Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor

As a professional woman who works overseas, I’ve realized that work-life balance has some additional twists. Twists such as not having familiar friends and family networks to fall back on when I need a little help and operating in a context where the primary language spoken isn’t my native one, and where perceptions and expectations of motherhood, work-life balance, and working mothers sometimes differ from my own. In the past, this unique context coupled with the normal stressors of working mom life left me feeling depleted mentally and physically with nothing left for myself. After feeling this way for a while, it finally dawned on me that my life was very much imbalanced, and I needed to make a change. With that realization, I began to seek out a formula that would enable me to fulfill my various roles and the responsibilities they require while leaving enough in the tank for me to thrive in an atmosphere away from home and the familiar.

Here’s what I came up with – a few simple steps for anyone working in a fast-paced environment. Which, these days, let’s be honest, probably applies to us all:

1. Give Yourself Permission

Many of us want to say no to something, or in my case many things, but then we feel guilty about it and we end up saying yes. We say yes because we don’t want to appear selfish or are overly concerned the other party will get upset or be disappointed with us. I ask you, what’s the better scenario: to say yes and feel resentful – because you don’t want to be doing something or taking on another activity – or, to be honest and taking care of your owns needs first making you feel happier and more in control of your time and energy? Clearly the better answer is the latter. A cheesy but effective way to deal with the guilt is to write a permission slip to yourself. The permission slip(s) can be modeled after the ones we write for our children excusing them from school or an activity and/or like the ones our parents used to write for us. Give yourself permission to make guilt-free choices that benefit you. You don’t have to be everything to everybody, and you certainly shouldn’t do it at the expense of yourself. You will be surprised how much better you feel once you give yourself permission to opt-out of things you don’t want or need to do, and I encourage you to undertake this exercise immediately.

2. Learn to Say No!

The key to creating more time for yourself and your individual needs is learning to say and actually saying “no” to requests and obligations that you don’t want to do. In this case saying no is like “spring cleaning.” At first, you think everything is necessary and you want to hold on to it. But once you begin to get rid of unwanted and unused items, you begin to create more space, lighten your load and feel more freed up. These positive feelings help you gain momentum and so you keep going, with each step feeling better than the last. By the time you’ve finished, the house looks great and you feel great! Saying no can also make you feel this way, so you should start saying no immediately and often — see tip one to help you overcome the guilt.

3. Step Back

Figure out why you want more free time and analyze what is going on in your life that is making you feel this way. Once you’ve made time to figure out the root cause(s) of your feelings, then you can start on a path toward changing the environment around you and how you respond to it. You will also be able to determine what you need and able to execute a plan that will help you find a path to greater happiness and equilibrium in the roles you inhabit.

4.) Limit and/or Eliminate Distractions

Find ways to carve out time for you every day, even if it is only for 15 minutes. Shut the door and make it clear you need a few moments of uninterrupted you time. When you are at home, unplug. Turn off your cell phone and mobile devices and make yourself unreachable for a few moments. Instead of watching TV for hours on end after work, pick one or two of your favorite shows, watch them, then turn the TV off. The average American spends 2.4 hours/day in front of the TV and over 11 hours/day interacting with some form of media, (up 9 hours and 32 minutes from 2014) but that investment yields little to no rewards. Studies show that watching TV and spending exorbitant amounts of time on social media doesn’t make people nearly as happy as activities that really engage them, like playing tennis, taking a walk, and eating out with family and friends. So find your alternate and more fulfilling hobbies and do them instead of wasting your time in front of the television or on social media.

For whatever reason, society dictates that if we are not actively putting our time and energy into something or someone, it is wasted time. The truth is that making time for yourself is just as important as making time for other elements of your life. Your mental health and well being depend on it. If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone (or anything) else, so always make yourself a priority by taking time for yourself, it really is OK.