10 strategies for achieving a work-life balance that actually work

Work life balance mud pies in backyard
Mud cupcakes in our backyard

First up, I think it’s funny anyone would ask me about managing family and work life

Last week after I asked what you would all like me to write about here, two readers asked for ideas on how I manage the whole work-life balance thing.

My first thought was that I kind of don’t. The word ‘balance’ carries with it a sense that I’m doing something tricky that requires care and precision and planning. The truth is that I’m just not that kind of person.

So the short answer to ‘how do I do it all?’ is that I don’t. I don’t do it all and I don’t have it all together – never have!

That said, I have picked up a few good habits that make this life of lots of work and lots of children doable. There are some things I do all the time because they actually work.

What is work-life balance?

Here’s a bit about me in case you’re new here. I’m a married mother of five children aged 15 years down to six. Last month marked a year since I began working full time as a journalist for The Catholic Weekly. Before that, I worked part-time for them for a few months. Otherwise, since 2006 I either freelanced or worked part-time averaging around three-25 hours a week of paid work. Then there’s all the equally important unpaid work of caregiving, housework, volunteering etc. which could easily add up to another full-time job.

For me, working part-time totally wore me down as I tried to keep across everything at once. I was bad at setting boundaries, was ridiculously overworked and our bank balance kept creeping in the wrong direction anyway.

Committing to a 38-hour a week role meant that for me, my priorities week to week are that I do what I need to keep sane, our kids have what they need and that I do a good job at work. That’s it. After that, everything is a bonus.

Making this mental shift has really helped me to make decisions about where to set boundaries – what is really important to me and what I can let slide at least for now.

When we talk about balance we mean how we feel about our daily lives, whether we feel overwhelmed or that we’re travelling ok or even great. As such, it matters less how many hours of work (paid or unpaid) we do, and more about how we feel about the way we’re spending our time each day.

I don’t have a perfect situation or carefully calibrated balance. There are weak spots through our typical weeks that cause stress. But overall it’s been manageable.
Here are the 10 things my husband and I do that make it possible for us to do work we enjoy that pays the bills and also feel we’ve got a full family life.

Here are 10 things that help me keep some kind of balance between work and life

  1. Get support. My husband and I see ourselves as equal partners and often I forget how fortunate that really is. Again – we don’t get it all right but when it comes to family logistics there’s a lot I don’t have to think about.
    He organises the pick-ups and drop-offs for sport and other activities each week, looks after all the techy stuff around the house, and will iron shirts, cook meals, pick up groceries, look after the lawn etc.
    And he allows me to vent when I need to, as does my mum and my friends – that’s very important!
    We share carpooling duties with parents of our kids’ friends which is essential too. And extended family and friends are very generous with support as well – helping with kids’ parties’, giving us meals, handing down good-quality clothing etc. It all helps!
  2. Sleep. I used to stay up late so many nights working after the kids were in bed, now I never head back to the computer at night unless occasionally when there’s something biggish I can’t find time elsewhere for (like doing tax return paperwork or filling out school forms). By 10pm on weeknights, I’m well and truly on my way to bed.
  3. Lower some standards and uphold others. When my 6-year old wants to wear the same shirt four days in a row, so long as it’s not obviously gross I’m going to let it go. Dinners are healthy but really quick and easy to prepare – think good quality sausages and mashed potatoes that the teenagers can cook, simple vegetable soups, or fish fillets thrown in the oven with lemon and pepper and served with a salad.
  4. Outsource. We get a fortnightly cleaning service to look after the kitchen, bathrooms and floors. A wonderful university student comes a couple of afternoons a week to supervise homework, get dinner started and do some ironing.
    The children also have jobs and between them they cover vacuuming out the cars, drying and putting away laundry, cleaning bathrooms and bins, and sweeping the front and back verandahs each week.
    Yes, I pay for all of this, which is a bit painful, but not as painful as my husband and me doing it all ourselves or constantly nagging someone to help. Some nagging of children is still required though…
  5. Limit volunteering. I’ve had to get over my guilt at not putting my hand up to take on extra things I’d like to do or feel like I should do, including volunteering or unpaid but interesting projects. There might be time for that later but there definitely isn’t right now.
  6. Use commuting time. I spend 30 minutes on a bus and 10-minute walk each way. This is the morning routine: I spend the first 15-20 minutes reading and meditating on morning prayer from the Divine Office (the daily prayer of the Catholic Church).
    I then start scanning news stories, checking email, and make my to-do list for the day’s work before getting off the bus and enjoying the short walk to the office.
    Going home I’m usually too tired to think and will just scroll through Facebook or look out the window.
    It’s tempting to feel like that’s wasted time, but it’s a chance to decompress before launching into the dinner, hanging out with the kids and bedtime routine. It’s downtime I didn’t have before.
  7. Try to go with the flow. Easier said than done some weeks or busier times of the year eg. December. I try to remember that life will look different in a year, five, and 10 years from now. If I have a stressful day, well, generally hopefully there’ll be a couple of good days later this week to balance it out.
  8. Enjoy the small moments and weekends. I still feel like we’re doing too much housework on the weekends, I would prefer it got woven in more throughout the week. Seven people in a not-big house equals a lot of housework and there’s no getting around that.
    But we do have fun as well. Last weekend we had a friend for dinner and played board games on Friday, took the kids to a men’s basketball game with friends on Saturday night, and Mass on Sunday.
    My husband took one son to shoot hoops for a while on Sunday afternoon while another son and I hosted a group of children and their parents preparing for First Holy Communion. That was on top of the kids’ usual sport and birthday parties or other social activities they got to go to.
  9. Know the why. It’s helpful to remember why we’re doing all of this in the first place. There will be different reasons for being so busy. Most are obvious, but it’s worth digging a bit deeper for what gives the greatest purpose and meaning to the busy-ness. Then we know what we can ditch and what to keep in our schedule. And we know we’re not just running like rats in treadmill even when we sometimes like we are.
    The ‘why’ for you might be simply to be able to pay the bills. Or to be the best you can be in your personal and/or working life. Or to raise happy and responsible children. To leave the world a better place. To be faithful to your promise when you married. Or just because you just want to have a full and busy life. For me, it’s bit of all of these.
    The deeper reason is my faith. I believe God is with me, and somehow operative, in everything that is genuinely good as well as what is genuinely insane in my life. That bond is everything. God sees me, and understands. It’s how I can get up every morning and keep trying to do each very full day.
  10. Trust. I’ve taken on this work, I’ve prioritised, outsourced, and know my intentions are good. Then I can just do what I need to each week without second-guessing myself. Of course, life changes and things will have to be reviewed from time-to-time. And that’s fine.

