work-life balance

In an ideal life, you’d have the exact same amount of time for sleeping, working, and living — after all, that’s what the eight-hour day is all about, right?

So why do so many of us feel as though we’re being pulled in six different directions every minute of our lives? Why has “being busy” become something of a badge of honor? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we get control?

First, it’s important to recognize that a loss of work-life balance doesn’t happen all at once. It takes years and numerous forces — both inside and out.

“It often doesn’t come as a trumpet call,” explains photographer and teacher Tamara Lackey, “like, you don’t hear, at 3pm one day, ‘I am out of balance!'”

Instead, it’s more of a slow creep. You accept more and more responsibilities. You find yourself saying “yes” when your internal monologue is asking “really?” You’ll take on what appear to be modest jobs, only to watch them spiral well beyond their scope.

And then, all of a sudden, you find yourself completely overwhelmed, with no time left for the things you love to do.

Before you find yourself completely fried, Tamara says, keep an eye out for these three signs that the balance between your work and your life is out of whack.

You find yourself treating symptoms, not the actual problems.

You’re not actually doing anything to cut back on your obligations, but you are cutting other things. Though you love working out, you find that your daily yoga practice has completely fallen by the wayside. Cooking brings you joy, but you almost never cook anymore, because you’re too busy working on things you don’t love nearly as much.

By cutting out the things you do like, you might be making more time in the short-term, but you aren’t really making the kinds of changes that will help overall.

“In the medical community, you don’t just treat the symptoms,” says Tamara. “If you come in with a headache, and I give you ibuprofen, I’m going to see you again tomorrow.”

Instead, she says, you have to put in the work to find the underlying cause, which is that there are just too many things vying for your time.

Look for ways to pare down some of the time constraints, while still doing enough. Put yourself on a technology diet, try to limit the number of hours you spend on social media, and see if there are any ways you can get someone else — a business partner, a significant other, or even your kids — to take over a few of your daily tasks. The best way to free up more time isn’t by dropping the things you love, but rather, by cutting down on the things that make you feel stressed and busy.

You feel like you’re always forgetting something.

Does it feel as though there’s always something — but you’re not quite sure what — lingering in the back of your mind that you’re forgotten? Do you feel guilty about how you’re spending your time, no matter how you’re spending it?

This sign and these emotions aren’t invalid, and you shouldn’t ignore them. They just indicate that, says Tamara, “you don’t have a good system in place.”

“Having a system means you don’t need to make constant decisions,” Tamara explains, which means, in the long run, you can essentially automate and simplify much of your life.

Make a list of the decisions you make the most — how am I going to pay for this? Who is picking up the kids? What are we having for dinner? When will I see my friends? — and try to find a regimented system that will help make those decisions into defaults. Then, make sure you stick to it — even if you stumble once or twice.

Everything feels hard.

Selfishness is viewed an intrinsically negative thing — but self-care? Now that’s an important need. When you find yourself annoyed at everyone, and everything feels annoying or tiresome of difficult, it’s not because everything has suddenly become more annoying or tiresome or difficult. It’s because you feel annoyed and tired and overwhelmed. The best way to solve that?

Take time for you.

“I think we have the worst words for when we talk about somebody taking care of themselves: Selfish. Self-focused. They’re negative and they’re ugly. When in fact, it’s the best thing we can do for everyone around us.”

Whether it’s a quick workout that you know will help you clear your head, or a 20-minute manicure on your lunch break that will make you feel more confident, taking time out to breath, reset, and really get back in tune with your own needs can help break that cycle of self-defeating, self-effacing thoughts and feelings that come from having just too much to do.

When you notice these signs, says Tamara, it’s time to make a change before it’s too late.

“We always say, ‘I’ll deal with it when I get to XYZ.’ But the problem is, by the time you hit ‘Z,’ you’re already back to ‘X.'”

This cycle of ongoing demands and needs and problems won’t, probably, ever subside — because that’s just called life — but how you tackle each problem and execute every day can help clear the clutter and make time for peace of mind.