Martha Zeigler has high expectations for herself at work. So high that she routinely stays late at the office so she can toil uninterrupted by phones and coworkers.
Zeigler also has high expectations for herself at home. She wants to spend time with her husband, keep in close touch with her mother, serve her community.
But lately, the director of finance for the Metropolitan Sewerage District in Asheville, N.C., is finding it hard to meet all her expectations. "I am just torn," she says. "I can't focus well. I'm operating out of guilt rather than desire. At home, I think about work; at work, I think I'm neglecting my husband and I haven't called my mother in a week. It's a feeling of being under pressure all the time."
Sound familiar? The age-old struggle to be happy and successful at work and home, complicated by technology's ability to let you straddle both realms simultaneously, is making Zeigler and others like her feel utterly depleted. "How do I determine when enough is enough?" she asks. "What usually gets squeezed out is the replenishment time for myself—including sleep!"
Zeigler wants to attain work/life balance, but this popular goal is an elusive one, in part because "balance" isn't quite the right word. "It's not about 50/50 play/work," says Deborah Gilburg, a leadership development consultant in Holyoke, Mass. "It's really about figuring out how to be sustainable so you can keep your energy flowing, keep yourself healthy in the long term."
Here are some tips to help you become sustainable:
Ask yourself hard questions. Introspection takes guts. You need to determine how serious your problem is. Should you just wean yourself off evening e-mail, or should you consider a career change? Where are you going in life? What are your priorities? "Lots of creative thinking shows up when the priorities are clear," says Joyce Wooldridge, a life coach based in Suffolk, Va. "Employers can't be assumed to know what you want before you do. Neither can families."
The toughest question, says Tom Stern, humorist and author of CEO Dad: How to Avoid Getting Fired by Your Family, is: Has work become a retreat from problems at home, and if so, why? "There's a lot more criticism in the home on a daily basis; it's a lot more personal," he says. "In business people are pretty buttoned down, trying to avoid conflict. ...People at home whine, complain, tell you off."
To start finding answers, get a journal, says Gilburg, and spend a weekend thinking about what you want to do for yourself, your family and your community. "Ask yourself: What gives me the greatest energy, and what is sapping my energy the most?" she says.
Maintain boundaries between work and home. Some obvious tactics come to mind: Turn off the cell phone during dinner. Don't plan the T-ball lineup at budget meetings. BlackBerrys stay home during family vacations. But you need mental boundaries as well. It's important to take time to reflect and regroup, even at work. Create "sacred spaces" throughout the day, suggests David Astorino, a Philadelphia management psychologist with the consultancy RHR International. It could be 10 minutes with the office door closed or a long walk after lunch. For Zeigler, it's the half-hour every morning she sets aside for the gym. "That one thing really helps the most," she says. "It keeps my mind straight, gives the body stamina."
Stick to a schedule. A set routine helps keep your boundaries—and your mind—clear. On top of his 10-hour workday, Akshay Upadhye, a London-based IT consultant with Source Paradigm Limited, allots an hour every morning for meditation and yoga and three hours each evening for his wife and two young kids. Weekends he devotes to the family. "I follow a very simple rule," he says. "When at home I don't think or worry about work. I only think business the moment I get into my car. ...The moment I enter my home, I switch off from my work." He gives yoga the credit for teaching him to control that mental on/off switch.
Priscilla Ribic of Spokane, Wash., is a project manager for Financial Partners, a single parent to her 12-year-old son, and an international powerlifting champion (check out her impressive stats at her website, littlepowerhouse.com). A defined schedule helps her navigate between work and her personal life. "One nice thing about being a project manager is that you can't help but be organized, work time lines, set goals and so on," she says. "My days start early—5 a.m.—and end late—11 p.m.—and it's nonstop all day, but my day is fairly structured, making it all manageable."
Delegate. You don't need to do it all. Really. "It took a while for me to figure it out," says Ed Longanacre, senior vice president of IT at Amerisafe in Deridder, La. "[But now] I've got these guys trained well enough that I don't need to be there all the time." Upadhye has empowered his subordinates to make certain hiring and salary decisions, handle delivery management for shorter projects and conduct weekly client reviews, for example. "This ensures that I am not spending energy and time on unwanted things," he says.
And Zeigler shifted some of her workload by approaching HR when a hiring opportunity arose. "I was able to work with another department head to restructure an open position so we could share a person," she says.
Delegate at home, too. Ribic relies on her son's grandparents for help when she travels to powerlifting competitions, but she also has her son pitch in. "Finding a realistic balance on what I should take on myself and what sorts of tasks he can handle has helped tremendously in taking the stress off of trying to be Super Mom," she says. For example, her son makes his own breakfast and lunch, takes out the trash and empties the dishwasher.
Set an example. "I think I've demonstrated both in actions and verbally to my employees that it's OK to go to the dentist today," says Longanacre. He says he has learned over the years that productivity is more important than number of hours logged, so while he makes sure someone in his IT department is always available, he doesn't tie people to their desks. "I try to get them out of here, because in my younger days, especially in the Army and as a defense contractor, my job came first and my personal life was whatever was left over," he says.
As a bonus, bosses who show that the demands of work and home can coexist create an attractive workplace for current and prospective staffers. "The trend continues to move in the direction [where] the best employers are those who create the freedom for their employees to organize their lives with flexibility and choice," says management psychologist Astorino.
Achieving work-life balance requires long days and a great deal of self-discipline. But those who make the effort reap the rewards: They lead full, content and satisfying lives.
As you follow these guidelines, be careful not to turn your quest for a harmonious existence into yet another source of stress, warns Stern. "I'd rather think of it as a process," he says. "It's better some days than others, but hopefully over time it improves."
Sara Shay is a freelance writer based outside of Philadelphia, Pa.