Just 25 years ago business basically stopped at 5:00 p.m. The receptionist went home and the office phones were turned off. If your need was urgent, you may have left a message on a machine to have your call returned the next business day. Very few people had mobile phones. If they did, the phone was permanently mounted in their car. The Internet was in its infancy, and there was no email streaming 24 hours a day. Back in the good ol’ days, the boundaries between your work life and personal life were clear.

Today, for many of us, the overlap between work and personal lives is unavoidable. How did this come about?  Here are some of the answers:

  • Longer hours. The economy is struggling. If you have a job today, you are grateful. Most companies have gone through some type of downsizing or have not filled open positions. Almost everyone is being asked to do a lot more with a lot less. As an engaged employee giving discretionary effort (willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done), you are probably working longer hours.

  • Global business. When you work for a company that does business internationally, there is no down time. Someone, somewhere in the world, needs something 24 hours a day.

  • Accessibility. With the Internet and smart phones, it is almost impossible to hide and cut yourself off from the rest of the world. We now live in a world where some people feel they are not doing their job unless they have contact with their office every moment of every day throughout the entire year.

  • Dual-income families. Dual income families constitute approximately 80% of the population. This is the highest percentage in history, and dual-income families are now becoming the societal norm. In most dual-income families, one individual takes on a larger work role while the other takes on a larger role managing the home/family.

  • Societal expectations. Whether it’s business or personal correspondence, there is the expectation that you will read and respond to your email messages immediately. People often say, “I haven’t received a response to the email I sent you yesterday.” Upon investigation, you find the message was sent at 10:00 p.m. the previous night. The expectation that you should be continually monitoring your email accounts, day and night, adds stress and blurs the line between work and home.

The Challenge: Goals vs. Goals

It helps to understand the different goals you are trying to accomplish at work and personally. Work is usually focused on accomplishing or achieving something. You work to earn money to enjoy a certain lifestyle or put your child through college. Your personal goals are different and typically are built around things you enjoy. Personal goals typically include things like spending time with family and friends, improving health and fitness, increasing knowledge by learning, traveling, and relaxing by listening to sounds you enjoy. When you look at the balance of time you spend achieving professional goals at work and personal goals, do you have the right balance?

We wanted to know how great leaders handle work-life balance. After surveying more than 250 organizations, comprising more than 100,000 employees, we learned that leaders of organizations in the Best of the Best benchmark (top 25%) do things differently when it comes to work-life balance. More than 81% of the Best of the Best employees agreed with the statement, “My company encourages me to achieve work-life balance.” Only 67% of employees in the overall benchmark agreed with the same statement. Clearly, the Best of the Best Leaders are setting a good example for their employees.

If your work-life balance is not what you’d like it to be, check out 10 ideas below to help you tip the scales in your favor:

  • Keep a time log. For a week, keep track of how you spend your time. If you find that 90% of your time is being spent on accomplishment and achievement tasks, you may want to remind yourself that at the end of your life, you are not taking your things with you. That is why they do not mount trailer hitches on hearses. Do not let your desire for material possessions derail your work-life balance. Ultimately, it’s not about how much “stuff” you have, but how you spend your time.

  • Make a list of what you really enjoy. Life is short. It can be over in one heartbeat. Make a list of the people you really enjoy having in your life as well as the activities you enjoy. Then put a plan in place and block off the time to make enjoyment a bigger part of your life.

  • Prioritize. What is an acceptable balance between your work and personal life? If it is currently 90/10, your goal may be to change that ratio to 70/30. Once you determine the right balance, put a plan in place to make it happen.

  • Buy the tickets. I learned this great tactic from Terry Paulson, a fellow faculty member with the Institute of Management Studies. Start by making a few dates with the friends and family who matter most. Buy a few tickets and get those events in your calendar. Don’t worry—when you’ve paid good money for theater, concert, or sporting event tickets, you’ll find a way to get everything done so that you can go.

  • Acknowledge what you don’t need to do. There are some tasks, both at work and at home, that simply do not need to be done. Most likely, nobody will care or even notice that some of these tasks are left undone. For example, you don’t need to respond to every email. There are many emails that can be assigned junk status so you don’t even see them. If you find there are some tasks that still need to be done and you don’t have time to do them, delegate them to someone else. Even freeing up one hour a day will relieve stress and allow you to put more enjoyment in your life.

  • Put margin back in your life. Filling up every minute of your day adds stress. When every moment of your life is scheduled, there is no room for anything to go wrong. If you schedule back-to-back meetings from 9:00 a.m., and the first meeting runs late, you are going to be trying to catch up for the rest of the day. If you need to pick up the kids by 5:00 p.m., schedule your last meeting to end at 4:00 p.m. That way, if the meeting does run over, you have built-in a margin.

  • Leave work at work. Many years ago, I went to the home of an executive I was working with. As he opened his garage door, there was a 4-by-8-foot plywood sign that said, “Be Here Now!” When I asked him about the meaning of the sign he said, “Without the reminder, I bring my work into my home. The sign is all I need to go home and really enjoy my time with my family.”

  • Protect your personal time off. Schedule your errands, like grocery shopping and picking up the dry cleaning, on the way home from work. That way, you do not have to spend your enjoyment time on your days off doing chores and errands.

  • Don’t email on the weekends. If you feel compelled to check your email on the weekend, work off-line. When you send an email, many in this world feel compelled to respond to you. There is very little communication in the workplace so critical that it cannot wait until Monday morning.

  • Just Say "No." Knowing that there will always be more to do than there is time to do it, get more comfortable with saying, “No, I’m not able to help you with that right now.” If it’s important, negotiate a timeline that will work for you.

Strive for excellence, not perfection, with these ideas.

Time is the great equalizer. We are all blessed with the same number of minutes each day —1,440, to be exact. You can’t save time, make time, or find time, but you can schedule and plan for how you want to spend your time.

—Peter Stark is president of the Peter Barron Stark Companies. Jane Flaherty is a senior consultant with the firm, which works with organizations to create a culture where employees love to come to work and customers love to do business. They offer a complete range of services, including employee opinion surveys, customer service surveys, leadership training, negotiation skills training, and management consulting. Their latest book, Engaged! How Leaders Build Organizations Where Employees Love to Come to Work, was published in March 2009. They can be reached at 877-727-6468 or [email protected].