Get a life: 10 tips for achieving a better work/life balance

We all know 60-hour workweeks are common in the IT world. But it doesn't have to be that way.

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How can you find ways to better balance your professional and personal time -- even if you're at a company that's less progressive on the issue? Work/life coaches, IT executives and experienced tech professionals share their strategies for finding the right balance, with these 10 tips:

1. Establish and enforce your own priorities.

Many people who want to make a change in their lives fail to first reflect on exactly what it is they want to do differently, says Kathie Lingle, director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Step 1 should always be to set your priorities, she says. "Get those straight in your mind, and [then] act on them," Lingle suggests.

Whether your goal is to be active in your community or nurture personal relationships, it's likely you'll need to make time for those priorities by limiting your hours at work -- even if that means saying no to overtime or extra projects, or to a promotion.

Brian Schultz, information assurance practice lead at the Arlington, Va. office of the Battelle Memorial Institute, undertook this exercise when working as a manager with the computer risk management practice at the former Arthur Anderson LLP. He didn't want to follow the same track as the executives he knew who sacrificed fulfilling personal lives to work 60-hour weeks.

"Early on, I established a priority list: God, family, country, community and company," Schultz explains. "The company is last. If you take that strictly, of course, you'd be living on the street, so there's a definite balance between those commitments. But to be fulfilled, you need that balance."

It wasn't an empty exercise. Schultz left Arthur Anderson in 2000 because he wasn't willing to put in the 14-hour days and weekend time needed to reach the next level. Instead, he found a position with another company that offered challenging work yet still respected the work/life balance he sought.

Now at Battelle, where he works an average of 45 hours a week, Schultz says he doesn't have to sacrifice career aspirations for personal time. Unless there's a looming deadline or an after-hours client meeting, Schultz doesn't work on Sundays, and weekdays he's usually home for dinner with his family.

2. Communicate.

You've set your priorities. Now let your co-workers know about them.

"Boundaries are often invisible. No one knows they're there but you. If you don't articulate [your boundaries], then how will other people know they're crossing them?" asks Lisa Martin, founder and president of coaching and training company Briefcase Moms in Vancouver, British Columbia.

It's crucial to be clear about what you want, what you can do and what you can't do, she says. It's equally crucial, of course, to take a business approach to this step, Martin emphasizes. Find opportune times to discuss such matters, and use a neutral voice to address missteps.

If, for instance, you've negotiated the ability to leave nightly by a certain time but your boss still keeps you late, state the problem neutrally ("This is the seventh time in two months I've worked late on a Friday") and remind her of your initial boundary ("We'd agreed to a firm leaving time.")

For some employees, this step might not come naturally, especially when speaking to a supervisor, but "you've got to take your 'boundaries vitamins,' " Martin maintains. "You have to keep fortifying [your position]. "It gets easier with practice," she promises.

Lingle suggests sharing not only your established priorities but also select details of your personal life with your co-workers.

It's an approach that Bob Keefe, senior vice president and CIO of Mueller Co.'s Mueller Water Products division and president-elect of the Society for Information Management, has seen put to good use firsthand.

While working at another company, his team encountered a serious error during an electronic data interchange. The team had to contact a colleague for information, although they knew he was out because his wife was heading into surgery.

"He was the kind of person who, if we made that phone call, he'd be back in the office, so we told him the program just 'ab ended,' " knowing that an abnormal end to a program wasn't serious enough to make him feel he needed to return to work, Keefe explains. Because they knew about his personal situation beforehand, the team took the trouble to glean the necessary information from their colleague without calling him back into the office.

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