By The Muse
March 5, 2015

This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article below was originally published on The Muse.

In today’s always-on workplace, where being busy is a badge of honor and around-the-clock availability has become the norm, employees who seek a healthy work-life balance can get a bad rap.

Those who try to find the balance between personal quality of life and career success are sometimes accused of seeming lazy and uncommitted. There’s an assumption that people who want balance are skirting responsibility, while in most cases, they’re really just trying to engineer a workday that promotes long-term productivity and keeps their motivation and focus high.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many of us fail to speak up when we’re feeling burned out or want more flexibility in our day-to-day; we fear being labeled the office slacker.

So how can you achieve work-life balance without seeming like you’re bailing on your responsibilities? The secret is working more strategically, so you can excel at your job and have more time for your life outside of the office.

Here are some tips to help you navigate working smarter and more efficiently—rather than harder and longer—to both avoid burnout and deflect any question of your work ethic.

1. Remember Parkinson’s Law

According to Parkinson’s Law, work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If you give yourself until the end of the day to write a report, guess what? It’ll most likely take you until the end of the day.

This illustrates the importance of setting boundaries for your projects. To avoid spending more time on tasks than is really necessary, you have to learn to implement more structure, so you can work efficiently—not constantly. Try this: Instead of leisurely spending the first 30 minutes of the day checking email, give yourself five minutes to process as many messages as you can.

Or, schedule your day creatively by using enjoyable personal or social activities to sandwich your to-do list. For example, make plans to attend an art class or meet a friend after work to put a hard stop on the time you leave the office. Limiting the amount of time you have available to crush your tasks can push your focus through the roof.

2. Eliminate the Urgent, Not the Important

Before you start working on a project, make sure you have a clear sense of why you’re doing it and the tangible outcome or impact you expect to achieve. Often, “urgent” tasks, like emails, phone calls, or emergency meetings can keep us on a perpetual hamster wheel, while important tasks that actually contribute to long-term mission and goals get pushed to the wayside.

So before you dive in to any task, ask yourself the hard question, “Do I actually need to do this?” You may find you’ve been superfluously tracking metrics or busying yourself with projects that could be trashed—which could free up significant time for you to focus on what really matters.

3. Create Systems

If you complete any activity or task more than once, document your process from start to finish. Not only will this save you time the next time you have to replicate that assignment, but it’ll also help you get a clearer view of which tasks you can delegate. Routinized, repeatable projects—such as filing reports in a certain way or formatting a presentation to fit your company’s template—are perfect targets for delegation since they include clear instructions and are generic enough that you don’t have to be the person who completes them.

The same goes for your personal life, too. For example, if you host a birthday party every year, make a note of when to send out invitations and to whom, when to decide on a venue, and which friends to call to help with different aspects of the planning and set-up. This will save you time and stress in the long run.

4. Know Your Lazy Hours

Most of us realize that we’re more productive at certain times of the day, but the key to benefitting from this information is being able to identify those times and adapt your schedule around slumps.

Over the next few weeks, pay attention to the times when you’re at peak productivity and when you’re the least motivated. Do you power through the morning, but hit a wall just before lunch? Are you mentally checked out from work tasks around 5 PM in favor of trolling the internet? These are your lazy hours. Once you figure out your peaks and valleys, you can set yourself up for success by structuring your days so that you’re tackling the most important, attention-grabbing work before or after your slow blocks. (If you’re struggling with this, this quiz can help.

5. Set Expectations Early and Often

Straightforward, candid, and frequent communication with your boss and team is essential for maintaining a healthy work-life balance. They should understand exactly what you’re working on, what types of tasks you don’t work on, and what they can and can’t expect from you when you’re working from home, during the weekend, or when you’re on vacation.

For example, rather than giving the general expectation that you’ll be traveling for a few days and will have limited access to email, specify your availability and the best way to reach you. Getting more specific by saying, “I will be traveling and available via email from 10 AM until 12 PM. After 12 PM, please reach me by phone,” helps avoid miscommunications and ensures you’ll be pinged at times that won’t interfere with your other plans.

As long as you share your boundaries in the spirit of team collaboration and transparency, your co-workers will appreciate—and respect—your honesty.

6. Outsource Your Life

Free time is precious. When you have downtime, you want it to be restorative—but that can’t happen if you’re running around looking for an open washing machine, waiting in line at the grocery store, and cleaning your apartment.

When your downtime becomes just as stressful as your workday, you can create more time for yourself by outsourcing errands to others. These days, there’s an app for everything, and depending on how busy you are, the benefits of hiring someone’s services can seriously outweigh the costs. Too busy to cook? Look into a meal delivery service. Laundry piling up? Send it out to be cleaned professionally. Apartment cleaning, home improvement, grocery shopping, errand-running—you name it, there’s a service for that.

Work-life balance is incredibly important for your physical and mental health, and it’s perfectly reasonable to fight for it. When you’re able to spend more time doing the things you love, you’re better equipped to confront challenges when they arise. And having time for activities outside of work will help stoke your creativity in the office and propose out of the-box-ideas. And altogether, this will make you a more productive, more valuable, healthier, and happier employee.

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