To the outsider, Karyn Evans appears to have it all under control. A CMP and CMM, the 40-year-old is principal planner of meeting and event services for Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America, mother of a 4-year-old daughter and stepmother of two adults, wife of an exec who spends 90 percent of the workweek on the road, and an active volunteer in her community.

Oh, and she's beautiful and thin, too.

But don't hate her too much. She struggles with balancing the same overload of responsibilities and desires as anyone else. The details might change, but the challenge remains the same — too much to do and not enough time to do it in.

“People see that I have a well-adjusted child, a good home life, a great job, and they want to know how I do it all and stay sane,” says Evans. “But it's impossible to believe that I can give 100 percent to everything all the time. I think a woman can have it all, but not everything can always be equal.”

The Quest for Balance

Evans is not alone in trying to figure out how to do it all. Female or male, partnered or single, parent or not, the quest for work-life balance has become so encompassing that it's spawned an entire industry of consultants, seminars, and books. And in a field where women dominate (approximately 77 percent of Financial & Insurance Conference Planners members are women), the quest is even more challenging.

While flex time, job sharing, and compressed workweeks are becoming more common in the workplace, they haven't really caught on in meeting planning departments, where frequent travel makes such perks difficult to manage. As well, in today's wired world, employees are often expected to give 110 percent as a matter of course. “Women have not come such a long way after all,” notes Linda Edgecombe, a professional speaker, trainer, and author based in British Columbia, who led a workshop on work-life balance at FICP's 2006 annual meeting. “Not only do most women still make significantly less money than men for doing the same job, [FIM's reader survey conducted in late 2005 showed a gender gap of nearly $30,000 between average salaries of men and women] but the average working woman continues to do the bulk of the work at home as well.”

Take Control

Nonetheless, many women today are taking an active role in shaping both the workplace and their home lives in ways that allow them to better balance the two. In 2004, to accommodate a move to Atlanta due to her husband's job change, Evans proposed to her Minneapolis-based company a six-month telecommuting trial from her new home. At the time, she was manager of meeting and event services. “Because I was involved in quite a few events that still needed to be executed, we agreed that I would remain an employee, see those events through, and then reevaluate,” she says. “We do have remote employees, but we'd never had a remote meeting planner, so it was a unique situation.”

Two and a half years later, Evans' title has changed from manager to principal planner, and the telecommuting arrangement continues to serve her needs and the company's needs. “If the move to Atlanta hadn't come about, I would have continued to happily work in my management capacity in the Minneapolis office,” says Evans, who was featured in a 2002 FIM article about “rising stars” within the insurance industry. “However, as often happens with spouses, you have to make tough choices for the other person's career aspirations. I've appreciated the opportunity to remain focused and committed to my new position within Allianz.”

When it comes to the day-to-day execution of her job, “There are people in Minneapolis who still don't know that I work out of Atlanta,” laughs Evans. “They dial my extension and it rolls right to my home office. It's no secret, of course, that she works from a remote location; it was simply a well-organized move.

But this doesn't mean her workload has decreased. The lack of commute time allows Evans to jump right in first thing in the morning and continue working at night, when necessary, after she's picked up her daughter from preschool. “I so appreciate this opportunity,” says Evans, who is also quick to volunteer for extra work. “I'll go the extra mile as a thank-you to the company.”

Be Flexible

Other planners maintain balance by working for companies that allow flexibility. While The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co., in Horsham, Pa., does not have an option for meeting planners to telecommute, director of conference planning and travel services Leanne Acton, CMM, notes that she can work from home when necessary. “If one of my children is sick,” she says, “no one ever questions me. We all help each other out. There is flexibility and openness as long as it doesn't interfere with your work.”

To that end, when Acton had her first child in 2004, she brought both him and her mother with her on business trips while she was still nursing. “My mother came along to baby-sit while I was working,” she says. “We're a family-oriented company, so there are often children at our conferences, but I think I was the only one in this particular position.”

For the ultimate flexibility, though, you can't beat starting your own company. That's what Michelle DeClerck, CMP, did, in part because of the uncompensated extra hours required in her former position and in part because she wanted to spend more time with her children. Today an independent meeting consultant based in Clive, Iowa, who specializes in the financial and insurance market, she says that when she was an in-house planner, “My children suffered from having to get up so early to go to daycare, and I rarely came home from work on time. I also wanted to control my own travel schedule.” The strategy has been successful for DeClerck, mother of a nine-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. “Even though I work more now, I can control my time and be available for my kids' needs.

