Work, Life, and the Attempt to Do it All

Forget work-life balance. Just try to make it fit.

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At one time, the concept of "work-life balance" seemed to promise a holy grail for meeting the demands of modern life. But that ideal of having it all, particularly for women, for whom the pressures of family responsibilities still loom largest, has been increasingly, and publicly, denounced. "There's no such thing as work-life balance," Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said last year in the AOL/PBS video series MAKERS: Women Who Make America. Sandberg said she would pump breast milk during conference calls and dismiss the wooshing noise as a jackhammer outside. "There's work, and there's life, and there's no balance," she said. A few months later, in Anne-Marie Slaughter's tell-all for the Atlantic, she described leaving her "foreign-policy dream job" to tend to her family, particularly a troubled son whom her hectic schedule only permitted seeing on weekends.

These stories sparked plenty of buzz about work-life balance. But they are just examples of a conundrum that affects us all. Given today's tethers of technology, we remain "on call," even as we struggle to slay the eternal to-do list.

"We end up caught in the cycle of responsiveness," says Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor and author of Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work. "The more we do it, the more others expect it of us, the more we do it. And what is happening is there is no longer any pressure for work to be confined to normal work hours. Rather, people realize they can find each other any time and so there is no pressure to plan and prioritize," she says. Ultimately, the constant connectedness is "undermining the predictability and control we have of our lives and more surprisingly the work process itself."

So, how do we get our lives back?

We have to redraw the boundaries destroyed by technology and the global economy, explains Cali Williams Yost, CEO of Flex+Strategy Group and Work+Life Fit, which help businesses and individuals, respectively, find room for both. But rather than strive for balance, which sets up an elusive ideal of neatly splitting time between work and home, find a personal prescription to make your work and life fit. Yost's book, Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day, released last month, outlines four lessons derived from people who manage life with relative ease. They succeed, she says, by aligning their work and personal calendars for better planning, routinely reflecting on what they are and aren't accomplishing, taking steps to then "close the gap," and, finally, celebrating their achievements, she says. "They don't focus on what they don't get done."

Consider your to-do list a "source of inspiration," and then put priorities on your calendar, Yost says. For example, on a given day, you might want to accomplish the following: complete a work project, make a healthy family dinner, return the long-overdue phone call to whomever, swing by the mall to buy a birthday gift, and make the morning yoga class so you're pumped enough to meet the aforementioned tasks. You might prioritize the family dinner and work project, but buy the birthday gift online and do yoga at home with a top-notch DVD.

[See The Working Parent Dilemma: Less Time for Healthy Meals?]

"We live in a world of such competing demands that if we don't start to flex our muscle to make what matters happen, it's not as likely to happen," Yost says. She advises cherishing small changes—noting, for example, a reader who takes the steps instead of the elevator to find more fitness in her day. The idea is to "deliberately and thoughtfully manage the way work fits into our life every day."

[See Stay Fit Without Setting Foot in The Gym]

As you start taking more control your days, consider keeping these tips in mind:

• Get organized. But first, clear your clutter.

Organizing is "weirdly energizing and calming," says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, who has devoted herself to the analytic pursuit of a fulfilling life. It's "not like you have to alphabetize your spices," but it's fun, frankly, to be able to find the flashlight. However, before you embark on a major organization project, try tossing stuff first. "Getting rid of it is just much easier," she says, and adds that those who rid their clutter regularly liken the result to the glory of losing weight.