Forget your salary. These days, to gauge true career success, we’re more likely to define our worth by how well we’ve created a work-life balance. Having a full personal life outside of work is likely to top money, recognition and autonomy as the most desired success metrics, according to several surveys, including one from Accenture. While achieving a good work-life balance might seem doable once you’ve established yourself at a company, how do you set these boundaries when you’ve just started a new job?
Let’s find out.
First, Define Your Own Work-Life Needs
What makes you feel whole? Is it the 6:30 p.m. spin class on Thursday nights or watching your daughter’s swim team compete once a week? Each of us have a different set of core needs and values, says Julie Cohen, author of “Your Work, Your Life…Your Way: 7 Keys to Work-Life Balance” and a career and leadership coach from Philadelphia. You need to identify specifically what you need to feel balanced before you approach your new boss.
“I offer clients a clarification exercise that determines what it is that makes you feel like who you are.” Is it integrity, health and wellness, financial success, prestige, leadership or family? This will determine what you see as a desirable work-life balance. If your core value right now is professional accomplishment, then it’s OK that time with family or a hobby takes a back seat to working longer hours to achieve professional accomplishment.”
“Tighten Up … Then Lighten Up”
Once you’ve identified your core values, figure out how that jives with your new boss’ expectations and then operate under these boundaries you’ve set for your work and personal life — most of the time (Cohen refers to this process as “tightening up.”). Of course, you’ll sometimes need to “lighten up.” Cohen says this means that you may have to accept that in your new job, you will have to be flexible and loosen your boundary line occasionally for the sake of your job.
“So, if you’re an accountant and you know the time leading up to April 15 is intense, you will need to grin and bear it,” says Cohen. But if you find that the intensity just doesn’t stop, then Cohen recommends that you have a conversation with your new boss about her expectations for you. “It’s OK to ask your boss this,” says Cohen. “You’re not going to be fired for asking a question.”
Earn Your Wings In the First 6 Months
Allow yourself some time to determine what your ideal work-life balance looks like and to achieve it, says Toni Littlestone, a career counselor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Be prepared to work longer and harder when you start a new job — for at least six months. Going that extra mile, from initiating new quality-control procedures to discovering new cost-cutting measures, is crucial for making a first impression that will go a long way. “You’ll be putting in extra time and attention in this period to cultivate what behavioral psychologists call the halo effect.”
“Research shows that this initial impression of you by the bosses, good or bad, counts heavily in the workplace,” adds Littlestone. The halo effect has even found that much of what we think about a person’s performance is actually based more on perception than actual accomplishment.
Keep Them Guessing With Off-Hour Emails
Smartphones are cool, but keeping us connected with bosses on weekends has definitely cut into our personal time. According to recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 24 percent of workers report doing some or all of their work at home, not the office.
How do you create boundaries so you’re not asked to compose memos on Sunday mornings? Littlestone recommends mixing up your response time to co-workers’ or supervisors’ emails on weekends. “Sometimes, email back right away, other times wait a few hours, or even answer the next day,” she explains. “When you’re responsive but unpredictable, then they won’t develop unreasonable expectations of you that you don’t want to live up to on weekends,” says Littlestone.
Don’t Compete in the Busy Contest
When you’re trying to make a good impression, it can be easy to feel guilty or competitive with co-workers who claim they are busier than you. But some experts say that you shouldn’t fall for this false sense of accomplishment. If you’re impressing your boss, and still walking out of the office at 6 p.m., there’s no need to stay late.
“In today’s workplace, everyone is busier than the next. It almost seems like it’s a busy contest where everyone’s competing with ‘who can have more going on?’ It takes a lot of work to make sure you don’t fall into the trap of constantly talking about how busy you are,” says Lauren Berger, author of “All Work, No Pay” and founder of InternQueen.com. “It doesn’t matter how ‘busy,’ ‘slammed’ or ‘overwhelmed’ your co-workers and friends say they are. You can still be on top of your game without working the longest hours.”
In fact, Berger says that leaving the office at a reasonable hour can also demonstrate to bosses just how organized and efficient you are in the workday. Berger recommends taking time each afternoon to prepare for the next day. For example: “Consolidate your to-do lists and scraps of paper that have piled up all over your desk in the course of your day and circle any tasks that you MUST finish tomorrow. Remember: There will always be more work to do. It’s up to you to draw the line between what needs to be done right now and what can wait until tomorrow.”
Schedule Unchangeable Events
Another way to balance work-life boundaries? Littlestone recommends scheduling at least one structured event a week that you can’t get out of easily. “I suggest that my clients have things that get them out of the office at least once a week, like a Zumba class on Thursday night,” advises Littlestone. When you have booked, and likely paid for, a structured event that you don’t have the freedom to cancel easily, bosses and co-workers will have an easier time accepting your personal commitments. Of course, communication with your office mates is key. If you can help it, don’t spring an announcement that you’ve signed up for Mandarin class right after your supervisor sends an email announcing a looming deadline.
Don’t Get Caught Up in the Pursuit of the Perfect Balance
Once you’ve finally identified the ideal work-life balance, remember that its permanence is a myth, says Cohen. “Many think that once they’ve found a balance that it will always remain the same. In fact, the boundary is always changing.” So when you’re starting a new job, there’s a fine line between sticking to your core values and doing what you have to do to prove you’re all in at the company. Yet, later, once you hit your stride at work, you may decide that you have different goals and needs.
“You need to think of balance as a seesaw or tightrope,” says Cohen. “It is very hard to attain and nearly impossible to maintain, so think of it as a lifelong journey made up of your choices of the moment.“