Event Recap

Balancing Work and Life (Switzer Leadership Webinar Series)

On March 26, 2012, we hosted a webinar on the topic of balancing work and life for Fellows.  Margaret Rubega introduced the topic and moderated a panel that included Switzer Fellows Nancy Steele, Francisco Dóñez, Julia Ledewitz and Leslie Abramson.  Each panelist brought a different perspective to the topic, and each had great tips and tricks to share.  

We'd like to think of this webinar as the beginning of a larger conversation among Fellows on this topic, since finding balance is a key leadership skill.  We invite you to use the comments section of this post to tell us how we might foster a larger discussion on the topic.

Nancy Steele (full profile) on juggling school, work, family and volunteering

1993 Fellow
Executive Director, Council for Watershed Health

Editor's note: Nancy was also profiled by Forbes magazine in an article ("Boardroom Boundaries and the Women Who Break Them") about women who balance high-power careers with intensive outside interests, in Nancy's case beekeeping.

In 1999, I was a staff person at the California Air Resources Board with a teenager and pre-teen in the house. I was also working towards founding a non-profit land trust and helping out in our family beekeeping business.

One year later I had been promoted to manager of a new regulation-writing section at the ARB and elected as President of the new all-volunteer land trust.

I thought about my busy life and decided that in order to survive I needed to carve out some very special personal time. I wanted to bring music back into my life along with performance of some kind and I needed to do something about my aching back and flabby muscles. Through a happy coincidence of good timing, I was able to join a performance musical group – a handbell choir at my church – and I joined a new pilates class.

Over the years, my work has gotten ever more challenging and demanding as I left state government to lead up a non-profit watershed council (in 2005). My pilates class transitioned to private lessons and then ended when my coach quit; I replaced that class with a gym membership, but going to the gym has proven difficult to keep up unless I have exercise buddies or some physical goal. Nevertheless, I probably average going to the gym or on a moderately strenuous hike 2-3 times a week, which isn’t bad. I bought a high-tech pedometer to keep track of my steps online, which also helps to goad me. And I have kept up with the handbell choir – there is a group of people who rely on me to be there every week and for our monthly performances. So for my work-life balance, I know that I need to be doing something that I love and that having other people who rely on me helps keep me motivated.

Francisco Dóñez (full profile) on keeping your career on track while raising kids
2007 Fellow
Environmental Engineer, U.S. EPA

Editor's note: Francisco prepared the following notes after the webinar, but they offer a great overview of the points he made during the event as well comments made by others that resonated with him.

The phrase “work-life balance” implies a strict separation, which may or may not be the case. Everyone must decide on the strictness of this separation in their own lives. For example, a couple may both be strictly committed environmentalists, and decide to orient their careers and home lives around that principle. More likely, family members will have somewhat divergent interests and priorities, and will need to accommodate one another. As Leslie mentioned in her remarks, even single people can (and should) make decisions about whether and how much to separate “work” and “life.” In all cases, those decisions may change over time.

My goal over the past decade has been to achieve some level of resilience in my work and life, the capacity to absorb and bounce back from bumps, perturbations, and crises. (As my family has grown, and as my studies and career have proceeded to more advanced levels, the number of crises has increased a great deal!)

Physical health is a key element of this resilience, which I have strived to maintain by eating right, getting enough sleep, etc. Our family’s key decision here was to locate our home in a place where I can bicycle to and from work, and where we can walk to the center of town to run errands or have fun.

Workplace accommodations and benefits are another factor, especially when things do go wrong. The federal government is an exemplary employer in this respect, with firmly delimited work schedules and overtime compensation, generous health and vacation benefits, in-house health programs (gyms in many federal buildings), subsidies for public transit and bike commuting, and amazing alternative worksite (work-at-home) accommodations.

Managing expectations is important. You can only be one place at a time. (And for me, multitasking doesn’t work very well.) As a professional, you have earned the right to declare your working hours and stick to them. It won’t take your colleagues long to realize that you “turn into a pumpkin” at 5:00 pm so that you can catch the train home.

