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Work-life balance can seem like a misnomer in our always-on, ever-connected world, especially in the C-suite, where executives can now respond to a crisis or make key decisions anytime, anywhere. The fact that we can bring work with us wherever we go has brought the concept under much scrutiny: from 1986 to 1996 "work-life balance" was mentioned in the media just 32 times, while in 2007 alone it was mentioned 1674 times, Garry Keller writes in "The ONE Thing."

There are TED talks, apps and articles that promise to help you do a digital detox or be home for dinner every night. Researchers at Harvard Business School have spent the last five years studying if and how C-suite executives manage to find the elusive work-life balance. Their findings, based on 4,000 interviews with executives and a separate survey, find that balance is achievable, but it takes a concerted effort.

“By making deliberate choices about which opportunities they’ll pursue and which they’ll decline, rather than simply reacting to emergencies, leaders can and do engage meaningfully with work, family, and community,” the authors write.

The authors identify five main themes that helped people maintain their professional momentum while staying connected to their personal lives.

1. Define success for yourself

First and foremost, leaders must define success for themselves. For some, professional success means having passion for the work, while for another, it’s organizational advancement. On the personal side, one business executive defines success as being home at least four nights a week, while another aims to understand what’s going on in the lives of family members.

2. Manage technology

Always being plugged in can take a toll on family life. “Nearly all the interviewees talked about how critical it is to corral their e-mails, text messages, voice mails, and other communications,” the authors write. More than a third of people surveyed viewed technology in the home as an invader. Their consensus? Make yourself available, but not too available.

3. Build support networks at work and at home

Whether executives are taking care of children, aging parents or their personal health problems, nearly all stressed the importance of outside help from extended family or professionals. They also cited the importance of support from colleagues at work. “Mentors and team members helped leaders weather difficult times and eventually return to business as usual,” the authors write.

4. Travel or relocate selectively

Of those surveyed, 32 percent said they’d turned down an international assignment because they didn’t want to uproot their families. Many said they believe in racking up travel miles and global experience while they’re young, and others had refused to relocate when their children were adolescents.

5. Collaborate with your partner

Both men and women surveyed said that their partners believed in them. “A partner’s support may come in many forms, but what it almost always boils down to is making sure the executive manages his or her own human capital effectively. The pressures and demands on executives are intense, multidirectional, and unceasing. Partners can help them keep their eyes on what matters,” the authors write.

Read the full study on HBR. 

 

Photo: Can Stock