Barack Obama’s Former Policy Director on Finding Work-Life Balance
After years of working in a high-stress environment in Washington, D.C., communications specialist and political strategist Laurie A. Watkins found the key to achieving a healthier lifestyle. Here, she writes about how the discovery came to her.
A few scenes:
- Heart pounding, window rolled down, driver’s license and registration anxiously bouncing in hand. This was the second time in one day that I found myself pulled over on the Florida Turnpike awaiting a patrolman’s inevitable speeding ticket. I explained that I was trying to get ahead of the presidential motorcade for my job, thinking honesty might trigger a sympathetic response. Instead, I was scolded for my speed and a yellow sheet of paper was shoved inside my window as I was told to have a good day.
- Pizza, pasta, packaged cookies, PB&Js, chips, donuts, Pop-Tarts. There was little time or opportunity to eat thoughtfully with constant travel and the demand of always having eyes on whomever you were staffing—from the moment they woke up until the moment their head hit the pillow. When food was available, those staffers would descend upon it like a swarm of locusts, then quickly disperse after about five minutes of gorging on unhealthy food. It was impossible to eat consistently, let alone nutritiously.
- Another day, another mini-breakdown. I had pulled over somewhere on a deserted stretch of highway, sobbing hysterically into the steering wheel, this time without another car in sight. The pressure percolated inside my head, a stress so unimaginable that I thought I would explode. In the previous six weeks, I had lost my uncle to pancreatic cancer, then lost my grandfather to a heart attack. I attended both funerals, delivered a eulogy at one, and both times I was back at the office within 72 hours. Too busy to process what happened as it was happening, I broke down 41 days later, alone, on the side of the road.
These were the memories—the challenges I had faced during the the 2008 presidential campaign—that were running through my head four years later as I labored over whether I would accept the position of Florida Policy Director for President Obama’s 2012 re-election. After serving as a political strategist on Obama's first campaign, I had settled into a job at the Pentagon that I would need to leave behind for another round of campaigning. Moreover, I worked hard to recover, to repair my mind and body, from the last election. I was terrified of going back into the Wild West of another "marathon battle."
After much reflection, I decided to accept the new campaign position—but only after making a promise to myself that no matter what the job threw at me, I would stick to my daily routine, which put my wellness as priority number one. After years of trial and error, I had finally figured out the “special sauce” for living a healthy and balanced life, and I was determined not to let my new commitments and responsibilities disrupt or sabotage that.
To be honest, I didn’t start rehabilitating my health and habits immediately after the 2008 campaign ended. But in 2010, something indefinable in me clicked, and I got “on the wagon”: I joined a gym, completely changed my sleeping habits, and created a rigorous self-care schedule including time set aside for healthy cooking, meal planning, and planned stress-relief. If something didn’t fit into my new plan, I didn’t do it.
My self-created program wasn’t (and isn’t) particularly revolutionary, and anyone with a passing familiarity with the growing wellness movement will recognize the steps I took. But these concepts are familiar to us because, when implemented properly, they work! It’s about mastering four areas—time management, fitness, food, and sleep—which allowed me to align my professional and personal life, finding my own strength in the face of stress.
In fact, not only did I design and use the plan for myself, but I also incorporated some of my tools into how I managed my team, and into daily practices with staff. For example, I brought in a massage therapist, insisted on healthy and balanced food, and generally made sure that the people I managed were able to perform at their highest abilities for extended periods of time.
I treated my workouts, healthy meal planning, adequate sleep, and decompression time as iron-clad commitments to myself. I had a checklist of wellness objectives every day that I insisted on completing, and that often meant getting creative and a little shameless … like when everyone ordered pizza and I would ask for a salad. But, you know what? It worked.
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The two years (2010-2012), I spent solidifying my routine and commitments to myself prepared me to adapt my self-care program to the rigors of campaign life. Through that experience, I learned the true essence of balance and sustainability given any challenging situation. Whether on a political campaign or in some other high-pressure, demanding situation, most people will come up against challenges while seeking work-life balance. However, my own experience proves that if someone commits to themselves, plans ahead, and communicates with their team, family, and friends, they can succeed.
Had I declined the opportunity in 2012 out of fear, I would have missed out on an essential role in American history, and more importantly, I would have interrupted my transformational journey. Ultimately, the experience reinforced my belief in my program. Furthermore, sharing it with my team, even piecemeal, and watching them thrive, gave me inspiration to share it more widely. That led me to write my book, Go from Stressed to Strong, helping others to create for themselves what I work to create every day: a life filled with joy, purpose, and good health.