Work-Life Balance: Tips From The Community

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Ricky Onsman has been a freelance web designer, developer, writer and editor for over 20 years. A former Managing Editor at SitePoint and Web Directions, he … More about Ricky ↬

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How do you get the most out of both your career and your personal life? The most important thing to note when thinking about work-life balance is that it is different for everyone. While there may a perfect solution for an individual in any given time, place and work situation, it is almost certain to be different for another individual – by a degree that can be tiny or enormous. Ricky Onsman asked the community to share their tips and advice on achieving a healthy work-life balance, and this is what they had to say.

In order to encourage web professionals to consider some of the key points of their working lives in this still nascent industry, we asked folks on Twitter and Facebook to share their best work-life balance tips that worked really well for them. We received lots of responses: most very sensible, many very insightful, some quite unexpected and a few deliberately tongue-in-cheek.

The most important thing to note when thinking about work-life balance is that it is different for everyone. While there may a perfect solution for an individual in any given time, place and work situation, it is almost certain to be different for another individual – by a degree that can be tiny or enormous.

What we’re looking for, then, is not a single way of approaching work-life balance but suggestions from the community as to what works for them. You may well pick up a tip or two that positively affect your own work-life balance, and your suggestion might help someone else out.

Productivity Tips And Tricks

How's your year going so far? Are you as productive as you were hoping to be? Folks from the community also shared their best productivity tips — perhaps there's one you'd like to try to help yourself keep your New Year's Resolution? Read a related article →

There are overall themes and lines of thinking that emerge in our community responses, and we’ll organize them into groups for this article. I’ll also add some thoughts of my own to these, as I live and work in a situation that allows me to often do what is least recommended – but it works brilliantly for me.

Let’s work our way from the simplest and easiest to implement to the more complex and potentially challenging suggestions.

Control Your Devices

A large group of folks focused on managing devices and hardware. This makes a lot of sense. In some ways, we are fortunate to work in an industry where we not only have some truly remarkable hardware and software at our disposal – digital tools of immense power – but we can to some extent control these tools to behave in ways we’d like them to. For some, the key to a good balance between work and life lies in exercising that control.

That included simply turning them off, either partially or completely, or configuring them to be less intrusive.

Let’s see what the community had to say:

“Phone on flight mode in the evenings/night.”Chris Heilmann
“I keep my phone on ‘do not disturb’ nearly all of the time (unless I’m expecting an important call)”Dan Claydon
“No email notifications on phone”Joe Lambert
“My primary phone is on DnD all the time. I have a separate number for family if they have to reach out to me. No one else except family members will ever get that number.”Jayman Pandya
“I don't autosync business email on my phone - it has to be a manual sync.”(((Chris Hoult)))
“DND mode on a separate phone I reserve for work.”Krystal Higgins
“When on holiday my auto-reply says that all emails sent during my holiday will not be read and advises to send the email after. It already has saved me countless of hours reading and replying to email. I can access Skype on my phone (the messaging app of choice at my company), but it doesn't send push notifications or doesn't show a badge. When it's really, really urgent, call me.”Paul van den Dool
“No slack on my phone, if it's urgent people can text or call me.”Julian Norton
“I keep my cell number private, and I don't have my business email account on my phone. Also, I just sent an email to my main clients telling them I'll be out of the country and unavailable over the holidays.”Colm Delaney
“Attention and time are finite resources - how you invest them determines your returns in life. Turn off notifications /manual sync /use flight-mode - unless something critical is expected. Separate phones for work and private. Be present. Life fully now.”Ben Seymour

A variation on the theme of devices was to remove work software from non-work devices.

“Maintaining regular work hours. No work-related apps on my personal phone. (Yes, that includes work email.)”Tammy Everts
“No work related communication tools (mails, messengers etc. pp.) on private devices. Dress up (as if going into the office) when working remote.”Christian Sharaf
“I don't sync business emails on my personal phones. I keep slack on it though for emergencies.”PierreAdrien Buisson
“Right now: no social media / messengers during work; airplane mode during work; no work email / IMs etc. on personal devices. Soon: separate computers for work and after work”Mariusz

A third variation on managing devices was to physically separate yourself from work devices.

