Work-life balance is all in your head.
But closing your eyes and visualizing an empty inbox or a completed to-do list isn’t quite enough to take you from stress-emailing under the table all through dinner to a full night’s rejuvenating rest free of work-themed dreams (or nightmares).
One of the worst side effects of work creeping into your personal life is all the feelings of negativity and guilt: they somehow seem to slip right past the five o’clock cutoff to accompany us on our commute home, through family hour, couch potato time, and straight into bed with us, where we wake up the next morning to their screaming with the voice of a menacing alarm clock.
If you want to leave work at work, you need to unwind your mind and put work in its place.
Me-time is a lost cause when all you can think about is office time. Try these three simple attitude adjustments to start your transformation from overworked, overstressed corporate burn-out to balanced, whole person with respect and reverence for your own personal time.
Attitude Adjustment #1: Swap prescriptive thinking for descriptive thinking
In our hectic professional lives, we devote unrecoverable quantities of time and energy to fretting about what we should have already done or really ought to be doing right now, realities and constraints of the current situation be damned.
Most of us are should-ing all over ourselves by late afternoon: I should’ve had a shorter lunch, how did I spend an hour and a half on that meeting, I ought to have finished this project an hour ago… But that kind of prescriptive thinking, prescribing what we think ideally should be happening despite the circumstances and constraints around it, is just making us more neurotic and stealing our time.
The attitude adjustment: drop the prescription and switch to descriptive thinking, simply observing your situation without judgment and reporting to yourself on it: “Today I expected to spend one hour on this project. It took nearly three hours.”
Avoid the knee-jerk reflex to wag a mental finger in your own face, and instead take a dose of reflection: Why did this take me three hours? Did I forget to set aside time for research, preparation, etc.? Did something happen outside my control to change my schedule today? Was I maybe just not feeling particularly motivated?
These questions are infinitely more useful than berating yourself for not living up to your ideal reality. Should focuses on a past that you’ve already lost control of, while descriptive thinking is all about observing what happened today to better take on tomorrow.
Attitude Adjustment #2: Switch time management for energy management
Every day gives you the same 1,440 minutes of opportunity, and no matter how you “manage” those minutes, you’ll never budge that total by a single minute.
All the to-do lists and productivity hacks in the world are impotent against traffic jams, alarm clock malfunctions, gregarious coworkers, and the flu. Instead of starting your work day focused on managing your time, try looking to that other precious resource that you do have some control over: energy.
Just as circadian rhythms like sleep determine our day-to-day physical cycles, we’re also subject to shorter biological rhythms that occur multiple times within a day: ultradian rhythms. And where you find yourself in the throes of these constantly-revving rhythms largely determines your energy levels at any given point throughout the day.
The secret of energy management is finding the rhythm of your own rhythm and moving to it instead of trying to overcome it.
Ultradian rhythms come in cycles of about 90-120 minutes from an energy peak to an energy trough, and those highs and lows are higher and lower at different times of day: Morning people get their most creative and productive work done after a crack-of-dawn yoga session, whereas for others the lightbulb only switches on at 4:00 in the afternoon while the rest of us are slumped over a desk in a pile of empty Starbucks paraphernalia.
By monitoring, understanding, and responding to your body’s own natural energy levels, you can mindfully ask yourself the right questions and deduce how to strategically apply your limited energy. Sometimes better work-life balance is as simple as moving that hour-long email session from your energetic morning hours to the energy-deprived afternoon.
Attitude Adjustment #3: Round up with the Rule of Quarters
Hofstadter’s Law is ridiculously simple yet infallibly true and unavoidably relevant to time management: Everything you plan for will take longer than expected.
And the Rule of Quarters is an equally simple and potent way of compensating for our inability to expect the unexpected. Just add 25% to every time estimate on your schedule.
One hour meeting at noon? Give it an hour and fifteen. Four hours needed to prepare your presentation? Let’s call it five.
For extra efficiency, follow the spirit of this law more closely than its letter. Round everything up to the next hour or logical increment. (Your 35-minute commute is really closer to an hour anyways when you include parking, polite morning hellos, and making a cup of coffee at the office.) And when you feel like your estimate still might be cutting it close, don’t be shy about allotting an hour and a half for the hour-long task.
Indeed, overestimating is where the true bliss of the Rule of Quarters can be found. When you expected your errand to take an hour, planned for an hour and fifteen, but it only took fifty-five minutes, you’ve suddenly gifted yourself a surprise 20 minutes!
The mental separation of work and life is just as important or more than the physical separation of leaving the office and heading home. This week, whenever you catch work stress creeping into the after hours, try checking it with one or all of these three attitude adjustments and get the down time you need and deserve.