Striking a Balance

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Most of us know we work too much and rest too little. We long for balance. But with the pressures and pace of modern life always at our back, how do we step off this crazy merry-go-round? Here, we outline the top three barriers to achieving work-life balance — and offer practical wisdom for overcoming them.

I know it. You know it. And, lately, even the most work-addicted among us have been learning it the hard way: Balance is necessary, not just for a healthier, happier life, but also for a more successful and sustainable career.

So, great, we know it. The question is, how on earth do we achieve it?

With a tough economy and a viciously competitive business environment, it’s not like work and financial expectations are going to let up anytime soon. And for many of us, the whole notion of balance is such an elusive and unfamiliar one that imagining (let alone creating) a balanced life may seem all but unfathomable.

The first step, then, is to get a clearer picture of what work-life balance might look and feel like. “Balance is much more than dividing time between separate compartments of our lives,” writes Andrea Molloy in Stop Living Your Job, Start Living Your Life: 85 Simple Strategies to Achieve Work/Life Balance (Ulysses Press, 2005). “Put simply, it is a sense of control, achievement and enjoyment in everyday life.”

And yet, Molloy reminds us, “There is no easy answer or quick fix to the question of balance.” That’s because we all have our own values, priorities, our own thresholds of comfort, so what feels balanced to one person may feel untenable to the next.

Discovering our own personal formula for balance requires willing self-reflection and active participation – combined with an authentic desire to make choices and adjustments.

That can amount to some challenging work, which may sound like the last thing we need more of. But, ultimately, it’s well worth it. For one thing, this is precisely the kind of contemplative and self-honoring work most of us are ignoring in favor of our professional to-do lists. For another, the pay-off is precisely what we do need more of: more energy, more peace of mind and a bigger helping of joy.

So here’s the two-step strategy: First, recognize the barriers that are preventing you from achieving a healthy work-life balance. Then, start busting ’em down.

Barrier #1: The Identity Crisis

Remember the old saying, “You are what you eat”? Today, the message seems to be, “You are what you do.”

We all know there’s more to a person than a job title and paycheck, but living in a way that respects that truth requires a strong sense of self. Because if you don’t know what defines your identity outside your job, it’s easy to tether your sense of personal success too deeply and exclusively to the office.

That we are vulnerable to such tethering should come as no surprise. With all the built-in guidance and assessment tools in regular rotation at the workplace – vision, mission, values, goals, key performance indicators, annual reviews, and so on – it’s easy to become focused on our job performance as a core indicator of our effectiveness, value and esteem. What’s more, we’re directly incented and rewarded (through promotions, pay raises and bonuses) for devoting our time and energy to work.

Very few of us have anything like this kind of structure and support to help us guide and measure our progress in our personal lives.

Employers have a vested interest in helping us reach our goals at work, so it’s only practical that they provide us with the resources we need to succeed. When it comes to managing the rest of our lives, on the other hand, we’re generally left to our own devices.

Lately, many employers have begun to see the value of their employees having balanced, satisfying lives. So around the country – and around the world – more and more companies are developing work-life balance initiatives to assist their employees with issues like elder care, infant wellness, health and fitness management, and backup childcare. But, if you’re hoping your workplace will suddenly get deeply invested in helping you become your best, most balanced self, don’t hold your breath.

“It’s still up to the individual to find balance, define personal values and actively pursue them,” says Penny Plautz, a Santa Fe, N.M.–based creativity coach and co-owner of Wellpower, a coaching organization that works with individuals and companies to help employees find greater work-life balance. “Having a good sense of who you are and what you want out of life, based on a clearly defined set of values, is the foundation for building a balanced life.”

Break the Barrier: Know Thyself

If you sense you’ve got too much of your identity wrapped up with work, but aren’t sure where or how to begin making adjustments, begin by watching how you spend your time. Take an inquiring look at what you actually do with your days and nights. To this end, many life coaches recommend making a journal or timeline for one to three months that tracks daily activities. What are you doing, hour by hour, and with whom are you spending your time? Once you have the answers, evaluate whether you like the story your inventory tells about who you are and what’s important to you.

“It can be hard to look at what you do and to be accountable for it without judging yourself,” says Plautz, author of the new book Body Confidence From the Inside Out (Whole Person Associates, 2006). “But it’s important to have a baseline. You can’t get where you want to go until you know where you are right now.”

