8 Secrets to Work-Life Success

Balancing tricks that have made the difference for those who wear more than one hat.

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With all the talk about work-life balance, who's really finding it? What makes the difference between the people who find time for an enriching personal life and a successful career, and those who struggle in vain for balance, peace, and focus amid the madness?

Finding a balance is largely up to employees, rather than employers. A recent survey of chief financial officers by BDO Seidman and Work+Life Fit found that nearly all of the executives surveyed said work-life flexibility has a high or moderate impact on improving retention and recruitment, but only 39 percent said their organizations have formal policies for flexibility in place.

So, the pressure's on you to be the professional and the parent. Here are eight practices that have worked for others:

Decide what is vital: While Henry Cloud, author of The One-Life Solution: Reclaim Your Personal Life While Achieving Greater Professional Success, was writing a follow-up on his coauthored book Boundaries that would address boundaries "at work," he found it needed to be boundaries "on work," he says. Work no longer operates apart from life, as technology allows business to interrupt restaurant meals, soccer games, or family vacations (thank you, BlackBerry).

Really successful balancers have decided what are vital expenditures of time and energy, Cloud says. Time with specific individuals or in certain activities gets set "like stone" in their schedule, Cloud says. The word vital means "that which gives life." If an audit of your schedule shows 80 percent of your time going to something else, you should be taking steps to fix that.

Prune constantly: Think of yourself as a gardener. "A rosebush produces more buds than it can feed," Cloud says. Gardeners prune the buds that aren't vital. Successful people constantly reassess their schedules and cut down on nonvital activities. They also may need to prune some relationships.

Successful balancers tend to set aside chunks of time at regular intervals for in-depth examinations of their life, goals, and plans, so that they have a plan that reflects their existing priorities, Cloud says.

Establish partnerships: Carole-Lynn Glass is a mother of two, including an 11-year-old daughter who has cerebral palsy, but she's been able to maintain her management position at RoseRyan, a consulting firm in Newark, Calif., thanks, in large part, to her husband. While RoseRyan is unusually tolerant of flexible schedules, Glass says she and her husband have had to negotiate—and renegotiate—the balance between work and parenting throughout their marriage. The couple honestly assesses who's most benefiting at a given time and who's taking a backseat, and then looks at how the situation can later be flipped and made fair. "You've got to be able to look at things from the other person's side," Glass says. "Maybe you don't feel like it's your turn...but you have to do it."

Redefine the roles: Diane Halpern, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College and former president of the American Psychological Association, and cowriter Fanny Cheung interviewed female leaders for the upcoming book Women at the Top: Powerful Leaders Tell Us How to Combine Work and Family. Halpern found that many redefined the role of a "good mother." They chose to remain intimately involved in their children's lives and "went to great lengths" for their kids, but they did not believe it was in their, or their children's, best interest to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Halpern says. In one example, a mother decided it was OK for someone else to help her child with homework, so she was able to contribute at work.

Change the expectations at work: Successfully balanced mothers tend to create realistic expectations at work. They make it clear that they have family lives outside of work, so that work becomes supportive of family, Halpern says. One might say: "I'm going to walk out and I'm going to go to the [child's] recital in the middle of the day, but I'm going to get my work done." She notes that this is, in some ways, easier for executives than lower-level employees.