Workplace

Five Ways to Grow Your Career Without Sacrificing Work-Life Balance

Having a strong handle on your schedule, your stress level, and how much you’re attempting to lift can help you maintain an upwardly mobile career path while protecting your home life in the process.

If you aspire to be upwardly mobile in your career—maybe even someday taking a CEO post or another executive role at an association—you might think you’ll have to give up some important things to get there.

That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, if you have the right strategy to manage everything. We talked to two career experts who shared ideas for protecting your personal life—even as your ambitious goals might indicate a schedule that stretches beyond the 9-to-5.

1. Understand the Warning Signs of Overwork

If you’re pushing too hard, you often feel it, according to Cynthia Mills, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of The Leaders’ Haven. She said to watch for actions that seem out of character.

“Being self-aware is essential,” she said. “Noticing when personal behaviors aren’t consistent with your norm—lashing out at family or colleagues, or making decisions without proper research, collaboration, and consultation just to get it off the list.”

That’s not the only risk of going full-throttle all the time. “When we push too hard, our attitude shifts, and we lose our joy in work,” she said, adding that over a long period, overwork can make it harder to complete simple tasks.

2. Focus Your Output

Sharon Givens, board president of the National Career Development Association and a professional career counselor, explained that while you may have a tendency to go in a lot of different directions, you can become overwhelmed if you spread yourself too thin.

One way to avoid this is to emphasize one or two territories as you continue to develop, positioning you to excel at those tasks.

“One of the major mistakes—of course, we all want to grow—is that we don’t narrow our focus,” Givens said. “That means that we’re trying to go in a lot of different directions—I always say, trying to climb a lot of different ladders.”

Another advantage of a narrowed focus is that it allows you to, well, focus. Mills points to author Cal Newport, who argues that busywork takes a toll on our ability to think with depth.

“Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness, and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work,” Newport wrote in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

3. Maintain Control of Your Schedule

Givens noted that it’s easy to be pulled in different directions by your team, adding to the challenge of work-life balance. She said it’s important to maintain freedom around your schedule.

“I always say, be the captain of your own ship, and I think that makes the difference, instead of allowing people to dictate all your tasks and your entire schedule,” she said.

Mills emphasized that without aligning your values with your time, you’re at risk of burnout. “No one else is going to outline or make these choices for us. It’s up to us to define them, act upon them, and be aware of the consequences of those choices,” she said.

4. Set Guardrails for Your Personal Life If Needed

Mills and Givens both said that guardrails are important if you’re trying to protect your mental health and your free time. But Mills noted that not everyone operates the same way.

“Some professionals prefer what they describe as an integrated life, which to others may look like there are no barriers, because they choose to work a few hours on a weekend so they [can take time] off for something personal during the week,” she said.

One example of how different boundaries can play out: On vacation, one person may choose to check in with work every few days to avoid an onslaught of messages upon returning, while others prefer unplugging for the week and dealing with all messages after they get back.

Givens added that leaders can implement teamwide guardrails to help establish the need for free time. “The leader can say, we’re not going to do calls on Saturday, we’re not going to do calls at 7 p.m.,” she said.

But ultimately, there are limits to what others can do. “We also have to take responsibility for our own discipline—put the phone down,” Mills said. “Turn the laptop off.”

5. Consider Using an Employee Assistance Program

Given the growing level of stress many employees face, it’s important for people who are feeling the strain to talk to someone who can help them work through difficult moments or highlight warning signs.

Employee assistance programs are one increasingly popular option for this kind of check-in. Givens said many employers have started more actively promoting their EAPs.

“Many companies now are actually starting initiatives for employees to get more sessions than they could before for free, because with employee assistance programs, there’s no deductible, no copay,” she said. “They get services with a provider or counselor just to kind of talk about how they’re feeling about what’s happening.”

Talking it over might just be the way you break through in your efforts to strike a balance between your career and your personal life.

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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