Manage the Overload

Whatever your work situation is, a key to balance is knowing that sometimes something has to give. Many planners we spoke with had to let go of the idea of managing everything on the home front themselves. “I outsource anything and everything I can,” says Acton. “I have someone come in to clean the house, do online grocery shopping, and prepare my dinners in bulk.” She also puts her organizational skills to work at home. “At the start of each week, I lay out clothes for both kids for the whole week,” she says, “so every morning we can just grab and go.”

DeClerck, too, takes a business-like approach to managing her home. “Before I leave for a business trip, I create a spreadsheet and we have a family meeting to go over schedules,” she says. “My non-meeting-planner friends enjoy a few chuckles at my expense, but everything works like clockwork when I'm away.” She also has a housecleaning team and a personal chef to alleviate some of the burden.

Another way to control the overload: Leave work at the office rather than take it home on a regular basis. “My previous boss wanted 120 percent,” says Cindy Wheaton, CMP, manager of group meetings and incentives for Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Financial Network. “He would call me on weekends to do things, and I was happy to accommodate him since he also gave me a lot of freedom in how to do things. But at some point, you realize you can't work all the time. Over the past five or six years, I've learned that you can't devote 24/7 to the job and still be effective. Learning how to turn it off has been a process for me.”

As a single woman who does not have children, Wheaton acknowledges that she doesn't have the challenges of juggling piano lessons, soccer games, and school plays with work, but that's not to say she doesn't have other competition for her time and energy, including serving on the board of FICP (she's currently vice president of sponsorship). One thing she's remained firm on is not having a computer at home. “I have my BlackBerry,” she says, “so I'm still connected, but I don't have full Internet access.”

Lori Hedrick, CMP, has come to the same conclusions as Wheaton about leaving work in the office, but she had a little push from her manager to get there. As meeting and event planner/assistant vice president of meeting and event services for Wachovia Corp., in Winston-Salem, N.C., Hedrick has been on the road about 80 percent of the time for the past few years. On top of that, “I used to come home and tell myself I was just going to do just a few things — and end up working till midnight,” she says. “Besides the toll it was taking on me and my personal life, I was under pressure from my manager to slow it down. She kept telling me I was doing too much, that some things could just wait till the next day.” Now, notes Hedrick, she has “programmed myself that once I get home, I'm not going to do any more work.”

Set Boundaries at Home

Those who work from home have more flexibility, but the boundaries can easily blur. “Good, bad, or indifferent, it's easy to just keep working,” says Evans. “The office is right here all the time.” One thing she quickly changed was the physical location of her home workplace. “It was originally in a loft on our second floor, but every time I walked up the stairs I would see the computer — and the work waiting for me. I moved the office to an actual room, where I could close the door, and that helped me feel that I was giving myself a bit of space.”

Evans also makes an effort to prioritize. “I try my best to not work on the weekends or, if I need to work in the evenings, to wait until after my daughter has gone to bed — but sometimes I do have to pop in a movie for her, or hire a mother's helper to come play with her while I'm working on a project.”

DeClerck has a table set up in her office “so that the kids can do homework there and be near me even though I'm working.” Still, she notes, “Having children forces me to get away from the office. I used to work around the clock and now I have a great reason to force myself to stop.” If she forgets? “My husband reminds me the day's over!”

Make Tough Choices

Sometimes the trade-offs are difficult. “I've had to limit my travel to what's really necessary,” says Acton. “That meant I couldn't go to the FICP annual meeting this year, for example. But if I have to choose between a site visit and professional development, it's really not a choice — I have to do the site visit.”

Evans has had to cut back on supplier-sponsored evening events. “It's a trade-off between attending these events and spending some time with my daughter — and I choose my daughter.” If there's one major thing that Evans has given up, “it's time for myself,” she says. “I don't take the time to eat as well as I'd like, and I wasn't exercising. But we added a gym to the basement so I can get on the treadmill while my daughter practices ballet right next to me. It's so important to be able to multi-task — this way I can get in some exercise and spend some time with Elle.”

Evans also makes adjustments to other areas of her life to ensure time with her daughter. “I feel that being a volunteer is very important, so on the weekends, I carve out some hours and plan children's events in our community as a volunteer,” says Evans. “It's nice because it gives Elle and me the chance to have fun together — and she sees how important it is to reach out to others.”

Because of Hedrick's frequent travel, she says, “I feel bad when there's something special that my husband wants to do with me, like go to an antique auction, and I can't because I'm traveling.” To make up for that, “I make sure we do something he wants to do when we're on vacation, usually something sports-related, even though all I really want to do is stay home.”

