anything. If you learned something from your bad day, learn the lesson and move on.
- Take at least one day a week or one hour each day to do something special for yourself. However you most like to do self-care, do it! I like indulging in a hobby that gets me into a state of “flow,” which essentially means when you’re in the zone and only focused on what you are doing. It gets you out of your head and into the present moment. I like Zumba, calligraphy, painting, or writing for this. You may prefer a different way of self-care, like a bubble bath, spa day, getting a manicure or pedicure, or staying in and watching Netflix. Whatever works for you!
- Spending time with my friends and family always makes me feel good. They make me forget about work and also keep me entertained.
I jokingly told my co-workers yesterday that I know what I should be doing to achieve a better work-life balance, I just don’t always do it. My biggest obstacle to this is staying organized; it feels like my fatal flaw. How do you achieve work-life balance? What is your biggest obstacle to feeling balanced?
Until next time…