Of recent buzz words in our 21st century vocabulary, “work-life balance” has the most meaning, yet remains an elusive ideal to most of us. Like some Arthurian castle with its knight in shining armour, balancing a full and hectic life can seem like a fairytale of epic proportions.

The idea of work-life balance has stemmed from the increasing demands in the workplace for our time and energy, our dedication. Thirty years ago, this concept was rarely discussed, but with the advent of technology like cellphones and personal home computing, it has become increasingly difficult to separate our personal and professional lives. Anyone who’s caught their spouse (or themselves) checking the work email at the dinner table, or finishing up a final report while in their pajamas, knows exactly how trying it can be.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 worked an average of 42.8 hours a week (or 8.5 hours per day,) and this does not include un-clocked time after work hours. Add that to the 7.8 hours per day spent sleeping in 2016, and we are only left with 7.6 hours a day for everything else we need or want in our daily lives, including family time, cooking and eating, cleaning, exercise, hobbies and even your commute.

It’s easy to see that those slivers of time get smaller and smaller, making it virtually impossible to take time for yourself.

Indeed, merging the two parts of life — professional vs. personal — has become such a hot topic that many human resources departments are addressing how their employees are able to maintain a happy and satisfying personal life while cultivating a well-managed career.

The University of Maryland offers assistance in financial planning, home buying, daycare, transportation and parking, and even personal safety including the ability to get a police escort in situations where employees feel potentially threatened. And many workplaces are following suit, providing services that assist the employees in having fulfilling, healthy, balanced lives, because happy employees tend to be more productive and satisfied in their jobs, increasing retention of good workers.

The workplace and employers are certainly not the only determining factor in considering your work-life balance — where you live can be just as important.

A 2016 analysis of 40 Maryland cities by Zippia.com, an online career services firm based in California, identified several characteristics of geographic locations affecting work-life balance. Using the American Community Survey, an ongoing endeavor by the U.S. Census Bureau, Zippia.com analysts assessed a set of criteria including average commute time, hours worked per week, household size, unemployment and poverty rates, and things to do per capita, to determine the level of work-life balance satisfaction by city.

With a population of approximately 16,000 people and an average of 37.6 hours worked in a week, Easton comes in on the top ten list at number six. Mount Airey in Carroll and Frederick Counties rated number one on the list.

Easton and the other nine Maryland cities on this top ten list, are places where individuals work slightly less, spend less time getting to and from their workplace, and are able to spend more time doing the things for themselves outside of the job (see the full study at zippia.com).

While both your employer and your geographic proximately to your workplace are important factors in determining work-life balance, it is not necessarily reasonable or even possible to change those parts of your life.

Balance is about happiness, and the criteria to define that is as varied as the unique humans it applies to.

Balance is not about giving everything equal parts every day — life is too fluid, too unpredictable for that. Many times we feel the need to repeat each day exactly as the one before to maintain a routine that feels like balance, but that is not always a necessity, especially in this day and age.

And while there are so many factors that you may not truly be able to control, there are ways to create balance through the smaller things that you can. There are tons of tips and suggestions from myriad sources available online, from psychologists and medical professional to career experts and human resources departments.

As a busy single mom of two boys, with a deadline-driven full-time career and several self-inflicted volunteer obligations, I struggle, like everyone else, to find the appropriate work-life balance in my own world, and I have selected my five favorite and most useful tips, proven to work in my own challenging search for balance in this crazy, busy life.

Schedule Me Time

I promise, this is not selfish or unproductive. Giving yourself a designated amount of time each day helps you reset your brain, like restarting your computer when it starts acting wonky. When you feel that mid-morning slump, the afternoon fatigue, or you need an evening pick-me-up, give yourself 30 minutes to refresh. Do something that makes you happy — take a bath, take a walk, meditate, read, watch a television show — it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it makes you completely happy. Give yourself a bit of time, everyday, for an internal reset.

Learn to Say “No”

Like many people, I love to help others. I volunteer with several different entities, sometimes overextending myself, and sometimes at the detriment to my personal time. But, if you’re like me and volunteering is an important piece of your overall happiness, try combining your personal passions with your volunteer work. Love taking your kids to the park? Sign your family up for a clean-up day, spending quality time with your family while teaching them the importance of civic duty and community. Or choose something that furthers your career — for instance, if you’re an accountant, offer pro bono tax services to disadvantaged or elderly citizens; if you’re a cook, try volunteering at a local soup kitchen.

If you still find yourself feeling overextended, just say no. It’s okay to be unable to help others without feeling disappointed in yourself or worrying about disappointing someone else.

Add Exercise to Your Day

We’re not all lucky enough (or sometimes motivated enough) to be able to make time for the gym every day. Instead, add low intensity exercise throughout the day.

Physical activity helps you feel more motivated and more focused. Take a short walk every hour or two, even if it’s just around the office. Try some dynamic stretching on your breaks or during your lunch, like arm crosses, windmills and knee rotations.

If your workplace allows it, you can also try a standing workstation. Standing, as opposed to sitting, improves posture, helps your lower back, and activates the muscles in your legs, helping with that restless feeling you get sitting at your desk.

Eat! And Enjoy It

It’s quick and easy to grab a sandwich in front of the computer, or to snag that fast food value meal on your race to move your kids about between sports practice and dance class. We race forward throughout the day, from one calendar to-do item to the next, rarely getting the chance to stop and enjoy a moment. It’s called a lunch “break” for a reason.

While you may not be able to get away from the brown bag everyday, try meal prepping to save time on busy mornings and ensure that you have a healthy option.

I also suggest eating at least one of your lunches away from your desk. Go to the company breakroom for some office banter, head to the local coffee shop for some people watching with your mid-day meal, or make your way to a park for a change of scenery and fresh air with your lunch.

Be Social

And I don’t mean online. Friends are a sounding board, a shoulder to cry on, people to laugh with. If we’ve learned nothing else from binge watching “Sex in the City” and “Golden Girls,” making time for your friends is important to your mental well-being and building friendships is good for your soul.

Schedule an evening or lunchtime get-together in the middle of the workweek. This way, you head into Monday with something to look forward to, and a chance to let off some steam come mid-week.

Scheduling group or social activities can also help work your hobbies into your schedule while building friendships in the process. Try joining a women’s group, a hobby group or a book club with your friends and make new friends while doing something that you love or trying something new.

Balance is about happiness, and the criteria to define that is as varied as the unique humans it applies to.

Balancing a full and hectic life can seem like a fairytale of epic proportions

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