“Computers, smartphones, tablets, laptops in a different room than my bedroom.”Deborah Edwards-Onoro
“I also leave my work laptop in the office - if I need to work out of hours, I have to come in (I'm 10 minutes' drive away).”(((Chris Hoult)))
“An entire day away from my PC”almeida tercero
“And this one is a luxury: for my home office, I built a separate studio, so I have to walk to the back of my garden to access my work computer.”Tammy Everts
“Get a dedicated office outside the house/join a coworking space had the most profound effect for me by far.”Greg Blass

My Take: Part of my work is to provide comprehensive web services to a small portfolio of clients who pay me an annual fee to design, build, host, expand, refine and generally manage their web presence. If a client website is down, I need to fix it — pronto. If a client has a question or a task for me, I want to know what that task is ASAP. For that reason, I tend to keep my devices on – although typically silent – while I’m awake and my software configured to alert me to any notifications.

The thing is, in my situation, notifications simply allow me to decide whether to complete a task and when. If I get a text message or an email while I’m watching TV with the kids, I’ll look at it and decide whether I need to respond immediately. Ninety-nine times out of 100, it can wait. But I want to know, in case that one time in a hundred is critical and requires immediate action. Note that my clients pay a premium for this service and it’s easy for me to do.

Commit To Non-Work Activities

A different group of tips (although, as you will have noticed, there’s quite a bit of overlap between these groups) focused on making specific time for non-work activities.

The key here seems to be to make a commitment. We all have things we like to do that help us wind down, but we often let the time for that slide by while we’re busy getting work done: staying longer at the office, completing work tasks at home, and working over the weekend.

The activities themselves are varied and obviously should reflect your personal interests. Community suggestions included games, hobbies, physical exercise, meditation, children, pets and more. The main point is that they are not, by any definition, work.

“I am bad at this, but I have (mostly) managed to reserve Thursday night as games night for Dungeons and Dragons/board games. The lack of computers has been good for me. Also I put my phone in DnD mode after 7pm, I'm allowed to look at it but I don't get pinged.”Mandy Michael
“I've just invested in Settlers of Catan and a bunch of expansions. I don't get time for board games and I want that to change.”John Lombardo
“Physical workouts ~4 times a week + get yourself a dog 🐶Kevin Lorenz
“Exercise before or after work. (Sweat it out)”Salvador Sadona
“Consistent, hard workouts before work to start the day positive, all phone notifications off, and time tracking + actually calling it quits when you hit your hours for the day/week.”Shutter Club Creative
“Schedule breaks in your calendar and clear your head with a walk. ☀️🌲”Katrin Freihofner
“Surfing”Tom Fletcher
“Meditate meditate meditate”Nils Huber
“Meditation. And choosing the fucks to give wisely.”Ronny Pries
“Kids & Hobbies.”Fabian Tempel
“Kids”Sven Wolfermann
“My dog really helped me. Every day he needs walked, so that means I get outside & get walked, too. He also needs fun on the weekends, so I also get fun on the weekends. When I take care of him, I'm also caring for myself. Mutually beneficial. 😀”Erin Weigel

My Take: This is something I agree with and generally find easy to implement. Having two teenage children helps, requiring varying levels of direct and indirect participation in a range of sporting and cultural events, but I also play some sport myself and have a couple of other structured, social leisure activities, as well as random family board games, movie nights and outings. I also have a dog, a Border Collie, and I completely agree with Erin Weigel.

Manage Your Time

Allowing, again, for overlaps, there was a distinct group of tips that focused on how we divide and use our time, on an hourly, daily, weekly or longer basis. They acknowledge that the clock doesn’t have to rule our lives but can be a good tool for achieving balance.

“Don't do any work stuff before you get to the office. Wake up and invest time on you/your family/partner /etc. Your brain is fresh and full of energy. Use it for something else. Work can wait.”Diego La Manno
“Regular breaks, chat to people to stimulate ideas/creativity, little nap in the afternoon if you can, a nice long walk during lunch, most importantly don’t touch the laptop at home after work unless for booking flights :)”Alessandro Santese
“Work from home, 9am - 3pm, Tues-Thurs, lunch break 12-1pm, the rest go without laptop and phone as much as possible, if too rocky a transition then meditate when transitioning from work to home. Hug family members when you first see them after work. Forget work and Enjoy.”Great2BNate
“Spend a lot of time with partner, family, friends or whoever reminds you that there’s more to life than just work. Side projects, learning things, looking at screens or books, that’s all work.”Simon Minter
“Work harder in the beginning of the week to get your stuff done. Coast to the weekend instead of being stressed Thurs and Fri.”ʞıʇdoɹǝqıɥd
“Half an hour at the beach is more than just half an hour away from your desk. It's as good as an hour's break 🏖️ And you can multitask and get a nap in while you're there”Amy
“First put the things you love to do to your calendar and only after that plan your work week.”Kari Riihelä
“Never, ever, take work home. Ever.”David Walker
“Forget about work once you step out of the office.“grei
“Strictly no overtime and no regular travel at work.”Antonio Radovčić
“No work at all outside of Monday-Friday 9-5, sounds simple but I’m lucky to have a job where that’s possible and encouraged.”Beth Fraser
“Always work 9-5 no matter if you’re working in the office or from home, self employed or remote working.”Robin de Jongh
“If you work for yourself, as I did for years, it’s really hard. It really comes down to being honest about how much time a job will truly require when you bid for the job. In-house, it’s all about communicating required tasks to your boss and teammates, they can help enforce priority”Mike Rapp
“Become freelance and restrict yourself to only working 200 days a year. If you’re ahead of target then there is no need to worry about the cost of a day off.”David J. Bradshaw

