It took getting cancer for me to start looking at my work-life balance, more than a decade ago. Yet even that jarring diagnosis didn’t catapult me into an immediate transformation. That’s because lasting transformations must grow at their own pace, and often that pace is much slower than the Hollywood images we have in our heads.

stone staircase
Six quick steps can lead you to some interesting places.

The good news—actually, great news—is that you can start very small. As long as you keep at it, you will make the big changes in your life eventually. Think of Apollo 13—they only needed to change their trajectory in cold, dark space by a few degrees, and by doing so, they saved their lives. Finding work-life balance, or a whole new career, can be just like that.

I hope you’re not reading this and thinking, “Well, I don’t have anything serious like cancer wrong with me, so my work-life balance problems aren’t that bad.” Yeah, and denial is more than a river in Egypt.

It is amazing to me how our culture, particularly our corporate culture, likes to pretend that the body and the mind are two completely separate entities, like they’re unrelated tenants of the same building. That same culture likes to pretend that there is no consequence to treating people badly. Often, in fact, when the recipients of bad treatment protest, the response is, “It’s just business” or “You need to be more professional, this isn’t personal.”

And so we try to be good little professionals, and bury our anger at mistreatment or simply overwork, and soldier on. This may actually seem to work for a while. But eventually, it will start to show up. If your work doesn’t start to suffer, your body often will. Usually, it’s both if the imbalance goes on long enough.

The connection between stress levels and illness are well documented, and I’m not going to regurgitate that research. Instead, I ask you to consider your own body’s response to stress:

  • Do you get headaches often? Migraines?
  • What about sinus infections? Colds? Allergies?
  • Constant fatigue that more sleep doesn’t seem to relieve? Problems sleeping?
  • Irritable bowel? Spastic colon?
  • Heartburn, or GERD?
  • Irregular periods? (for women) Impotence? (for men) Fertility issues? (men and women)
  • High blood pressure? High cholesterol?
  • Weight gain or loss?
  • Pre-diabetic? Diabetic with wildly fluctuating blood sugars?
  • Depressed?
  • Chest pains? Heart disease?
  • Cancer?

The list isn’t comprehensive by any means, but it’s a good start. If you’re dealing with any of these conditions, or anything chronic, give some serious thought to the role stress and an unbalanced life has played in exacerbating them.

So what can you do? In a nutshell, take some tiny steps. Once you’re feeling steady with those, take some bigger steps. You know, like the Winter Warlock: Put one foot in front of the other.

Start by carving out some little bit of time for yourself, especially on your craziest days. You need to de-crazy on those days, so you can de-stress, focus and function better. I know, it feels insane to suggest that just when you’re overwhelmed with demands, you should take time for yourself. The thing is, when you start going sane, lots of behaviors you thought were normal turn out to be the nutty things, and vice-versa.

What would some of those tiny steps look like? Maybe one of these:

Get some cool colored pencils and download some free mandalas to color
. Work from the outside in to find your center, or from the center outward to release hidden energy.

Make sure you eat lunch, and when you do, don’t eat at your computer
. Or at the very least, go out of the office to grab something, and make it a point to notice five intriguing things you’ve not noticed before. Architecture, window displays, fun little shops, plants, the way the season is changing—anything that you’ve been overlooking.

Add something organic to your office. An orchid, a desktop fountain or a desktop rock garden can all work wonders. Spend five minutes every day with all beeping things on mute, and stare at it or otherwise use it. Breathe slowly and consciously while you do.

Vary your routine. This wakes up your brain. Take a different route to work. Stop at a new place along the way to pick up breakfast (cause I just KNOW you’re taking care of yourself by eating breakfast, right?). Try a new machine or class at the gym. Switch the color pen you use, or the color/type of font on your computer.

Get a Buddha Board, and play with it daily. It’s for kids and adults, no artistic ability required.

Listen to a great piece of music. With your eyes closed and your body still, or at least not while exercising or doing something on your to-do list. Dancing to that music would be an even better idea!

These suggestions are quick, they’re free or pretty close to it. What steps can you think of to start your journey toward better work-life balance?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches practicing attorneys on balancing their endless work demands so they can lead a more fulfilling life. What’s something you do to balance your life? Drop her a line at jalvey AT and tell her about it.