By Sandra Gordon
In an ideal world, you’ve got a satisfying career with plenty of time and energy to play with your kids, help with homework, exercise and catch up with your friends. The reality? You’re exhausted from toiling harder and longer just to keep your job and it’s taking a toll. You’re time-crunched, short-tempered and wound so tight that even relaxing takes effort.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone. “In today’s competitive culture, there’s greater stress on an internal and external level,” says psychoanalyst Ann Chanler, Ph.D. The more that’s expected of us, the more we demand from ourselves to be the best wife, multitasking mom and caring friend because we don’t want to let anything slide. But feeling frazzled and the ripple effects on your professional and personal life aren’t fun for anyone or healthy for you over the long run. Something’s gotta give.
But what? We tapped work/life experts like Chanler and working moms like you for their top sanity-saving tips on how to rebalance the balancing act.
Put you at the top of your to-do list.
“If you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t be able to do a good job of taking care of everybody,” says Chanler, herself the mother of two teenage daughters. She likens self-care to the oxygen mask demonstration on airplanes. Although it feels counterintuitive, you’re instructed to strap your mask on first, before your child’s. That means that if, for example, you have a choice between returning e-mail or strolling with your baby, take the walk. Block out an hour in your datebook each week for yourself and arrange your own play dates at least once a month, too. “Parenting can be isolating but other moms can give you help with issues you’re facing and make you realize you’re not alone. Friends who don’t have kids can help you connect with a part of yourself that existed before you had a family,” Chanler says.
Think less is more.
For a greater sense of calm, ask yourself: What can I nix from my to-do list? Then choose one thing to delete from that day’s or week’s agenda. Ah. Also, stop multitasking. “Create a schedule when you’ll work, take care of the kids, spend time with your spouse and concentrate only on the task at hand. Ask yourself: What should I be doing now and do only that,” says Leah Aharoni, a managing director at a translation agency and mom of six.
Snooze away stress.
“To manage stress, you have to be well-rested,” says Savitri Dixon-Saxon, Ph.D., associate dean of the Walden University School of Counseling and Social Services, an online university. Lack of shut-eye increases your body’s production of cortisol, a stress hormone, so try to log in six to eight hours of sleep each night. Your brain needs the down time. A study in the Journal Sleep found that people who slept that much performed the best on tests that assessed cognitive function, memory, reasoning, and vocabulary tests. Sleep is also the ultimate fatigue fighter. To log in more zzzz, turn off the TV and go to bed earlier.
Exercise your options.
Try to get in at least 30 minutes of daily exercise—Mother Nature’s reset button. To spend more time with your family while you’re at it, be active together by going for walks, strolling after dinner or hiking or biking together on the weekends. Family time is so important in and of itself. If you can incorporate activity into it, it’s a double bonus.
Catch your breath.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, breathe in through your nose to the count of four, exhale through your mouth for a count of four, and so on, for four sets. “Do this simple exercise in the car, in your office, or in the bathroom stall at work if you have to,” says Karol Ward, a licensed clinical social worker in New York City. It helps you think clearly and regain your equilibrium. “I breathe if I’m anxious before phone calls or meetings, or before talking to my kids or my husband when I’m tired. It changes everything,” adds Diana Fletcher, a life coach and author of Happy on Purpose.
A diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, paired with healthy sources of lean protein like chicken and fish provides the variety of nutrients you need to cope with stress and the energy you need to multitask. Instead of resorting to take-out (again), use the weekends to plan menus, shop, batch-cook, and prep healthy meals and snacks for the week. To create even more time, “Once a week, make a crock-pot meal,” suggests Cristin Frank, a writer mom of two. “The night before, portion out ingredients so you can toss them into the slow cooker in the morning. You’ll only have one pot to clean at the end of the night.” Bonus!
Don’t be the clean queen.
Full-time working women do over 33 hours of domestic chores weekly, while their male counterparts do about 16, according a study published in Women Don’t Ask, by Linda Babcock, professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To end the dreaded second shift, let some of the housework slide or ask your spouse and your kids for help. Doing chores actually helps build a child’s sense of competence. If your standards are exacting, lower them. So what if the sheets don’t get changed as often or your husband misses a spot when he’s dusting the furniture?
Use a day planner to write down appointments, reminders, bright ideas and your daily to-do list. “It allows your mind to rest because you know you won’t forget anything important,” says Renee Metzler, a life organizational coach and fellow mom in the trenches.
Create a day-is-done ritual, a self-imposed boundary between work and home that’s designed to bring closure to the end of your work day. One example: Take a shower at home after work and imagine your problems of the day disappearing down the drain, says John Brubaker, a work-life balance consultant. After that, you’ll feel more ready to give your family your full attention.
Determine your stress triggers.
Is it having too much to do? Having to work on the weekends? “Once you understand the root cause of your stress, you can take positive steps to cope by avoiding thoughts, behaviors and activities that increase your anxiety,” says Soroya Bacchus, Ph.D., a board-certified psychiatrist in Los Angeles. One temper-taming tactic: “Try to stack more labor-intensive assignments and those that require others’ input early in the week and taper down so that by Friday you can essentially focus on housekeeping tasks,” says Ellen Schack, a work/life balance expert at www.theceocouple.com. “This strategy can help you avoid weekend workloads and other infringements on what should be your personal time.”
Finally, savor the good times.