My Take: This is where my experience defies all or most of the tips and suggestions offered. I work from home as a freelancer, a web designer, developer, writer. My wife is a writer and editor who also works from home. We have two high school teenagers at home, and we live 100 miles or so south of the big city of Sydney, Australia. My day is a jigsaw puzzle of work tasks and home tasks, following no real schedule other than doing what needs to be done, whether it’s a client job or a household chore, each often to a non-negotiable timetable. I juggle work tasks and home tasks interchangeably. Frankly, they are just all tasks to me. Some, I get paid for. Some keep my family housed, fed, clothed, educated and entertained. It all has to be done, and it all gets done.

I must acknowledge that I have specific advantages. Having done this for over 20 years, I have put together a reliable, secure home office with all the tools I need to work. I live in a house big enough to accommodate two people working without tripping over each other. 90% of my work is done remotely (the exception being face-to-face meetings with clients), and I deliberately seek out and take such work. I’m also fortunate that I genuinely and absolutely love what I do, and how I get to do it. I doubt that I will or even could hold down a regular job again.

I do also believe that my situation is becoming increasingly common and increasingly viable for many people. A lot of those people may well find setting clear divisions between home and work tasks is beneficial, or even necessary. Others may find an approach similar to the one I use is more effective. It all depends.

Change Your Thinking

Some people offered suggestions aimed at changing the way we think about work and lowering its priority in our lives. We’re getting into the bigger picture here and, perhaps as a consequence, some of these tips will only work for some people – but they might all help you to reflect on your own situation.

“Start by calling it life-work balance to emphasise where your priority is.”David J. Bradshaw
“Work-life is wrong as work is a big part in our life, those are not equal.”Georg Ringer
“I find that keeping myself sane at work keeps me sane in life. To do so, I have to take time at work to step back and evaluate. Admit when I’m overwhelmed and slowly create a plan. Don’t fear a moment’s non-productivity. Be a great human, not a mediocre machine.”Jason Katzwinkel
“Do as your wife says. Happy wife, happy me :D”Matic Krajnc
“Constantly remind yourself that there is MORE to life than your job. Learn to prioritize, by planning your schedule. Never forget to set long term goals (build up relationships, improve self, etc) so you don’t spend time on wrong thigs 😊”anna jane matillano
“Swap from automobile to bicycle will change ur life, not spending more than u need and giving the rest, learn how to play an instrument, sing! Be kind and talk with people!”Juan Sarmiento
“Offline Saturday, no more than 10-11 hours of code per day. So you can sustain longer before burnout 😊 Oh and B vitamins”Dmitriy Shekhovtsov
“Work when you're motivated.”Thack
“Retirement ... lol”issyr photography
“Code early. Done by 3pm. Long walk. Watch sunset. Not a care in the world. Turned 70 this year.”Ron Richardson
“I treat work as a side job and life as my real job”jsonb

My Take: Once I put myself in a position of pitching for work and undertaking several projects at once, it became necessary to think about “work” in a different way. I developed strategies and techniques that inevitably affected my work-life balance. I’m now very comfortable living a life defined not by what is work and what isn’t, but simply by what needs to be done at any given time.

Over To You

Quite a few people gave us lists that included several of the individual points made by others (you can read more of these posts on Twitter and SmashingMag’s Facebook page). We’d be delighted should you care to contribute the strategies you use to find a reasonable work-life balance.

You are also very welcome to add your tips in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (vf, ra, il, mrn)