This year, I leapt out of the corporate world to work as an independent consultant for an entrepreneur. After years spent in the classroom, and then in an office, transitioning to this busy pace and less-structured lifestyle was more challenging than I had expected.
And I know I’m not alone.
Between an increased number of opportunities to work remotely, smartphones that distract you when you’re at work and then encourage you to work when you’re at home, and side passion projects that have become the norm rather than the exception, Millennials have unique motivations and challenges when it comes to work-life balance.
So, as I look back on my first year as an independent consultant, I wanted to share the four rules I’ve followed to help me balance a demanding career, a constantly shifting schedule, and my personal life, too.
1. Just Say “No”
In the age of live feeds and emails that can be sent (or read) 24 hours a day, many Millennials struggle to slow down and manage requests for their time. But the sooner you learn that you have the choice to say “no,” the sooner you’ll discover what balance of work and play works best for you.
Learn to take a step back whenever you feel stretched too thin, and identify what you need to adjust or remove. For instance, the next time you receive an Evite or someone asks if you have time to take on a new project, stop and ask yourself if the overall purpose aligns with your efforts. Do you need to attend four industry holiday parties? Do you have time for a new client?
I’ve learned that saying no—with confidence and gratitude—leads to emotional freedom, realistic relationships, and purposeful projects. Whether it’s a new project with impossible deadlines or constant invites to gatherings that don’t serve your priorities, use an authentic but direct way to decline or propose an alternative. Try this: “Thank you so much for the invitation! I love supporting women in the arts, but am not available that evening. Best wishes for a successful event!”
2. Stay in Flow
When you’re in your work flow, you feel “completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.” In other words, it is a deep, positive focus that maximizes your energy and emotions.
Millennials are especially inclined to work long hours with—or all too often without—flow, most likely because many of us can hardly remember the days before email was accessible on our phones. Whether you are studying for a certification exam or working at a startup, technology allows you to build side projects and stay connected 24/7. You may be glued to your computer screen at odd hours (or for inordinate lengths of time)—shooting off an email during dinner, or checking Facebook when a real-life friend is sitting right in front of you.
This is a double-edged sword: You feel like you’re always working, so when you try to focus, you ended up staring meaninglessly at the screen. And, your personal relationships suffer too.
The trick to staying in flow is building in time to unplug—completely. Each day, schedule something offline like seeing friends, working out, or attending creative events. Maintaining these non-negotiable activities will help you avoid energy dips and recharge effectively, so that when you’re at work, you’ll be able to truly focus.
3. Balance New and Old Friendships
In my first few months of working independently, I experienced a huge imbalance in my social life. I was no longer in a large office where meeting new people, having lunch with colleagues, and attending company events were commonplace. I had to make a daily effort to reach out to new contacts, make plans, and create new relationships.
During this time, I learned the importance of keeping up with older friendships and prioritizing new ones. Having both keeps you enriched with deep connections, while also ensuring that you’ll push yourself to meet high-achieving peers and make new industry contacts.
Here’s how to do it: Every time you make plans with an existing friend, reach out to one new person. Join like-minded groups on Meetup, share your work and ideas, and find mentors you admire. Also, take advantage of social media and crowd-sourcing sites to remotely support new organizations with their projects and build a supportive relationship. By the end of every month, you will nourish existing friendships but also spark new and valuable additions to your network.
4. Less Activity, More Achievement
Many Millennials say that they are overwhelmingly busy. They feel pressured to participate in countless activities and have little time to do things that make them happy.
If this sounds like you, recognize that having a plateful of activities is very different than having achievements. Once I set out on my own, I could no longer validate my productivity by saying I was in the office from 9 AM to 5 PM each day. I would catch myself stretching out busywork to avoid taking my work or life to the next level.
Instead of focusing on how much time you spend doing something, focus on your desired outcome. Working back from what you hope to achieve will help you maximize your time and challenge you to think creatively rather than robotically. Meaning, if you can eliminate activities that make you move paper from one side of the desk to the other, you‘ll have more space for elevated thinking and spontaneity.
As the new year draws near, don’t settle for your same old work flow. Challenge yourself to find a better balance, and you’ll end up with more time—and happiness—in both your personal life and your work.