How Experts Achieve a Work-Life Balance and How You Can TooTrying to find that elusive work-life balance? You’re not the only one! Many people feel like the lines between work and life have blurred, and they have little control over how their time is spent.

As productivity coach Laura Stack, MBA, said, “busy is the new normal.” According to Stack, “There’s a temptation every day for every one of us to be workaholics.” And she feels the pressure as well. “After all, aren’t we all busy? Ask people today, ‘How are you?’ and you will most likely hear, ‘Oh, I have been so busy.’ Hey, who’s not?”

How people weave together their personal life with their profession varies. What works for one person won’t work for another. It boils down to whatever is best for you. Still, it can help to know how others are able to wear so many different hats and juggle job and household.

So we talked with several experts, including productivity coaches and clinical psychologists, about what a work-life balance means to them, how they make it happen and what they do to overcome common challenges. You just might pick up a pointer or two for your own life.

What Work-Life Balance Means to Me

For Vicki Hess, RN, a consultant, speaker and author of SHIFT to Professional Paradise: 5 Steps to Less Stress, More Energy & Remarkable Results at Work, finding a traditional work-life balance is tricky because she works from home. But she’s not striving to achieve a balance anyway.

Instead, she defines a “work-life balance” by her energy levels and feelings. She said:

“Work-life balance to me is a state of mind where you feel like you have energy and enthusiasm for the events of your personal and professional life. As an independent consultant and speaker, I work from home so the lines are blurred. Work-life balance means I can play golf on Thursday afternoon when the course is less crowded and work on Sunday afternoon while it’s raining. I don’t think of ‘balance’ as being a set of equal scales—but more a feeling of being content with the distribution of energy. If you love your work, then you enjoy the time spent there so the time may be imbalanced, but you’re OK with that.”

Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time In Our 24/7 World, pays more attention to purpose. She said:

“We get into trouble when we treat our work lives as polar opposites to our personal lives. In today’s world, we blend both and should embrace that. Work-life balance is really about being in alignment with your truest purpose and making choices based on that purpose.”

In other words, for Hohlbaum, it’s about “being in alignment with who you are no matter what you are doing.”

Balance between the personal and professional isn’t a concern for psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D, either. According to Palladino, also author of Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload: “My life is much bigger than my work. I feel balanced when I center myself in my life, not my work.”

Stack, who’s also author of SuperCompetent: The Six Keys to Perform at Your Productive Best, agrees. Even though many of us are passionate about our professions, she said that it’s important to remember that “you are not defined by what you do professionally. Your tombstone will not say, ‘Productive, hard-working employee.’”

According to Sara Caputo, MA, productivity coach, consultant and trainer at Radiant Organizing and author of the forthcoming e-book The Productivity Puzzle, it means attending to all areas of her life. She said:

“Work-life balance for me means that I can fit into a day a little of everything. For example I can get some exercise, I can work with a client or speak at an event, I can see, smell and hold my kiddos (and hopefully tuck them into bed at night) and at the end of the day, I can feel as though I have touched upon the areas that are important to me in my life right now. […]

I guess for me work-life balance means that I am taking care of myself and taking the time for me that I need to feel grounded and supported without guilt and without hesitation. I know that when I do this, I show up better in all areas of my life.”

How Experts Achieve a Balance

Managing both your personal and professional lives requires some effort and planning, but the rewards are worth it.

To achieve her “balance,” Palladino relies on habits and personal rules. “I use rules for daily exercise, bedtime, caps on screentime, caffeine, and the time I allow to elapse between contacts with family and friends.” Of course, life still gets in the way. But when Palladino breaks her own rules and becomes immersed in work, she asks herself “What am I not doing now?” and makes sure she returns to them.

The experts interviewed also plan and pencil in activities. Palladino schedules alone time, and “I make birthdays, family gatherings and dates that matter to those who matter a top priority for me.” So does Stack, who devotes one day each month for doing whatever she wants. “I may call a friend to have lunch. I may go to the recreation center and sit in the Jacuzzi. I may drive to Cold Stone Creamery and get my favorite full-fat, full-sugar vanilla custard, mixed with Heath Bar and Butterfinger. I may sleep in. I never really know until I get there.”

According to Caputo, a self-professed “compulsive planner and priority setter”: “I look ahead a year, a month, a week, a day, an hour and know what I can be doing that will continue to move me towards where I want to go. I plan for exercise, personal care—a.k.a massages and pedicures—and of course work and kids items.”

Caputo and her husband support each other in the planning process. They have weekly 45-minute meetings to talk about topics like “kids schedules, finances [and] our calendar updates.” These meetings help “us focus on what we need to do so that we don’t have to talk about it for the rest of the week and we can enjoy life.”

For Hess, a loose schedule works best. While she sets certain routines “like exercising in the morning to jumpstart my brain and body,” she lets herself savor downtime. “As an empty nester, my husband and I have much more flexibility,” she said. However, when she had a full house of kids, setting priorities was invaluable. She said:

“I clearly remember the days of carpooling, sick kids and sporting events. In those days a lot of soul searching about my priorities helped with keeping balance. In our family a sit-down dinner was a must-have when my kids lived here. We arranged our schedules to make that happen at least several nights a week and passed up other activities. I didn’t say we had prime rib and twice stuffed potatoes, but we did eat together!”

Overcoming Challenges in Finding the Balance

No matter how sound the system or how smooth a person’s ability to juggle everything, inevitably challenges arise. For instance, our own beliefs can be sabotaging. Take the worry of unplugging. Many people fret that they’re somehow missing out on something important.

Palladino, too, has this “fear of missing out,” so she gives herself a dose of perspective. “Yes, if I turn off my smart phone, I might miss the next call or message, and it could be the break that would change my life, but chances are it isn’t, and the thought that it might be is most likely my brain’s justification to get its dopamine fix NOW.”

Many people also think they must reply to email ASAP. Palladino responds to every reader email she receives. But doing so immediately usually means staying up late and wrecking the following day. “I’m learning to accept my long response time by reminding myself that others will be fine without my reply for awhile. I’m not indispensable!”

Stepping away from the computer is tough for Hess, too. As she said, “Since I work from home, it’s always calling my name from down the hall.” Also calling Hess’s name is her BlackBerry. To rein this in, she designates one “computer free day” during the weekend. She does let herself check email on her BlackBerry but waits to reply ‘til Sunday night or early Monday. “I also find that daily affirmations and prayer are a key to my sanity,” she said.

For Palladino, disruptions are a big challenge when getting back to healthy habits such as physical activity and sleep. Planning ahead helps, Palladino said. So does easing into exercise. “I especially like practicing yoga and walking outdoors, which luckily, are pretty easy to do most anywhere, anytime.”

A challenge for Hohlbaum is multiple demands, “whether it is my children making requests, clients needing more attention or my family calling out.” What’s been lifesaving for her is setting and sustaining boundaries. She emphasized the importance of saying no. (If you want to learn more about building and maintaining better boundaries, see here and here.) Also, “taking nature walks, hugging trees and exercising are immensely grounding for me,” she added.

Caputo can relate to “feeling pulled in a million directions.” Keeping great lists is her saving grace. “This way, I know I’ll get to it; I just don’t have to do it right now…If I didn’t keep great lists—my daily list in particular—I have no idea how I would manage through the feelings that come and go in a day of work and life.”

When Hohlbaum feels herself besieged by busyness, she is “aware of [the] impact and restore[s] peace by taking a time out, going within or eating really well to manage my energy levels.”

Again, achieving a “work-life balance” will look different for everyone. The key is finding what’s most important to you — and no doubt having a good planner.