Work-Life Balance: What It Is and 5 Ways to Improve It

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn more about balancing your work life and personal life to create a healthier overall experience.

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Work-life balance is typically defined as the amount of time you spend doing your job versus the amount of time you spend with loved ones or pursuing personal interests and hobbies [1]. When work demands more of your time or attention, you will have less time to handle your other responsibilities or passions.

Many people want to achieve a greater balance between their work life and their personal life so that work does not take up the vast majority of their time. However, the term itself can be misleading because our careers and personal lives don't always exist in separate spheres.

In response, work-life integration—or the synergistic blending of our personal and professional responsibilities—has become an increasingly popular concept [2]. From this perspective, work is simply one aspect of our lives, which needs to be considered alongside other important concerns, such as our home and family lives, our community, and our personal well-being. Rather than resembling a scale with two competing sides, work-life integration more resembles a Venn diagram of overlapping interests. 

A Venn diagram for work-life integration.

Whatever term you prefer to use, the reality is that both describe our attempt to manage our various responsibilities and goals. While work-life integration might give you a more holistic framework, work-life balance might emphasize a much-needed sense of division for those who find work creeping into their personal lives. 

What does work-life balance look like?

The unique nature of each of our lives and our fluctuating responsibilities means that work-life balance and work-life integration look different for everyone. It's a constant negotiation about how—and where—you spend your time. In striving for greater work-life balance, you get to determine your priorities, whether they're related to your work or personal life.

Some examples include:

  • A stay-at-home working parent who tackles assignments while their newborn is napping 

  • A student who prioritizes spending time with their friends rather than getting a head start on studying for an upcoming midterm exam

  • A lawyer who consciously unplugs when on vacation

  • A new employee who dedicates extra time to tasks and responsibilities

  • A manager who establishes communications boundaries and won't respond to emails after 6 p.m.

  • An employee who crafts their schedule to work specific days so that on other days they can take care of their elderly parents  

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Why work-life balance is important

Improving your work-life balance can potentially improve your overall well-being, including your physical, emotional, and mental health. Studies have found that working long hours can lead to such serious health issues as “impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease” [3]. Unfortunately, as these conditions arise they can also exacerbate our work-life issues, leading to burnout and other negative repercussions.

While employers and employees might associate long working hours with increased productivity, many researchers say otherwise. A 2014 study, for example, found that after workers hit a certain number of hours, their productivity began to decrease as the potential for mistakes and injuries increased [4]. Achieving a healthy work-life balance, therefore, can not only potentially reduce stress and improve emotional states but also increase overall productivity and employers’ bottom line. 

4 ways to improve your work-life balance 

Below, we've compiled tips for improving your work-life balance [5]. You can begin trying out one at a time or implementing a few at once. Remember that finding an approach that works for you is a process and will take time.  

1. Pause and evaluate

Taking time out to understand how the various parts of your life are impacting one another is a necessary step in developing a new work-life integration that serves your needs. Pause and consider your current work-life situation; ask yourself how you feel. Some questions you might reflect on include:

  • Am I spending enough quality time doing what I really want? 

  • Am I committing enough time and energy to people or things that are meaningful to me? 

  • Do I still feel aligned to my professional or personal goals? Why or why not?

  • Where do I feel the most stuck? What is it about this situation that makes me feel that way?

As you think through these complex personal questions, journaling your thoughts and feelings can be a good way to identify the areas you feel need the biggest adjustments. Ultimately, these questions should help you gain greater clarity on your current situation. 

2. Assess your priorities

Once you have a better sense of what you'd like to adjust, you'll want to begin identifying what you want to prioritize. Some questions you might ask yourself include: 

  • What really matters to me and am I doing enough of it? 

  • Where can I make compromises? Where can’t I? Where have I been making too many compromises?

  • What are some alternative actions I can take to ensure I am devoting enough time and energy to my goals and relationships?

  • Where can I integrate my responsibilities so I honor more than one at the same time?

3. Time management

Now that you know what your priorities are—whether that's spending more time at work to aim for a promotion or cutting back on after-hours emails by establishing boundaries—it's important to figure out how to better manage your time.

Review how you currently spend your time and look for ways to adjust your schedule where possible. You can "chunk" your time as a way to focus on one area at a time, or use a matrix system to establish your priorities when new tasks pop up unexpectedly. Learn more about how to manage your time to boost your productivity and well-being.

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4. Establish boundaries

Establishing boundaries is a crucial part of time management. And communicating those boundaries will be equally important. If you can no longer respond to emails promptly after hours because you're with your family, your team will need to know.

Work boundaries fall into one of three categories—physical, emotional, or time. Start by setting small boundaries and expand from there. Learn more about how to set better boundaries at work.

5. Reflect, refine, repeat 

Whatever actions you decide are needed to create a good work-life balance, though, you should be conscious of the fact that you will likely need to continue to refine it over time. Big life changes can take time, so reflecting on your approach and refining it periodically will likely be integral parts of the process. 

Work-life balance: Next steps

If you would like to learn more about what you can do to achieve a healthy work-life balance, you might consider taking a flexible online course to identify the best approach for you. In some cases, you might even decide that a career change is the best option and, consequently, prepare for your new job by achieving a Professional Certificate

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Article sources

1

Cambridge Dictionary. “Work-life balance, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/work-life-balance.” Accessed January 6, 2023. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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