Make It Work: How To Get A Grip On Your Work-Life Balance

I think my roommate is mad at me. In fact, I’m positive. When I texted her (let’s call her “M”) about getting a drink, she responded 12 hours later with a tepid: “Oh, hmm. Maybe?”

Honestly, I don’t blame her. For the last few months, our at-home interactions have followed a pretty specific script.

Her: “How’s it going?”

Me: [looking at computer]

Her: “I’m nervous about work today, I have a meeting with…”

Me: “Mmm.”

Her: “How are things going with D?”

Me: “Mmm.”

You get the picture.

When I first made the transition from the nine-to-five grind to self-employment, I tried to be realistic about my expectations. I welcomed the autonomy and the casual dress code, but I also anticipated having to work weekends, field 10 p.m. phone calls, and to constantly hustle. I knew that my personal inbox would become a hybrid work-life creature, with emails from my best friend jostling elbows with requests from temporary co-workers. What I didn’t count on in the slightest was that the slip-slide between working hours and my personal life might turn me into something I’d always considered particularly monstrous: a really bad friend.

It wasn’t just breakfast-time interactions with M. Suddenly, I was constantly checking my phone everywhere I went: in the middle of conversations, while at dinner parties, during movies. When M and I hosted a celebratory brunch for my friend’s new pregnancy, I somehow (cross my heart, I don’t remember the exact details) ended up in a back room with a mimosa in one hand and my Macbook Air in the other, filing last minute research for a client.

No wonder my friends were pissed off.

My issue wasn’t that work was particularly pressing, either. My issue was that I was just flat out addicted to working. I couldn’t make myself take time off, even when there were no deadlines, no pressure, and nothing make-or-break about a given project. What the hell?

I know exactly how this started. After five or six years immersed in the world of tech, I had normalized myself to long working hours, family-like camaraderie with my bosses, and doing things for “passion” versus a paycheck. I was also friends with people who were now launching their own startups or who held high-up positions at established companies. Their emails — Subject line: “Got a minute to talk?” — could just as easily be about relationship quibbles as they could be about hiring me for a new gig. Their invites to dinner parties could mean time to catch up or it could mean I’d end up chowing down alongside a new client. Everything had become a big hot blur. How could I bring it back into focus?

When I sat down with myself and was honest, I could see the root of my problem pretty clearly. Basically, I was disorganized. I had a single approach to “on” and “off” time that involved zero prioritization and absolutely no sense of task management — instead, I simply soldiered through, committing myself to a relentless, unrepentant task slog until I collapsed from exhaustion. Nothing ever felt “done” because I had never taken the time to thoughtfully define what that meant to me. The result was that I lived within a halo of subtle-but-near-constant anxiety, convinced there was always something I was forgetting to finish. No wonder I struggled to be present with my friends.

The first step toward teetering the balance back in favor of Life was giving myself a tangible sense of what my workday actually was. That meant To-Do lists. It meant prioritizing those To-Do lists. It meant filling in the hours of my calendar with neatly color-coded blocks: blue for work, lavender for friends. The visualization aspect was particularly soothing. Oh yeah, my subconscious seemed to be saying. Those really are completely different things. Plus, by setting specific goals for my workday, I was also clearly defining its endpoint. That meant I could power down my laptop at the end of the day with a sense of accomplishment and an orderly confidence in my ability to pick up where I left off.

Once I knew exactly what I needed to be doing each day, it was that much easier to maintain a sense of productivity. I also set an important new rule: if I found myself staring blankly at my screen for more than 10 minutes, I would get up and do something else until I felt ready to focus again. I made an errand To-Do list. When work got slow or my creative juices dried up, I didn’t have to waste time or confidence by dawdling. I just swapped in an errand and kept getting things done. Suddenly, I was finishing both work and my laundry. A miracle. Also, my gym visits quadrupled.

So, I was keeping busy, getting things done, and learning to mentally differentiate between “work day” and “everyday.” It was a great start, but things didn’t really start to crystalize until I learned how to, well, not be busy. At least, for a few minutes each day. I started deliberately giving myself a 10-minute window at the (newly defined) end of each workday to reflect on what I’d gotten done, what was coming next, and how all of these things contributed to my bigger picture goals. If I’d screwed something up, those 10 minutes also provided a crucial window to contemplate lessons learned and ways to prevent future missteps.

It’s been good so far. I’m getting stuff done faster, for sure, but (more importantly) I’m feeling a lot better about it. At the end of the day, I can shut my computer knowing that I got a bunch of stuff done, and knowing exactly what I’ve got lined up for tomorrow. As for M? We’re getting drinks tonight. I hope she forgives me.