By Ellie Hearne

At the crux of work-life balance lies the perennial challenge of getting stuff done.


We're Only Human

I get stressed when I feel like I'm not getting through everything that's expected of me. Sound familiar? Before I dive into tips for enhancing productivity, know that it can be helpful to simply recognize that you're only human. Sometimes, you're not going to have time to clean the house as well as everything else on your list, and that's OK.

Now to the practical. Becoming more productive takes effort and commitment, but there's something to the idea that working smarter rather than harder will make all the difference.


Work Smarter, Not Harder

A key piece of "working smarter" is making sure that your work time is high-quality. What does that mean? 

Let's take an example. You're trying to write a report or accomplish some other work task. But you keep clicking over to your inbox to multitask a few other asks out of the way ("It won't take long and I'll feel better when it's done," you reason). Or you're sitting at your computer, ready to write, but inbox and app notifications keep pulling your focus - and before you know it, you're on the Facebook page of a friend of a friend and wondering why it's lunchtime already. Or you spend your commute staring at your phone and by the time you reach your desk you feel like you need a few minutes' downtime before you can actually start work. 

These scenarios are commonplace - and they all boil down to one thing: in trying to be productive, you're making yourself less so. By using every last moment of "free time," you're depleting your energy and headspace for the moments that count - the times when you need to be firing on all cylinders and at your best. In other words, sometimes it's good to be bored

(And for what it's worth, multitasking has been widely debunked as a way of achieving anything but wasted time.)


Safeguard Moments of Downtime, Large and Small

So make sure you set boundaries. Have a few minutes of quiet time? Keep them quiet. Getting a little bored on the commute? Consider skipping that podcast and letting your mind wander. 

While making these changes can seem small, you can expect an outsized impact. It takes a full 10 minutes to regain focus on a particular task, so those quick trips over to Facebook are perhaps more damaging than they might seem (and they don't even make you feel good).

Safeguarding these pockets of downtime doesn't demand that you take up meditation, though I'd recommend it - even if it's just via an app like Headspace. It can start with simply being more self-aware. Do you ever pick up your phone and after flipping through Instagram wonder why you picked it up in the first place? Try to set little goals for yourself along the lines of "I won't look at my phone for an hour" or turn off app notifications so you can check in on your own terms. Most of this stuff can wait, and the urgent things will find a way to reach you (you can still answer your phone if it rings).

If you do nothing else to enhance your productivity and work-life balance, do this: try to switch off all screens at least one hour before turning in for the night. You'll sleep and feel better - dozens of studies say so. And even just 30 minutes without screens will help you switch off your mind and body.

In other words, it's important to take breaks - and that includes the longer kind, too. 


Get Things Done

Beyond creating that all important headspace, think about smarter goal-setting for when you are trying to be productive. At a minimum, make every item on your to-do list "doable". For example, "Secure new office space" is an OK goal, but you're unlikely to make progress with it until you break it down into manageable chunks. E.g., "talk to team re: location preferences and budget," "search online for available spaces within x, y, z neighborhoods," etc.

Whole libraries could be filled with books on productivity and time management. Moreover, everyone's approach might (and perhaps should) be different. More info on this particular brand of SMART productivity can be found here. But if you're looking for a deeper dive or a more personalized productivity overhaul, talk to us.


Delegate and Find Partners

Some important caveats on this technique: we don't all have teams, assistants, life partners, or the resources necessary for getting help.

If you are lucky enough to have these things, make the most of them. A primary challenge for new leaders is learning to pass off work that's "below their pay grade" - in other words, learning to actually delegate (and that doesn't mean taking back delegated tasks if at first the individual in question does poorly). 

As this entire series acknowledges, work and life are intertwined, more so now than ever. And very often the "life" part of work-life balance is the hardest to manage. So if you have a partner at home, make them an equal one. For some of us, that means taking on more of the household work ourselves. For others, that means asking more of our partners.


As this series makes clear, work-life balance is a complicated thing. But by taking even a few of the steps outlined, you can start to make your day-to-day more productive and less stressful.

So let me ask you this, What's the one thing you'll try as you think about enhancing your work-life balance?




  • Don't beat yourself up for not getting every single thing done - your energy is better spent on figuring out how to do better next time.

  • "Work smarter, not harder." Filling every waking moment with a work-task can make us feel busy and important - but it's bad news for work quality and hard to sustain.

  • You have to give yourself time to unplug and to let your mind wander. You'll return to work/life refreshed as a result.

  • Set SMART goals - you're more likely to achieve them.

  • Learn to delegate (at work) and share household work, where possible, too


Following Ellie's other articles on Work-Life Balance and its basics, this post is part of a series.



Ellie Hearne is a leadership-communications expert and founder of Pencil or Ink. Over the years she has coached leaders at Apple, Google, Kate Spade, Starbucks, Spotify, Marriott, Pfizer, Piaget, and numerous small businesses and startups. Ellie can be reached herehere, and here.