When it comes to working from anywhere, a zero-mile commute and lunch on demand can’t be beat, but work-life balance and productivity can pose challenges for some.
As we look ahead to the future — whether that’s remote work, office work, or a hybrid of both — prioritizing breaks and working towards achieving balance will be key toward our overall wellness. Dr. Shamsi Iqbal is a Principal Researcher in Microsoft’s Productivity and Intelligence Group in Redmond, Washington, whose work focuses on attention, multitasking and micro-productivity. We spoke with Dr. Iqbal to get the best work-life balance tips to help you power through busy days — and power off afterwards.
1. Set physical boundaries
Walk around your home and be clear on where you work and where you don’t. “Pick a spot and say, ‘this is the work area and as soon as I step out of that area, I do not work anymore,’” says Dr. Iqbal.
Understanding that life happens, give yourself grace if you break the boundaries.
2. Use to-do lists to keep your workday on track
It might seem old school, but to-do lists work. “Once you have your main list,
take each broader goal and break it down into smaller pieces,” she says. Mini tasks can actually boost productivity. This tip is especially helpful when dealing with interruptions. For example, if your child requests something from you that requires you to step away from your main task, ask yourself if there are smaller tasks — like creating email project folders or sending out meeting invites — that you can take on simultaneously.
3. Schedule wisely
Dr. Iqbal references “interruption cost,” which is the time it takes to get back on-task when you’re interrupted midway through. You can reduce interruption cost by planning simple and easy-to-complete tasks during times of day when your colleagues are most likely to send requests.
Likewise, schedule uninterrupted “focus time” into your calendar for intellectually challenging or attention-heavy tasks. “If there’s a need for me to get some focus work done, I start my day a little earlier so that I have an hour or so when it’s quiet and I can just get my head down and work,” advises Dr. Iqbal. Make sure to get those extra hours back elsewhere in the day or week.
She also recommends scheduling breaks into your workday. At Microsoft, employees start video conferences five minutes past the hour, so people get a breather between meetings. Scheduling your breaks can help you reset and recharge. “Take a short walk, stretch, check in on family members, or simply take deep breaths and do nothing. That’s also important,” she says.
4. Have fewer meetings
If you’ve experienced “Zoom fatigue,” you’re not alone. “Research shows that the number of meetings in a day has increased, leaving employees with less time to focus and do their own work,” says Dr. Iqbal. Video meetings can often leave you feeling exhausted due to the fact they “take more cognitive processing” since we have to work harder to read non-verbal cues, like facial expressions.
So, do everyone (including yourself) a favour by considering whether that scheduled meeting is really necessary. Could an email, chat or phone call work just as well?
5. Create an end-of-workday ritual
Without that commute home, it can be harder to transition out of work mode. Try using an end-of-workday ritual to flip that switch. For Dr. Iqbal, it’s creating tomorrow’s to-do list. “That’s a signal to myself that the day has ended. I have created this list for the next day, so that I’m not thinking about what I haven’t done today.”
Incorporating the same ritual each day is a great way to normalize work-life balance. Whether your end-of-day move is crafting a to-do list, streaming a 5 p.m. yoga class, or sipping drinks in the backyard is up to you.