Once you have a clear picture of how you spend your days, set aside a little quiet time to reflect on your current situation. Let the feelings that emerge guide you as you reset your priorities.

Listen to your body. When you’re spending time in ways that don’t serve you, it might be the first to know. “Our bodies are barometers for our emotions,” Plautz explains. If you have a pit in your stomach when you say “yes” to a project, she notes, that may be a sign that not all of you is entirely on board with the idea. Your work identity may be saying yes at the expense of your home, family and personal roles.

You can give those other roles more of their due by measuring and acknowledging all your successes – not just the ones that the workplace deems valuable. To help break this cycle, why not try applying some of the motivational and assessment tools used at work to your personal life?

Imagine, for example, the mission statement for your nonwork roles and priorities. What is your vision for creating quality family time, health and happiness? What’s your action plan and what are your key performance indicators for those endeavors? And how long has it been since you had your last partnership-status review?

When you think about and assess your nonwork goals in this context, you may more naturally begin to derive a larger sense of self-worth from already succeeding in these areas. On the other hand, you may also experience some discomfort about not showing up as much as you’d like. Either way, you’re likely to develop a much broader definition of “success” and a reduced tendency to overinvest at work at the expense of your other priorities.

“You experience stress and anxiety and lose your balance when you are out of alignment with your values,” says Plautz. “When you know what you contribute to your company, your family or your community, and what constitutes success to you personally, you can feel more sure of your choices and actions.”

Not sure which areas of your life are calling out for attention? Consider key sectors (family, career, spirituality, community, fun/relaxation, personal development, health/ fitness, etc.), then rate each area from one to 10, based on your current level of satisfaction. Start to focus on bringing lower scores upward.

When you start pursuing priorities outside the bounds of your workday, you won’t need to derive your entire sense of self-worth from your job. You will feel more balanced as a result, and you may just turn out better work in the bargain.

Barrier No. 2: The Money Trap

Pressure to bring home the bacon can easily throw people out of balance. Today, people are working longer and harder to keep up with the rising cost of everyday life – and rising debt.

In addition, with the decline of company pensions, we have to plan and save for our own futures. On top of it all, most people don’t have enough put away to cover an emergency or even contemplate taking a break, so the possibility of a temporary loss of income is highly stressful. The result? People work longer hours, take fewer vacations, and feel more stressed out at work and at home.

The need for a certain amount of money is real. But too often we get caught up in the relentless pursuit of “more” and lose track of the things (like relationships and health) that have the biggest impacts on our quality of life.

Instead of letting money become a central focus, try viewing it as a tool – one that supports your larger values and the choices that bring you happiness. You may discover that adjusting your financial focus allows you to perceive your other priorities with far more clarity.

Break the Barrier: Master Your Money Matters

To get a better handle on your current financial situation, try writing down everything you spend for a few months – then see how you feel about what you learn. Alternatively, gather your bills and checkbook register and look back at your expenses and elective outlays. You may be surprised by where the debits (and the debts) are stacking up. And that can make a big impact on the way you spend your money going forward.

Juliet B. Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College, notes that millions of Americans are choosing to “downshift,” which she defines as reducing hours of work and, in the process, earning and spending less money. “Downshifters are opting out of excessive consumerism, choosing to have more leisure and balance in their schedules, a slower pace of life, more time with their kids, more meaningful work, and daily lives that line up squarely with their deepest values,” Schor writes in her landmark book, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need (HarperCollins, 1998). Downshifters can be found at all income levels and in all neighborhoods. But what they have in common is happiness.

If downshifting sounds appealing to you, it might be time to ask yourself some tough questions: Does your spending connect with your values? Are you directing your money toward the life you want? Are you spending more than you really have?

Your first goal might be to do away with debt. Today, the average American family faces significant credit card debt of $9,000 or more. And that’s in addition to mortgage, car payments and other obligations. The upshot: Until we get out from under at least some of those payments, most of us couldn’t downshift into a less demanding job even if we wanted to.

Start by budgeting based on your values. Yes, budgeting. It may be challenging at first to find the time (and inclination) to create a guide for spending and saving. But if you fail to plan, as they say, you plan to fail: Without a budget, you’ll likely continue to spend just as you’ve been spending, and if you’re not liking the status quo, that makes no sense.

What does make sense is looking for opportunities to invest in your chosen life – and if that’s a life that includes more freedom and downtime – then some of the expenses you’ve been incurring (say, for a giant house, multiple cars and frequent dinners out) may be calling out for some trimming.

