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Advocate for Your Own Work-Life Balance

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working woman

I work in an industry where evening and weekend work is just part of the gig. I have no idea what it’s like to have a 9-to-5, Monday through Friday job. Even though my industry is one with non-traditional hours, and I’ve had my fair share of issues carving a life for myself outside of my work identity, I’ve come to learn that the nuances of my work environment have made all the difference in how I feel about the time I spend working.

I’ve also learned that while my work may demand a lot of my time, the person who is most responsible for choosing whether I work or go home is me—and I need to own that.

Avoiding burnout

In my first job out of grad school, I ran myself into the ground. So much so that I only spent two years working directly in the field in which I had just invested thousands of dollars’ worth of tuition. I only expected to be in this job for two to three years to help build a new functional area and to overhaul another one. There was a lot of work to be done, and I was an eager, energetic new grad ready to dive in. I made the assumption that I needed to do all of it before I left the job, which left me exhausted and suffering a pretty heavy depression. Where a lot of progress had been made, all I saw was how much there was to do, and I felt like I was failing.

Six months after I left the job, I was indulging some nostalgia by perusing the website of my old employer, and I realized that I’d had a hand in creating every single program that appeared on it. Only then did I realize how much I had accomplished.

Lessons learned:

  1. It’s a bad idea to start a job with an end date already in mind. It boxes you in and may create unrealistic expectations.
  2. Stephen Covey was on to something when he talked about sharpening the saw. Even if you’re invested in what you’re doing and the work seems fun, if you don’t take care of yourself in the process, you dull the things that make you so great.
  3. No amount of work product is going to make you feel like you are “enough,” and spending time at work to fill a void is dangerous. Check yourself and your motivations for the pace you’re keeping. Trying to prove your self-worth through productivity and exhaustion is completely self-defeating.

Setting boundaries

In my next job, I was able to dial it back to more standard 40-hour work weeks. I felt productive at work and enjoyed it, but I struggled with the work culture. It was clear that time in the office was valued and respected. It was equated with passion, but this was in direct conflict with the lifestyle I was trying to cultivate for myself. Though I knew my work was respected, I felt pressure to be there.

What the organization valued and what I valued were simply different. I either had to choose to try to make them work, or find something that fit a little better.

Lessons learned:

  1. When you do good work, you can set boundaries on your time and people won’t question it.
  2. Remember that boundaries come with tradeoffs. Even when no one is questioning your work, you may notice that the opinions of those staying late carry a little more weight. And if decisions are being made in doorway conversations late at night and you aren’t there, that means decisions are being made without you. Only you can decide if you’re okay with that.
  3. Just because you don’t have a partner or kids at home doesn’t mean your non-work life is less important than the lives of your partnered coworkers. At least once a week, make an appointment that requires you to leave the office—dinner with a friend, ballet barre at the gym, etc. I once had a friend who got a dog simply so she would have a reason to go home at night. Whatever it takes to create the life you want to have.

Being comfortable with complexity

When I made the move to my current role—a senior position leading a growing team—I found a great environmental fit for me. The key has been working with people who don’t define themselves by their jobs. These are people who work diligently and genuinely to be successful at work and put enough physical, mental and emotional space between it as well. Admittedly, we aren’t always so good at it. It can be a challenge to manage increasingly complex work while leading a large team. Once you take on a leadership role, and know others are taking their cues from you, the pressure is a little different.

Lessons learned:

  1. Every day, somebody’s needs are not going to be met. Sometimes they’ll be your coworker’s, sometimes they’ll be your family’s, sometimes they’ll be a client’s and sometimes they’ll be your own. The goal is to make sure the same party doesn’t get neglected all the time.
  2. Trust people to do good work and give them some freedom in setting their schedules. When you place value on quality work and reinforce it, people will put in the time. As long as our team is there during business hours, we give them the flexibility to shift as needed to accommodate for late-night conference calls or extensive travel.
  3. Encourage and celebrate healthy choices. When a team member is in the midst of a long run of evenings and weekends, I ask when—not if—he or she plans to take a couple of days off. When we’re coordinating a work trip and a possible date conflicts with the half-marathon a team member is running, we work around it. We congratulate people when they set dates for vacation. It lets people know we value their time, both in and out of the office.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned has been to stop seeing balance as something to be achieved and sustained. I’ve had to let go of the idea that I’ll be able to work, go to the gym, see friends, go on dates, eat balanced home-cooked meals and have “me time” all over the course of a one-week period. Sometimes it’s a more social week. Sometimes work eclipses everything. As long as I get to do all of those things over a one- to three-month period of time, I feel like I get what I need.

How do you set your work-life balance standards? Share your tips in the comments!

This post originally appeared on Levo League.

Abbie Schneider is a non-profit manager with experience in higher education. She believes that organizational culture is the greatest influence on workplace performance, and her work is focused on the intersection of instructional design, talent development, succession planning and organizational change. Abbie holds a bachelor’s degree in English and Women’s Studies from Elon University and a master’s degree in Education and Human Development from The George Washington University. A creative at heart, she enjoys all forms of storytelling and expression.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.