by Patricia Wallington

How to Get and Keep a Life

Jan 01, 20028 mins

Like a lightning bolt from the sky, the tragic events of Sept. 11 have reminded us that each moment with our loved ones is precious. Our friends and family are our anchors in what sometimes seems like a sea of insanity. Now more than ever, many of us are rethinking what is important to us and how we want to spend our time.

Even before the terrorist attacks, a recent survey found that American workers feel as stressed on their days off as they do while on the job. And a large part of that is because their jobs spill into their nonwork hours. For example, 43 percent said they spend some of their free time either being on call or dealing with work issues. Though we gripe about not having enough leisure time, until now it hasn’t been important enough for us to do something about it. So, get a life! Let’s do something about making time for our families, our loved ones, ourselves, our hobbies and all the things that can enrich our lives.

Get is the operative word in that phrase. No one will give you a life. You have to take control and do the things that create the space for family and interests other than work. One of my early mentors, a sailing afficionado, encouraged me to think of life as made up of five ports and suggested that I try to sail into all of them in order to achieve some balance in my life. The five ports are family, self, work, community and friends. I rarely found the time for all five ports, but when I really worked at it I could consistently do better than one or two. Here’s how to begin.

Make Work Fit Within Eight Hours (OK, Maybe 10 Hours)

I know this seems impossible in this world of instant and constant communication, but it can be done. It just takes commitment and a few tricks.

Try out the theory of good enough.

This advice came to me from a university professor who helped me understand how in our quest for perfectionism we become our own worst enemy. Most tasks can be done to the 90 percent level and meet or exceed the requirements. Time spent finding the last bit of information has only marginal value, and the cost of time is high. Pick a point in your work where you stop to ask the question, Is this good enough? It may not work every time, but it can go a long way toward making perfectionism more manageable.

Outlaw interruptions.

Set boundaries and don’t let others abuse them. I liked to start work early to clear voice mail and e-mail, and get ready for the day’s round of meetings. Once everyone knew my habits they started calling and “dropping by” during those early hours. As a result my day got longer and longer, until I learned to shut my door and turn the phone off during that time. Stay focused on what you are doing, and avoid the distractions of an interruptive environment.

Refuse homework.

Do you find yourself sitting on your briefcase in a desperate attempt to get it to close? I did. At first I thought I needed a bigger briefcase. Then I realized the overstuffed contents all had a little tag attached saying, “Please read this 200-page document over the weekend, and give me your comments.” Most of these homework assignments come from your staff. So make your staff work a little harder. Ask for an executive summary for all documents over three pages. Read it in the block of time you set aside?during office hours?just for this kind of activity. Believe me, it works.

Announce your departure.

Let everyone know. Say, “I am leaving at 6 p.m.,” and then do it. In one of my many attempts at balance, I went back to playing the piano. Every Monday evening I had a lesson at 7 p.m. Amazingly, everyone cooperated to get me out the door in time for those lessons. Peter Nero I am not, but playing the piano is a unique combination of relaxation and concentration. Just right for me.

Let go.

Have someone else do it. Delegate it. It’s almost too prosaic to include this, but it is an essential element of getting free time. This is especially true if you ever want to have a vacation free of office interference. One year I rotated key tasks through the organization, telling my employees I wanted things to function flawlessly if I was gone for a month. I didn’t even have a month’s vacation at the time, but this team could have handled everything if I left for a while. When I went away for a week or more, I put someone in charge and told him to make decisions, instead of holding them until I got back. In return, I made a vow that I would live with his decisions and not revoke them when I came back. Enjoy your work. You are good at your job and really enjoy your work. Good! Work is not the problem. It becomes a problem only when you let it control you instead of you controlling it.

Living in the Moment

Now that we have wrested some free time from our busy lives, let’s see how we can maximize its use.

Use the organizing skills you developed on the job. Plan something around the ports of your life?time with your family, a volunteer activity, lunch or a ball game with friends. Spend some of that money you work so hard to earn. Buy a vacation home to make it easier for you to get away. Hire a personal trainer, and work on becoming physically fit. Combine multiple objectives. One of my colleagues takes his teenage son to the gym with him. That gives them one-on-one time in a shared activity.

Live in the moment. Allow yourself the luxury of giving 100 percent of your attention to the activity at hand. Close the virtual office when you get home. Force the distractions from your mind. It takes a lot of practice, but the e-mails, voice mails and I-Mode pages will still be there when you get back to them. Count on it! Your children will relish those few hours before bedtime. The concert will be so much more enjoyable without the competing dialogue in your head. Your perspective will be much clearer when you are refreshed. Really, how important can one person be that they must be available instantly, all the time?

Build a support system. When life feels like a series of crises resembling a script for ER or some other TV drama, having a support network helps. It can range from the close friend or therapist to whom you can safely vent, to alternative care for the children when you or they are ill. Having something or someone to fall back on, even if you never have a need to use it, has a calming effect.

Keep It Going

Getting a life and keeping it are two different things. Have you ever dieted and lost 10 to 30 pounds? Losing that weight was hard; keeping it off was even harder. The magic is in changing the way you eat. Well, the same is true here. You will have sustained success only if you change the way you live. Prioritize what is important to you. Get a “personal time trainer,” someone who will keep the calendar from getting cluttered with the trivial. For me, having uninterrupted weekends for my family was a goal that always seemed out of reach no matter how many hours I worked during the week. Then I hired an executive assistant and charged her with seeing that that goal, among others, was met. Not only did I get to leave the office without a briefcase for the weekend, she made sure I was out of there by 5 p.m. on Fridays. Couldn’t have done it by myself, but once established, it remained a habit long after the assistant had gone on to bigger and better jobs.

You will regress. It takes time to make a new life, to have new routines become habit. It is only a failure when you give up. Have the discipline to restart the “Get a Life” journey, whether two days or two months have passed. Effective leaders have balance, poise and a sense of calm even in the midst of chaos. Building a multidimensional life will help you achieve the balance necessary to face a future more uncertain and anxiety-ridden then we ever envisioned.