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work-life balance

Allison Wolf, a certified executive coach and President of Shift Works Strategic Inc., left, coaches lawyer Lisa Chamzuk in Vancouver.Laura Leyshon/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver lawyer Lisa Chamzuk knows that finding an absolute work-life balance is a myth, particularly if you're searching for perfection.

When her children need a ride to tae kwon do practice, or the gym beckons, the balance shifts, morphs and wobbles.

"I don't ever like using that expression: work-life balance," said Allison Wolf, president of Shift Works Strategic Inc. Her company coaches members of the legal profession to find that sweet spot of maximizing potential at work and tending to life outside. But her advice could easily be applied in other stressful workplaces.

"[The term makes you] think about the scales of justice: You've got your work on one side and your personal life on the other," she said. "Who are we kidding? There's not some magic formula. It's an ever-changing equation. People are constantly juggling a lot of different priorities and it's an endless juggling act."

A partner at Lawson Lundell, Ms. Chamzuk found that all parts of her life became overwhelming after she had her two sons, now 4 and 7. Her dilemma crept up on her over time. "I felt like I was just living day to day, just responding to fires that came up," she said. She gained 20 pounds. She felt quite unhappy and knew that something was out of balance.

"I knew that I had to make a massive change. Otherwise, I'd have to leave the career."

Ms. Chamzuk found herself in the same plight as many female lawyers trying to balance career and family. "It's not a coincidence that the attrition rate in the profession for women is incredibly high," she said. "I think for women trying to put limits on how you parent, the way you're able to put limits on what you're able to give to work, is like putting water in a cardboard box."

When push comes to shove, Ms. Chamzuk said, parenting wins out.

After Ms. Wolf took Ms. Chamzuk aside and told her that her path was unsustainable, the lawyer stepped boldly into planning mode.

Precise planning is critical, Ms. Chamzuk said. It allows her to feel as if she's "firing on all cylinders" and meeting expectations in all parts of her life. Ms. Chamzuk doesn't just plan on a yearly or a monthly basis; she also plans on a weekly or even daily basis.

On Sunday, she'll think about work and family life obligations for the coming week, and after all of those things are pencilled in on the same electronic planner, she'll determine where she can devote time to things "that keeps me sane and happy," such as getting to the gym, reading a book or watching a television program.

Exercise is necessary to give her the energy to accomplish other things in her day. "The more energy I have is a direct result of exercise," she said. She meets with a personal trainer once a week; it's one appointment she won't break. It works: She gets to the gym perhaps another two times a week, if only to avoid embarrassment the next time she sees the trainer.

Her daily to-do list is carefully filed into her calendar and it "looks insane." On some days, she will have 17 entries. A long to-do list does not faze her. She feels rewarded when she crosses off each one, one by one.

"For me, because I'm a fairly goal-driven person, if I don't plan it, I don't do it," Ms. Chamzuk said.

Interviewed recently, Vancouver lawyer Richard Bereti was fully prepared to voice his views on work-life balance, but as he cradled his four-year-old son beside a hearth early one morning, he realized, too, that the balance was a myth.

"I can't sell you a bill of goods," he said. "I can't gloss this over." Young professionals have vivid memories of life outside work, but as they become entrenched in the work culture, work takes over, he says. At one stage in his life, Mr. Bereti got off the fast track by spending a year building heritage-style furniture.

Now he's back to juggling his work life, which is full, to say the least. He chairs the environmental law group at his firm, Harper Grey, he does commercial litigation, he's an author of environmental books, he teaches environmental law at the University of British Columbia, he often speaks at continuing education and industry conferences, and he's a member of the Canadian Urban Institute, always on the lookout for brownfield developments.

Ms. Wolf at Shift Works advocates flexible work hours and "pulsing" for busy workers. Conventional logic emphasizes consistency: bursting into the office at 9 a.m. and working doggedly until 5 p.m. without fail.

But an approach that combines working long hours a few days a week with leaving work earlier on other days can actually make people more effective, she says. For Mr. Bereti, that could mean deciding to work until midnight one day, then leaving work early the next day to pick up his child from school.

Flex hours could also include allowing lawyers to work part-time, although they must be careful. Working part-time (and being paid part-time) can easily turn into a full schedule if the employee doesn't have the strength to say no, Ms. Wolf says.

Ms. Chamzuk still feels overwhelmed by her tasks, but the stress is eased by the planning. "There have been moments where I've stopped and gone: 'Is any of this worth it?' You have to check that on a regular basis."

Recently, her seven-year-old son asked her to show him "where it says you're a boss now."

She showed him the word "partner" on the website.

"Cool, mamma," he said, and walked away.

"I allowed myself in the moment to say: 'He gets it. He's proud of me, He understands there was a sacrifice to do that.'"