Diana Urban has always struggled with work-life balance, but it wasn't until the executive at inbound marketing software company HubSpot started travelling abroad that she realized how severe the problem was. She had never left the United States until meeting her husband and their subsequent travels to Europe made her realize how large the world is, and how much in life there is to experience besides being stuck in an office or on your laptop.
She also found Europeans have a better handle on work-life balance than North Americans.
"It's hard to generalize because there are ambitious Europeans who work a lot too, but for the most part I've seen cultures where they take real lunch breaks, or even siestas, don't stay at work past 5 to 6 p.m., and take the entire month of August off from work. They seem to enjoy life in a way that many Americans have forgotten how to – they can sit at a cafe or pub for hours in the evening, chatting with friends, without feeling this overwhelming guilt about not checking their work e-mail. It's refreshing," she said in an e-mail interview.
As an author in her spare time – she has written Stealing Paris, a young adult novel – she had a second compelling reason to get her work under control: To find time to devote to her fiction. She tried some techniques that might help you, even if you aren't writing a novel.
Take your work e-mail off your phone. She used to wake up and immediately reach for the phone, inevitably finding something disturbing that would stress her out. "What a horrible way to start the day!" she writes on her blog. Taking her work e-mail off her phone, she learned, was like going cold turkey. Since it's easy to reconnect, the temptation is always there, as it is with smoking. Perhaps someone has an urgent question you should answer? But after a week, she says, you realize nothing has collapsed as a result of you being unavailable in the evenings and on weekends. Your colleagues don't really notice when you reply at 9:30 a.m. instead of 9:30 p.m. the night before, since they stopped checking their e-mail after 10 p.m. The temptation dissipates.
Use your work laptop to do only work-related stuff. And remove all your work-related stuff, including your work e-mail address, from your home computer.
Only check into work at work. Don't check your work e-mail from home unless you are working from home that day. And do so with your work laptop. You want a divide between your work and personal life. She warns in the interview that taking work home, even occasionally, is "like someone who quit smoking asking, 'Why shouldn't I smoke the occasional cigarette when I'm stressed?' You might laugh, but stress from being overworked causes health issues just like smoking does. In my opinion, you need to create a clean break between work life and home life."
Leave work when you're done. Don't hang around until what seems like the correct time, reading Facebook when you are actually done for the day. She admits she is lucky that HubSpot is a flexible company, and the pressure she feels to stay late is all in her head. "My first two jobs out of college were very much about the hours you spent in the office, and it's unfortunate. I think that times are changing, though, and executives are realizing the value of work-life balance," she said.
Make the most of your time at work. If all your work is to be done at work, maximize your effort and focus there. Get in the zone, and stay there for as long as you can. Eat at your desk and stay off Facebook – but don't be antisocial.
Avoid wasted corporate chat. Don't get sucked into gossip or colleagues venting about others, in person or through instant messaging. Ignore such messages, or put up your "Do not disturb" notification. The time you spend on such stuff just keeps you at work longer. Griping about work just creates a toxic environment and makes you less motivated to work to your fullest.
Buy great headphones. Invest in noise-cancelling headphones to keep you free of distractions and send a signal to others that you are focused on work. "Keeping your headphones off is basically an invitation for people to bug you about something," she writes.
Turn off e-mail alerts. If you're in the middle of a project, only check e-mail every half hour or hour. She also finds that when she keeps her browser minimized, she completes more work.
Decline a meeting invitation if you're not needed. Stay away from meetings that others can handle without you. E-mail the meeting convener when you're wary: "If you really need me here, please send me an agenda and I'll drop by when I'm needed." She declines one or two meetings a week. "Declining meetings doesn't have to be an 'I'm too important for this meeting' statement. Instead it can be a 'How can we all be more efficient with our time?' statement," she said.
She warns that working 10 to 12 hours a day won't guarantee success or a promotion – but it might lead to burnout. "People are more in control over their balance than they think," she said. "People sometimes seem to prefer complaining and feeling trapped to acknowledging that they can take steps to better their situations."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter