Written in October 2014 for Aureus Consulting:
There are a lot of tips and tricks out there for juggling a career and a personal life, and they run the gauntlet from reasonable time management to abject selfishness. But it really all comes down to one thing: knowing when and how to say No.
Knowing when to say ‘No’ is tricky and it’s different for every person because it depends on values. We all need to oscillate between periods of activity and rest, but the type of activity that matters to you and how long you need to rest can vary greatly from the next person. For example, someone who highly values spending time with friends might not understand someone who chooses to study instead of go out on a Friday night. What is more important to you right now: a future goal or living life to the fullest today? Note that the factors we consider when choosing to say No change throughout our lives. You might prioritize working late when you know a promotion is coming up, but then later prioritize spending time with your family because your wife just gave birth or your mother has become ill.
The main enemy to a work-life balance is guilt. Guilt over what you should do. Guilt over taking time for yourself. Guilt over letting down a client or a colleague or a friend. Guilt over not trying as hard as you can. We each only have one life and what you decide to allot the majority of your time to is completely your choice; but don’t waste the limited time you have on feeling guilty over your decision. Allow yourself to fully commit to both your periods of activity and of rest. If you’re working towards a goal, ignore anyone who tells you you’re “working too hard.” And when you go on vacation, go on vacation. Turn off your phone and leave the laptop at home. If you work in an industry that occasionally needs real time responses (like urgent client needs or crisis control), then figure out a system with your co-workers.
Remember: just because you can take on that project at work, doesn’t mean you should. And just because you technically have the time to volunteer to be the leader of your daughter’s Girl Scout troop, doesn’t mean that’s what you should spend that time on. Saying No doesn’t just mean declining to work overtime some days, it also means turning down social events you don’t want to attend. It means understanding what you want and what you need before making a decision or taking action.
While figuring out when it’s right for us to say No is a path we all must forge alone, learning how to say No is much simpler. All you need to say is something along the lines of: “I’m sorry, but I have a lot on my plate and I can’t do that at this time.” Be confident. You don’t owe anyone explanations. As author Elbert Hubbard said, your friends don’t need them and your enemies won’t believe you.