Get Help

At some point, every overloaded planner needs the help of others, be it from family, friends, neighbors, paid help, or even the kids themselves.

“I have friends and family who will take the shirts off their backs to help out,” says Acton. “I know because I've tested them!”

Although Evans left family and friends behind in Minneapolis, she was fortunate to discover that several of her neighbors also work from home. “We get together once a month for lunch just to get out of our home offices,” she says, “and talk about the trials and tribulations of everything from DSL lines going down to Word document mail merges.” These days, instead of borrowing a cup of sugar, she knows just whose house she can run over to if she needs to borrow a ream of paper.

The best support is often sitting right across the kitchen table. “It was at my husband's persuading that I started my own meeting planning venture to begin with,” says DeClerck, “and I could not be successful without his daily encouragement.” When she's on the road, he takes charge of the kids, and “is wonderful at maintaining family life.” DeClerck also gets support from her pre-teen children. “We've been able to take them with us on trips all over the world,” she notes, citing a trip to Tahiti during the last Thanksgiving holiday as one example. “My children insisted on coming along with me for the site inspections,” she says, “and my son took the photos. It's a stitch to hear the two of them make comments about what they've seen — they've become miniature hotel experts!” Her son has already told her he wants to take over the business when he grows up.

Even Evans' young daughter is intrigued by her mom's interesting job. “Elle asks if she can help me with work,” says Evans. “She's only four, but when I give her a highlighter and some old reports, she feels like she's helping mommy to get her job done. I've worked full-time since she was born and she knows that mommy is a meeting planner, and I love that. I can be a positive role model for my daughter while doing the work I love.”

Getting Back on Track

In trying to balance it all, the first thing that often gets sacrificed is the “me” time for activities or hobbies — the very things that stimulate and energize us. British Columbiabased trainer Linda Edgecombe, who presented a workshop on work-life balance at FICP's 2006 annual meeting, has an answer: Take control. “Balance itself doesn't really exist, so the first thing is to let go of the idea that it can be achieved,” she says. “But if we have a sense of control over the decisions we're making, if we're more accountable for our lives outside of work, we can go back to the office with a renewed sense of energy.” Some of her suggestions for relatively painless ways to get your life on track include:

  • Move your body, at work and home. It doesn't matter what it is — walking, cycling, running — just move around at every break.

  • Find “your own funny.” Edgecombe points out that there can be quirkiness and funniness in anything you do — you just need to find it.

  • Work, although serious, can also be amusing and fun. Find the people who make you laugh.

  • Spend some quiet time, whether it's in the bathtub, a house of worship, on a walk, or in meditation. Too busy for quiet? Try putting away the laptop and just staring out the window for a bit the next time you're on an airplane.

  • Write down five goals, large or small, that you want to achieve this year. The mere process of putting pen to paper is the first step in actually achieving the goals.

Not for Women Only

Pick up your child at the after-school program, prepare dinner, oversee the homework, have a little family time, tuck the kids in, and go back to the office: It's a scenario that's familiar to many a working mother. These days, it also resonates with working fathers — including Michael Burke, CMP, manager of conference and travel services for The Hanover Insurance Group, based in Worcester, Mass.

Burke's department handles roughly 300 meetings a year. He's on the road about 25 percent of the time. He's also a board member of Financial & Insurance Conference Planners (as immediate past president, he's currently serving as design team chair of FICP's annual conference) and father of two.

Burke and his wife Nicole, a revenue manager for two Courtyard by Marriott properties, manage the workload with a divide-and-conquer approach. “I have ‘night duty’ with the kids and house,” says Burke, “and Nicole has ‘morning duty.’ She gets into the office later than she likes, so she makes up time on the back end.”

Both are fortunate to have job flexibility, so, for example, when one of their sons is sick, it's not unusual for each to work from home for a half day. They're also lucky to have supportive co-workers, as well as family members nearby who can lend a hand — such as Burke's in-laws, who have a regular Wednesday afternoon baby-sitting gig with the kids, and his father and sisters, who help out on school vacations.

“If I need or want to take time for family responsibilities, I have the support of my manager and company,” notes Burke. “I don't know if it's perceived differently because I'm a man. Historically, women have been the primary care givers, but it's becoming more common for men to share the responsibility.”

Burke admits that hobbies are limited to family and home-improvement projects — plus his volunteerism with FICP. “I don't know what the actual definition of work-life balance would be. If it's 50/50 as a percent of time, I'm not sure that's possible. But if you put the same effort into both, you'll be as close as you can to achieving a balance,” he says. “If the job becomes more important than the family, it's time to reevaluate.”