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The Unconventional Guide to Work

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The Elusive Work Life Balance: 7 Ways to Avoid Burnout

You’ve had a hectic day at the office. A last minute crisis occurred and you worked 2 hours overtime to get everything done. When you finally arrive home you’re too exhausted to cook dinner (and substitute with greasy takeaways and a cheap bottle of wine).Your ‘quality time’ with your spouse consists of a few muttered sentences before doing the laundry and other crucial tasks, then rolling into bed exhausted.

Does this all sound familiar? Maintaining a work life balance is tough for anyone with a full-time career. Business owners, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and other high performers already know this; that’s why many of them have secret coping mechanisms.

Here are 7 secrets to restoring your precious work life balance - without sacrificing your career opportunities or harming your business.

Secret 1: Meditation Isn’t Just For Hippies

I’d been told about the benefits of meditation for many years - by my parents, colleagues, friends - and for a long time I stoically ignored their advice. Why? I don’t know, it just sounded flakey. Like the kind of pseudo-science advice you’d read in Cosmo. Focus on this happiness mantra for twenty minutes a day and you’ll lose 3 kgs and have an amazing sex life!

When I finally gave real meditation a shot I realised what all the fuss is about. After a few weeks I found that regular mantra meditation (20 minute sessions, 1-2 times a day) made a huge difference to my overall sense of happiness and wellbeing. I was the same person, but I was calmer in the face of adversity. I approached each task with more patience and concentration.

And if you need science to convince you, a study by Harvard Medical School has found that meditation actually increases the amount of grey matter in the brainas well as helping with anxiety, depression and stress. So if you’d like to give it a shot, look up your local meditation centre - or check out these 6 easy steps for learning meditation.

There are also apps which make meditation more accessible for beginners. Headspace plays meditation and mindfulness sessions you can use at work. It’s a good tool for briefly escaping the noise and stress, and giving your brain some much needed R&R. Stop, breathe, relax.

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Secret 2: Work Smarter, Not Harder

There’s a dangerous corporate mentality, which says that working longer hours and being more productive are the same thing. They’re not. Sometimes we think we’re achieving more because we’ve worked for longer, when actually we’re just dragging out tasks to fill the day.

Working a 70 hour week is nothing to brag about if you could’ve reached the same results in 40 hours. And it could be hurting your mental wellbeing - a study by the UK Mental Health Foundation found that working long hours made 27% of employees feel depressed, 34% feel anxious and 58% feel irritable. So how can you avoid succumbing to these statistics?

Instead of logging insanely long hours at the office and sacrificing your personal life, you need to teach yourself to work smarter (as explained by the Lazy Project Manager books).

There are 4x main types of productivity hack you need to master:

  • Delegation. Spend your time on the specialised tasks that only you can do. Don’t be afraid to delegate more generic jobs to those who have time (unless they can be automated).
  • Automation. I guarantee there is some aspect of your business - whether it’s your finances, customer support or social media marketing - which could be systematized and automated. Never delegate what can be automated.
  • Cutting the fat. Do you really need that recurring team meeting? Are your morning admin tasks a waste of time? Stop doing pointless activities just because you’ve grown accustomed to them.
  • Use productivity tools. Project management software and time tracking apps can streamline all of your work processes.
  • Communicate effectively. Team project tools like Slack, Trello and Hangouts can eliminate the need for time consuming meetings. They also allow remote working, which can boost efficiency.

Secret 3: Meal Prep Isn’t Just For Bodybuilders

...Or crossfit enthusiasts. There’s an increasing recognition of its value in the corporate world.

Just stop and think for a minute. How much of your time is spent on food? I’m not just talking about eating. I mean how much time do you spend daydreaming about what to cook for dinner, going to the grocery store, preparing your daily lunch, cleaning up pots and pans… For most of us, food takes up a significant chunk of our lives.

But what if all your food was prepped in advance? Try setting aside one afternoon a week and doing all your cooking at once. Freeze reheatable dinners and lunches in serving size containers, ready to grab and go. Not only does this save time in the mornings and evenings, it also means you’re less likely to waste time on ‘emergency’ shopping trips. By creating a comprehensive meal plan for the whole week you know exactly what ingredients to purchase - saving precious time and money.

If you’re interested in eating well but don’t have time for meal prep there are growing numbers of companies that will do it for you - with an emphasis on nutrient rich, healthy food. There’s My Food Bag and My Underground Kitchen in New Zealand, Fit Fuel in the UK, and Freshly in the US. These companies make it easy to eat well when you’re time poor (although it’s still cheaper to prepare your own!).

