Making a Work Plan Work for You
Most people spend enormous amounts of time on trivialities that are unnecessary at the moment. This means the truly important matters get pushed aside. If this happens often enough you might find yourself moving from one deadline or scheduling crisis to another. "Dan" was one such person who came to counseling for stress-related concerns.
Dan told me how he spends most of his evenings and weekends at work trying to stay ahead of his workload. His wife and children resented his employer because his work responsibilities left him little time at home. After asking Dan to tell me about his job and specific responsibilities I asked him to tell me how he organized his daily time. He said his normal work hours were always 8-5 so there was no reason to keep any kind of calendar. It was not a calendar I was interested in, but in how he prioritized his workload for a given day. He had no plan. In fact, after I asked him to keep an hourly log of his work time for an entire week, he found that he was spending an average 2-3 hours a day chatting with co-workers, checking email, filing documents, and answering the phone. None of which was essential to his main job description.
With practice, he was eventually able to turn that "wasted" time into productive accomplishment. This resulted in him rarely needing to work overtime, gave him much more time with his family, and restored a sense of work/life balance that produced more satisfaction with his job.
An effective work plan includes both job and personal life events. It involves recording on paper what the events, projects, and commitment are, realistically estimating how much time each will take, and plotting your course of action to accomplish them. By putting this on paper, you make the plan concrete. If you want to increase the likelihood that you will stick with your plan, tell someone who will hold you accountable for it.
As helpful as making a work plan is to creating work/life balance, it can easily be derailed if you don't practice the next idea.
Learn to say "no" to urgent demands
There is no shortage of urgent requests that confront us in a normal day. Some of these, no doubt, must be attended to. But many, if not most, only have the appearance of needing immediate attention. I've found that people who tend to let urgent requests run their schedules interpret these requests by others as obligations instead of choices. I'll use an example from a student I'll call Gloria who recently attended one of my stress-management workshops.
Gloria told the class that she was stressed out because she had so many "troubled people in her life that constantly needed her." Every day a new "emergency," as she called it, would come up, taking her away from her job, family, or other responsibilities. One of the other students asked her why she felt she needed to be the caretaker for all of these people. Her response: "Because these people depend on me. They have no one else." Another student asked, "Why don't you occasionally say 'no' to them; telling them you have personal commitments that keep you from helping at that moment?" She began to cry and said, "I don't feel like I have the option to do what's best for me."
After interacting with Gloria for a day, I would call her a classic "people-pleaser." She rearranges her life to accommodate others so they will like her and give her the respect she longs for. The problem is not her desire to help others, but her willingness to disrupt her life when someone makes a request. She doesn't give herself the option to say 'no.' As a result, her health is poor, her family is in disarray, and she's at risk of losing her job.
It's perfectly acceptable to say 'no' to urgent requests that come your way. Don't say 'yes' when that small voice inside is screaming 'no.' Respect your time and your limited energy. If responding to a discretionary "emergency" means you are inviting unwelcome stress, forces you to waver from your work plan, or puts you in a position you don't want to be in, simply say 'no.' Elaborate explanations of why you can't accommodate them are not necessary.
Breaking free of overwork tendencies is more about changing what happens inside of you than trying to change your environment. The truth is, we live in a stressful, demanding culture. None of us can do much to change that. But you can change how focused you are to accomplish the work that is most important to you, and choose those things that are in your best interest. And that's a great start to toward a satisfying work/life balance.