As another speaker (Margaret?) mentioned, the shape of your work and life tends to change cyclically, with different elements waxing and waning over time. Some of these cycles are under your control, and some are not.

For people on a Ph.D. track, the academic vs. non-academic career decision is a key one for work-life balance. Both paths have their advantages. This might be a good topic for a future discussion. 

Julia Ledewitz (full profile) on time management tips from a working professional and amateur athlete
2011 Fellow
Sustainability Coordinator, MIT
Master's Candidate, Tufts

Editor's note: The outline Julia spoke from is included below, with a few titles and numbers added for clarity.  If you'd like to learn more about Julia's training regimen and other topics, check out her fascinating blog at Julia Untapered.

Currently working on:

  1. Graduate school
  2. MIT Coordinator (talk to boss!)
  3. Triathlon Worlds

Big tips:

  • Setting goals
  • Communicate needs
  • Play triage
  • Stop the guilt

Work Life Balance

  1. Keeping compartmentalized: work vs. home phone (and home vs. work EMAIL!)
  2. Schedules: 1 per activity type: work, school, training: but 1 overall one
  3. Plan: Spend 15 minutes at the end of every workday planning your next day plus 2. Waiting until first thing in the morning to plan is too late— The day is already crashing upon you. 15 minutes daily at the END of the day, plan for the next 2- little and big items, running tally. Be realistic!
  4. Be an AM person: if possible. If not? Maximize the time you have and like. You don't have to be a morning person in order to be productive, but use the morning for mundane tasks-- non thinking, non critical and leave the best hours for your most important tasks.
  5. Use the commute: whether it's a walk for fitness, reading on the commute (always!) or a bike ride to CLEAR your head.
  6. Find something FUN to do each week. I love wine- I find a wine tasting or plan for a fancy dinner on Thursday or Friday.

Leslie Abramson (full profile) on self-care routines
2008 Fellow
Switzer Leadership Grantee
Sanctuary Advisory Council Coordinator, Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA

I spent the first 7 years of my professional career working in the field as an outdoor educator – spending 1-3 months at a time at-sea or in the mountains. I thought I had the best “life/work” balance in the world, because they were one and the same.

The problem was, that after about 5 years, I really started resenting it. I resented that I couldn’t maintain friendships, that my family couldn’t depend on me, that I had become isolated entirely from any kind of support network I might have had. That was my first lesson—that I did actually need a separation between work and life.

So, I mention this just to say that I have come a long way from this place, but I definitely have a long way to go. Not only have I spent a lot of time doing self-work, but I have spent a lot of time in therapy, trying to develop the behaviors and the attitude that has allowed me to live a full, happy life with my husband.

So, I took a moment to jot down some life lessons I picked up along the way. Some of these might seem like clichés, and maybe all of them are really obvious, but at least for me, they took a really long time to internalize:


1) Making your life your work was not sustainable for me in the long run.

2) Every time I have made a professional decision based on prestige or ambition, it has proven to be sub ideal. I now try very hard to get past my desire for respect and recognition to get at what will really fits me best. (Always choose happiness, lifestyle, location over money and an external definition of "success")

3) Never sacrifice the things you need to do for your health and sanity (for me: yoga classes during my lunch hour or coming to work 1 hour before everyone else, monthly massage) for the job.  It's important to be selfish and prioritize your "maintenance" needs

4) Compartmentalize: Separate your personal emotions from your work.  You may feel very passionately about your job and your colleagues, but it is your JOB and they are your colleagues.  In order to balance personal and professional life, you MUST make the differentiation between personal and professional.  Don't take things personally at work and infuse them with too much emotion.  And DON't bring home the burdens of your job to your personal life. 

5) Be strong, confident and advocate for your right to have work/life balance.

6) Do not romanticize or glamorize workaholism.

Some of the things I am thinking about now:

How can you minimize the impacts maternity leave and parenthood have on your career, especially during crucial periods at work? While (of course) maximizing the experience of parenthood, but never "resenting" it!

Between time for work and time for significant other and family, how do we make time for fostering social networks that support us and help us grow professionally and personally?