Keep an eye out, too, for compensatory purchases – those things you’ve spent a lot on to “boost your spirits” or to compensate yourself or your family for enduring the discomforts of so much of your time, attention and energy drained by your work.

Once you discover the areas you’re “leaking” money, you’ll have a starting point for a new spending strategy. Next time you go shopping, try keeping your highest priorities in mind, and you may find yourself less likely to spend on low-priority items along the way.

Find it hard to keep your top priorities at the forefront of your mind when the season’s new stuff hits the display window? In his book, The High Price of Materialism (MIT, 2002), Tim Kasser, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., serves up research that helps us see through money’s false promises: “The truth is that money is good only for buying food, shelter, safety, and other necessities,” he concludes. “It can never really buy self-esteem, love, or freedom.”

Barrier #3: Short-Term Thinking

“We live in a society where workaholics consider themselves heroes. People wear stress like a badge of honor,” observes Plautz. And even when we sense we are overworked and overstressed and not striking the right balance, we make handy excuses for continuing with our unhealthy ways.

We tell ourselves: “Once I’ve saved up enough money, I will spend more time with my family!” Or, “I’ll make more time for myself tomorrow!” But more often than not, when tomorrow rolls around, we just roll out more excuses.

The pressures to adopt this type of short-term thinking are great. In a competitive workplace, we fear that taking all our vacation days will make us appear lazy or uncommitted and will give our colleagues the edge in obtaining promotions. Or, if our work team is already understaffed, and we don’t pull our weight, we fear that we may be seen by employers as dead weight and therefore expendable.

Once we get stuck in a cycle of thinking only about right-now work pressures, though, we stop paying attention to the long view, and to our long-term well-being.

Short-term thinking results in some unwise long-term sacrifices. For instance, according to Expedia.com’s 2006 International Vacation Deprivation survey, more than one-third of employed U.S. adults (38 percent) report regularly working more than 40 hours per week – and it’s making them sick. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, recently concluded that compared with people who work 11 to 39 hours a week, those who work 40 hours are 14 percent more likely to have high blood pressure. People working 41 to 50 hours per week are 17 percent more likely to have this heart-disease risk factor, and those who work 51 or more hours face a whopping 29 percent greater likelihood of developing high blood pressure.

When you sink into short-term thinking, you risk burning out – and you jeopardize your health. But by taking a longer view, and smaller steps along the way, you can achieve a more balanced life.

Break the Barrier: Take the Long View

Bringing the long view into focus can be challenging because it means acknowledging that the imbalances you’re allowing in your life really aren’t sustainable.

But taking honest stock of your imbalances – and imagining what your future will look like if you continue to allow them to play out – can give you the motivation to begin creating a better, more sustainable and promising future, starting now.

If you continue to give short shrift to your family, for example, can you be certain you’ll have a strong family to return to “once work slows down”? If you wait to address health and fitness concerns “until you’ve got the time and energy,” can you be certain that your body will bounce back on demand, or that you’ll manage to outmaneuver the disease risks you’re courting in the meantime?

These are sobering thoughts – but important ones. Because if you’re going to break through the inertia of your current situation, you’re going to have to move beyond thoughts, to action.

Initially though, you need to connect with a source of purpose and inspiration more powerful than the demands of your current daily life. To turn the long view of your chosen future into more than just a glimmer of a shadow of an idea, try doing some visioning and goal setting. First, imagine how you’d like your life to be in six months. Then, in the next year. Then, in five, 10, 15, 30 years and upward.

Chances are you’ll discover that getting a bead on the first six months to a year is fairly easy. Getting a handle on the next few decades, however, may prove more challenging. But by writing down key components of these visions, and then setting goals for making them real, you’ve got a much better shot of moving your life in the direction of your highest choices.

Celebrate your progress along the way. When you find that you have more time to do the things you want to do, enjoy it! “Celebrating success reinforces our much-needed positive beliefs,” writes Andrea Molloy in Stop Living Your Job, Start Living Your Life. “It’s more likely you will believe in your ability to meet other goals in the future if you take the time to reflect on your achievements.”

Whether your steps toward balance are big or small, remember that every one is worthwhile. When you have a strong sense of identity, a workable financial situation and a sustainable vision for the future, it’s easier to make choices that respect your balance-building values. And as you begin enjoying a more balanced life, you will find more fulfillment and satisfaction in everything you do.

Kelly Grace is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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