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How to Actually Attain “Work-Life Balance”

Hint: it's not how you think

“How do you do it all?” “How can I establish a good work-life balance?” “How do you manage work and home stuff without letting things slip?”

I get asked these questions a lot. As a leadership coach, queries about “doing stuff better” are pretty commonplace. But these particular ones are asked by friends, family, and acquaintances as much as they are by clients.

Let me explain. I run a business with multiple Fortune 200 clients. I have a child, a partner, a dog, and an extended family a few thousand miles away – i.e., outside of reliable-source-of-childcare range. I do a raft of pro bono work. I’m also a woman. (I wouldn’t mention that, only men with similar demands on their time don’t seem to get asked about “having it all” quite as much. Except this guy.) And I value downtime more than most people do, partly having experienced what life without it is like. I’ve learned that if I can’t accommodate some downtime, I’m less effective in my other roles.

I’m not alone in that – one doesn’t have to look far for empirical evidence of downtime and self-care paying dividends in work and life.

Here’s something else I’ve learned though: work-life balance is an elusive goal and a life’s work. Rare is the week I attain “inbox zero,” do the school run, and find time for enough self-care, but making the effort to achieve the latter helps me be more effective in all of the above. More than that, it makes me a better boss to my team, a better partner to my clients, and a better parent/partner to my family.

With every late-night visit to our email inbox or simple “no” to a work request, we make a decision about our personal-professional persona that impacts coworkers and loved ones alike.

Culture starts with people, after all. A company I used to work for, while stellar in many ways, kicked its employees’ non-work lives to the curb in order to fit in more work. No out-of-office email responses allowed. No vacation policy (which, unless done sensitively, typically means no vacation). And no “saying no” to clients. Needless to say, people burnt out. Again and again.

In the years I worked there, many personal friendships fell by the wayside in the wake of missed birthday parties and forgotten happy hours. Parental leave was overshadowed by work requests and client engagements. And clients didn’t exactly thrive, serviced as they were by overworked employees. But I have to own my involvement in that culture – by responding to the late-night emails and failing to put my foot down about things like working-during-maternity-leave, I was part of the problem. I was signaling to my team that you can’t really unplug when you’re on vacation or leave. People see you. And they follow the example you set.

Are we the type to respond to a midnight work email within minutes? Or the person who leaves early to collect their kids from school? Do we brag about returning early from maternity leave (thus eroding its value for other aspiring parents – as a few former colleagues of mine did)? Or are we the lone employee to take paternity leave, despite some ribbing from our peers?

A lot implications are wrapped up in these decisions, big and small. Part of why I started my own company was to establish a strong work-life balance, model it for others, and ultimately provide a great workplace for future employees.

I’d say I’m about half-way there.

Needless to say, I have many thoughts on these topics – on defining, establishing, and maintaining a good balance of work and life. And what that means when the two worlds are more closely entwined than ever.

But I’ll share just one here. To attain a strong work-life balance, you must first define what it means for you.

Everyone is different. For me, a good balance includes getting all of my short-term/pressing projects done and making a dent in the rest, both the professional and personal. It also includes seeing a lot of my family, walking the dog a few times a week, and fitting in a dose or two of self-care.

A great week also includes more of the latter two categories: extra family time and self-care (my preferred brand of self-care focuses on health and well-being: gym time, massage, acupuncture, etc.). Those weeks are rare, but not unheard of if I plan well. 

And if you’re thinking “I could NEVER make time for that,” you’re probably more in need of a fresh approach than you might realize. Remember, nobody reaches retirement and says “I wish I’d spent more evenings looking at my phone and more time dialing into webinars.”

Give some thought to what your ideal work-life balance might look like. What are your non-negotiables? In other words, what do you hate to miss? A favorite past-time? School recitals?

A lightbulb moment for me was when I realized this: burnout isn’t due to hard-work in itself, but to the resentment that comes along with it – with missing things that you enjoy or value.

For example, you could be working especially long hours on something you care about, but still making time for your side interests and personal relationships – and feel great as a result. But if you miss those things that matter to you because of working too much, you can become resentful and unhappy. Fast.

Try to protect what’s important to you, whether it’s taking a weekly yoga class, putting your children to bed at night, or something else entirely. And be specific.

Because no one else can fix your work-life balance for you. With smartphones and laptops, gone are the days of leaving work at the office – it’s with us wherever we go. Boundary-setting is key – and that starts with you.


Ellie Hearne is a leadership-communications expert and founder of Pencil or Ink. Over the years she has coached leaders at Apple, Google, Kate Spade, Starbucks, Spotify, Marriott, Pfizer, Piaget, and numerous small businesses and startups. Ellie can be reached here, here, and here.

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