The idea of work/life balance isn't anything new to a lot of you. In today's fast-paced world, the demands of the corporate environment become greater as your responsibilities grow. In a recession period or in a down economy, those things become even more demanding. Your time gets eaten away and suddenly it starts to encroach upon the time you're supposed to spend outside of work doing other things. Suddenly, you have less time for family, social life, hobbies, etc. How do you balance responsibilities both inside and outside of work?
9-to-5 Doesn't Exist for the IT Worker
Not enough time?
First of all, understand that the realm of information technology operates beyond the normal 9-to-5 that has traditionally defined the common work day in North America. In fact it operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I.T. never sleeps, and at some point someone has to be maintaining the ship to make sure nothing goes wrong. Managed services, as in those services still managed by administrators, continue to play a big role in I.T. This leads most of us to work past the 5 o'clock deadline where everyone else makes a mad dash home. Naturally, this makes us feel miserable. We miss our home. We miss our families. We have resort to things like PVRs to catch our favourite show. We work late and get home even later, and there's just not enough time to do things such as make a proper dinner or even clean up after ourselves. Then, we get to bed late, and have to wake up just as early as everyone else and make the long trek to work so that we can support our users the next morning.
Wash, rinse, repeat ad naseum.
So how exactly do we tackle this problem? How do you find the time to make the time? Good news, there are several ways that I have found that helped me keep my head above water.
Automate everything you can.
Schedule things in advance. Set time limits for those activities.
Prioritize work, prioritize "not work".
Take a breather once in awhile.
Learn to say no.
Let's look at these in detail.
Automate Everything You Can
You're a smart cookie, otherwise you wouldn't be in I.T., right? Use every single tool, technology, and technique in order to make your day go by easier. Automate paying your bills by timing them when your paycheques are deposited. Automate your investments in the same fashion (pay yourself first). Use Outlook 2010? Abuse the Quick Steps to automate your email processes. Like coffee? Prepare your coffee maker the night before and program it to get you a fresh cup every morning. Every spare minute you can save is another minute you can spend doing what you want to do.
Schedule Things in Advance. Set Time Limits for Those Activities
Chances are you're using Outlook or some form of email client with calendaring features. List all your tasks in your calendar and set durations for them so that you're only working on them for set periods of time. When that time is up, STOP. Then move onto the next task. This of course will not apply to situations of complete crisis where the duration of tasks are "until problem fixed" (e.g. data center failures). But, this technique covers most situations especially when you have a multitude of short tasks to complete. This also goes for scheduling time with family, friends, etc. Which leads me to the next point.
Prioritize Work, Prioritize "Not Work"
I've learned to prioritize work tasks in the form of severity and impact:
What is the severity of the task, is there a workaround or does this completely halt the system? If it's the latter, let's deal with this NOW.
What is the impact of it, does it affect only one user or many? If it's everyone in the company, all hands on deck.
Does the CEO really need his iPhone connected to Exchange over ActiveSync ASAP, or can I get the rest of his 500 users' Blackberries going on the BES first before working on his problem?
You need to ruthlessly order things so that you don't drive yourself insane with the multitude of incoming tasks. You are well aware that they often come fast and furious, and by gauging their severity and impact you will be better prepared in dealing with these issues.
On the flip side, you should be treating things that you want to do outside of work as priority as well. I think we as I.T. workers tend to place emphasis on "success no matter what the cost" in our daily job. Success at the expense of others is failure however. If your marriage or relationship with family suffers due to the time you spend working, it just isn't worth it. Worse, your personal and mental health may suffer, and that's unacceptable. You need to treat your life outside of work with equal if not greater priority. Give time to others and enjoy life outside of the grid, and you will find yourself less stressed and happy overall.
Take a Breather Once in Awhile
Sometimes, I.T. feels like a sprint. But in reality, it's a marathon. You need to have the ability to keep sustained energy levels for long periods of time in order to keep those neurons firing in your brain. Problem solving takes lots of brainpower and your body needs a break. If you know that it's going to be a long day, schedule breaks to decompress and de-stress (you're using your calendar tools, right?). If you can, find a quiet place somewhere for a 15-minute power nap to reinvigorate yourself. Pro-tip: Just make sure that you don't do this in the server room, and set an alarm.
Learn To Say No
This is often the most difficult thing to do as it requires confronting your boss. Some people feel that it's the equivalent of telling him/her to shove it when you state that you cannot complete a task or are unwilling to do so. Listen, this is OKAY. Just provide a good reason to your superiors that you cannot complete this task based on X or Y and you're fine. Obviously, "I'm tired" isn't an acceptable excuse. Everyone else on your team is tired too, especially if they have been working just as hard as you to bring that server back online. But when your boss schedules more work than is available in the week, you know that you've got a good reason to say no. That work can't be done unless they want a significant drop in output quality.
Saying no can also mean turning off your mobile when you get home. I know that you've got a Blackberry or an Android phone, and chances are you might be reading your work email sitting from the comfort of your living room. That's just inviting more stress onto yourself, because you can't help but feel obligated to act upon what you've read. Remember, if the goal is balance you can't be "on" all the time. Let it go and turn off the phone. Spend time away from the grind and come back tomorrow re-energized and ready to kick some butt. Take control of your life and say no when you need to.
We Need to Be More Efficient
In order to find work/life balance in the field of I.T. we need to continually work towards optimizing our daily habits to be able to find the time for everything and everyone. It sounds like more work, but in reality these strategies listed above have helped me greatly over the past several years. If you're able to leverage some of the tips outlined prior you'll be better able to deal with being pulled in many different directions. Suddenly, you'll have more time to accomplish things, and ultimately that is what will matter most in keeping your sanity levels in check.
Thanks for reading, please feel free to leave a comment here or on Twitter (@AndreGarde).