Cheri Baker is a leadership consultant, but she might as well have hung up her shingle as a work-life balance consultant: As she coaches leaders to perform better, balance is invariably part of the challenge.
"Work-life balance has been the background music to all the leadership development work I have been doing," says the Seattle-based consultant, who refers to herself, only somewhat ironically, as a "stealth psychologist."
Over time, she has found herself guiding clients through three steps to gain a more acceptable balance: Defining balance, taking ownership, and applying some strategies for balance. She has turned that approach into a downloadable worksheet for others to use, The Busy Manager's Guide To Work/Life Balance.
It starts with two seemingly simple questions: What do you want more of, and, what do you want less of?
"A lot of clients, while stressed about work-life balance, never pause to question what they can do more or less of," she says in an interview. The worksheet calls for you to write down your answers, but in the interview she stressed they shouldn't come immediately. Take time, perhaps a few days or even weeks, to consider the possibilities.
As part of this pondering, she also urges you to come up with a wish list. Imagine that it's a year from now and you've achieved a balanced life. What would that balanced life look like? She urges you to write it down in as much detail as possible, for example, a schedule that allows you to get home every night for dinner with your children.
Grappling with the choices you can make is vital because too often we believe we are stuck without options. But there are always options, even if they may seem unpalatable, such as asking our boss for changes to our work situation, or even quitting. "But we prefer not to take risks. We give up our choices for our current role," she says.
By recognizing the choices you are making, you take ownership of the situation, which is the second stage of her approach. "Instead of making excuses, we should be honest about the fact that we are making choices. We are not victims. We are not powerless. We are setting priorities," she says.
In some cases, she suggests you can attain the same goals through different actions. If you want to hit the gym in the early morning, for example, but are compelled to be at work early, arrange to take a power walk at lunch or stop at the gym in the evening. Or try to negotiate a solution, such as asking your boss if a later starting time is feasible.
She finds it particularly helpful to ask a successful co-worker how they handle their work-life balance issues. She points out there are usually three or four people you can identify who seem to have it right, even thought they operate in the same culture that leaves you topsy-turvy.
Taking ownership – and trying to fix the situation – may involve overcoming an aversion to conflict. "Often people who avoid conflict are more likely to be in work-life drift," she says.
The final element of her worksheet presents nine strategies for work-life balance, some of which may be applicable to your life:
- Time is overrated: Balance is not solely a matter of reducing work hours. It may simply involve schedule adjustments. “It’s not an issue of hours in and hours out. It’s the quality of time,” she says.
- Night Owls vs. Early Birds: She reduced stress when she stopped trying to match her husband’s early-to-sleep pattern and was free to be a night owl. “Give yourself permission to adapt your schedule to your energy. I get so much done between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. I feel I can move mountains,” she says.
- Shifting Focus: Her clients are often full of resentment over their long hours and stressful lives. Take time to notice the good things in your life – count your blessings on a daily basis – and lower your expectations in areas where that’s acceptable.
- Slacker’s Delight: Find and preserve some time to recharge. For her, that means being alone, probably with a mystery novel and some chocolate, on the couch. “Find what works to recharge you and schedule time to do it,” she says.
- Two-fers: Try some multitasking that works, like working out with a friend, or teaching your toddler addition by counting the socks coming out of the dryer.
- Daily Rituals: Develop some patterns for making the transition between work and home. That might simply involve opening the curtains in the morning to let the light in and propel you into your day more cheerfully. She used to come home and plop down on the couch with her husband after work, exhausted and fixated on the glowing screen. Now they meet three evenings a week at a local restaurant where they share an appetizer and talk.
- Negotiate Wisely: To achieve balance, you must get others to buy in, and she offers tips to achieve that.
- Long Weekends: An extra day can be more than an extra day when added to a weekend. She recommends a long weekend every quarter to reduce stress. Don’t allow anything to be scheduled for that time until one week before, so you preserve it for your needs.
- Unplug: Your cellphone is not your boss. Unplug more frequently.
It's a thoughtful approach, battle-tested with her clients and in her own life, and might help you understand and improve your own work-life situation.