There are some things we don’t do that I think we really need to fit in. Like spending time with the two teenagers away from the younger kids. The other is to work in little dates with the husband. A mid-week lunch away from the office sometimes should be easy to do and will probably work. There are some friends and extended family I see regularly, others hardly ever, but that doesn’t need to happen every week, once or twice a month would be nice. So some calibrating needs to be done, but overall, there is some balance.

How about you? I’m sure there are lots of things I haven’t thought of or tried that can make a big life more manageable and enjoyable. Let me know your best tips for balancing work and all the other factors in a way that works for you.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Rasika says:

    Thanks for this post. I’m a mum of 5 too (ages 10-17) needing to go full time work as a teacher. but too anxious about not having the flexibility for the family. I’m constantly thinking how to avoid burn out. Your ‘out sourcing’ tips were very helpful.
    God bless you & your work!
    It’s all worth it!!


    1. Good luck with it Rasika and God bless! You have a higher ratio of teenagers which would come with its own blessings and challenges. Let us know what works for you in avoiding burn out!


  2. ilovesyababe says:

    I read your post on work-life balance strategies and it was enjoyable to read. My life is quite different. I am an English teacher and have one child who is no longer a child as she is over 21. She graduated last week from Journalism and International Communication. My life was hectic when she was at school, but that is no longer the case as she is her own person and quite independent. She lives at home with us but is out most nights enjoying herself.She does Salsa dancing three times a week in the city.
    The students I teach are from Non-English speaking backgrounds and it is a satisfactory job most of the time. I am a home person and I enjoy relaxing at home, having coffee mornings chatting with friends, enjoying the sun and doing some exercise, like walking, yoga and swimming. I love cooking and eating out, trying different cultural foods. Preparing dinner has become easier as time goes on and members are independent. Most nights there is food left over from previous meals. Preparing meals is not a chore for me, but therapy. I unwind by cooking and get a lot of pleasure when my meals have been complemented. I find it interesting watching cooking shows. I’ve picked up great tips from Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and numerous other chefs.
    My aim this year is to be ready for bed by 10 or 10:30. Previously, I would be in bed by 1am and exhausted by the morning. If I need to prepare lessons, I get up early like 5am. Bed by 10:30 and up by 5. Much better arrangement. My husband and I enjoy going to the Cinema and we try to achieve that at least once a month. I have wonderful cousins and most of us got married at the same time. So we have common ground and we get together for dinner, lunch or picnics every so often.
    My husband is one of eight children. They are all married now. My mother-in-law said raising eight children was a complete nightmare and disaster. Hence, her eight married children have one or two children only.


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