Extra Tip: Reddit users should check out r/MealPrepSunday for inspiration. You’ll find a supportive community, inspiration and great recipe ideas.

Image source: Pinterestmeal_prep_peanut_butter_fitness.jpg

Secret 4: Work Alternative Hours

A stress-free life is impossible when you commute 2 hours a day in Auckland (or London) traffic. This applies whether you’re in the driver’s seat, clutching your steering wheel with white knuckles, or you’re running through the rain to catch your inexplicably irregular bus.

But what if you could make those painful commutes a distant memory? Even if you have to spend 40 hours in the office, it’s usually possible to choose smarter hours than the traditional 9-5. Just by getting up 1-2 hours early you can skip the rush. This might sound painful but trust me, your body will adjust in no time. And every second you don’t spend sitting in traffic is a big win for your mental health and productivity.

You can also investigate the possibility of working remotely. Perhaps you don’t need to be in the office at all. With all the digital tools, project management and cloud technology we have at our disposal, it’s easier than ever to collaborate with your team on the go. The WorkflowMax iOS app allows you to enter important details like timesheets from wherever you are. Why not do all your tasks from the beach?

Let go of the notion that you need to turn up for the sake of appearance. As long as you communicate clearly with your team and clients, what matters is the work you do - not where it’s done.

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Secret 5: Learn to Say No

Like they always say on airplanes - you need to secure your own oxygen mask before helping others. If you don’t put your own work priorities first, everyone else’s demands can easily start to suck up your time. Before you know it you’re doing everyone’s job except your own.

To avoid this you need to become an expert at saying ‘no’. It’s one of the hardest words in the English language to get comfortable saying. This is especially true when it’s your boss, a client, or a colleague who’s helped you in the past. But with practice saying ‘no’ gets easier.

Often we say yes to requests in the spur of the moment, without checking our schedule first. Don’t be afraid to delay giving an answer if you’re not sure. Take some time to calculate whether you have other priorities, then politely refuse them if it’s not possible.

This doesn’t only apply to work chores but social requests as well. When colleagues ask you out drinking on a weeknight, or try to drag you out to a long lunch, weigh up your desires and priorities before agreeing. If it’s going to waste time you’d rather spend more productively, you know what to say.

Secret 6: Take Breaks Religiously

During a busy working day it’s easy to forget about your entitled breaks. Some of us even forget to eat lunch. But taking a few moments of rest each day is crucial for preventing burnout and exhaustion, no matter how busy you are.

If you know you’re the type to forget, schedule short breaks into your calendar like you would any meeting or appointment. Make sure you’re marked as busy so everyone knows not to interrupt you. Find a quiet room or take a walk outside. Even short 10 minute breaks a few times a day can do wonders for your mental health.

Research has shown it’s more important to schedule these moments of rest in the afternoon, when our focus starts to wane. The late hours of the day take a bigger psychological toll on us.

Staying physically fit is also important for your mental health and wellbeing. If long hours are making you miss the gym, try to fit bursts of exercise into your standard day. Instead of sitting in the lunchroom go for a brisk walk or jog at lunch. If you don’t mind a little embarrassment, do sneaky squats at your desk. Make these rituals part of your daily routine.

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Secret 7: Define the Non-Negotiable

Obviously you shouldn’t neglect your personal life and needs - but that’s easier said than done. As every entrepreneur and busy professional knows, sometimes we have no choice but to bring work home. Your responsibilities can’t always be left at the office door.

But neglecting your personal needs can ultimately lead to anxiety, stress, depression and psychological burnout. So how do you find the right balance?

The trick to staying sane is defining the non-negotiable. Everyone has something precious in their personal life - whether it’s attending your kid’s rugby games, having Taco Tuesday with your partner, or doing yoga twice a week. Which of these things are essential for your own fulfilment and happiness?

Make a list of the most important non-work activities that occur regularly in your life. For you to be happy and healthy - which things should never, ever be trumped by work? Define these as absolutely non-negotiable, and plan your work schedules to allow this even when disaster strikes.

If you don’t define the non-negotiable, you’ll notice these things gradually start to slide.

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Maintaining a work life balance doesn’t have to be impossible, even for the busiest people. It just takes a little planning, perseverance, and rigidity on the right things.

It’s your life and your career. You choose how they work together.

What are your tips for maintaining a healthy balance?

Further Reading:

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