The Forgotten Variable In The Work-Life Balance Equation: You

04/18/2011 02:05 am ET | Updated Mar 13, 2012

Are you suffering from work-life balance issues? Has your job overtaken your life? Do you find yourself working evenings, perhaps even weekends, to keep your head above the water at work? Are you struggling to find quality time with your family and friends?

If so, the challenge may not be the job or balance as much as knowing what quality really means to you: what matters, why it matters, and what your role is in producing what you truly seek.

As someone who consults regularly to organizations large and small, I can readily see the challenges you may be facing as you try to keep the job going while still maintaining a healthy personal or family life. However, the work-life balance question is one that has at least two faces to it, one obvious, the other not so obvious.

The obvious part is that those who still have jobs are pretty much buried these days. It's as though the economic meltdown created its own workload tsunami. While we wound up losing millions of jobs, we didn't lose any of the work itself -- just the resources to get it all done. People these days are routinely tasked with doing the work of two or three people. Sound familiar?

The impact has been that you may be working later in the evening, taking work home on the weekends, and basically having the job eat into "quality time" with your family and friends.

The less obvious face to the work-life balance question is that exploding workloads may serve as convenient excuses for the erosion of quality time that may not have been there in the first place.

The issue masked by the apparent logic of overwhelming workloads is that people rarely take the time to clarify what really matters to them in life. If you haven't clarified what really matters to you, then it will be difficult, if not impossible, to navigate the twists and turns in the road that will get you there.

Allow me to take an oblique run at this: When people ask me what I do for a living, I often like to say that I help people get what they think they want as fast as possible so that I can then ask, "Was that it?"

I'm pretty sure you know what I mean. Have you ever worked hard to produce something, to achieve a goal, to acquire that car/house/job, and then once you succeeded in getting the object of your desire, you noticed that it wasn't all that satisfying after all? "Why did I want that in the first place?" you may have asked yourself.

The fundamental challenge lies in the fact that most people do not spend much, if any, time exploring the question of what experience they want out of life. Rather, most focus on what things they want to accumulate, what goals they want to achieve, what mountains they want to conquer. The story is oft told of someone who keeps sacrificing the "quality of life" today in favor of achieving the next goal. The problem, of course, is that rarely does "he-wins-who-dies-with-the-most-toys" turn out to be true.

If you have been one of those running the "rat race," then you may not have taken sufficient time to inventory your life from the perspective of what really matters to you at the deepest levels of meaning. And, again, if you aren't clear where you are going, "any road will do."

Quality time is actually a pretty good goal, if you can define what you mean by quality. Most people seem to think quality equates to quantity. Having Dad hang around the house while engrossed in a basketball game on TV may seem like he's "home with the family," when, in fact, he's lost in his own world watching TV. Not much quality there.

When things fall apart on the personal fulfillment scene these days, it's convenient to charge down the work-life balance storyline, and get caught up in blaming the job, the boss, the company: "They just don't allow a good work-life balance."

In last week's column on generalization, deletion and distortion, I quoted Kaarina Dillabough, a former Olympic-level coach in Canada. Kaarina was enthusiastically supportive of the notion that positive thinking without corresponding positive action is fruitless. As she wrote to me, "I know the power of thought, visualization and affirmation. But no amount of that wins the gold medal. Action is what's needed."

In her email to me, she also raised the question of balance, writing:

I'll admit it: I've been a chicken to openly and publicly take on the "experts", both on the issue of action and of balance. (My thoughts on balance: balance is a crock. Embrace imbalance. Even when we're "balanced", there are small micro-adjustments being made all the time in teeter-totter fashion that require us to be ebbing and flowing, bobbing and weaving through life. I say the only time we're balanced is when we're dead.)

Doing a bit of Googling, I found out that she has been a top-level rhythmic gymnastics coach in Canada. Gymnastics of any kind is living proof that balance is a dynamic process, not a static one. Indeed, playing just about any sport will give you a glimpse into Kaarina's perspective here. As she notes, remaining in balance is a constant state of movement, correcting for the flow of imbalances. If a gymnast, skier, golfer or just about any other performer were to strive for the kind of balance most people seek, they would become rigid and pretty much guarantee a poor outcome.

On the one hand, work-life balance is important, and quite a bit can be done to improve the ever-encroaching demands of the workplace. If nothing else, you can probably do something yourself that will help by simply reading David Allen's breakthrough book, "Getting Things Done." There you are likely to learn a few skills and thought processes that can help you get more things done, more quickly. In turn, you may wind up recapturing a few more hours each week. My new book has a few tips that you may find interesting as well -- and "Getting Things Done" is the gold standard.

However, even if you do get a better handle on your workload, the bigger question is what you will you do with the time you save. How will you translate that time saved into "quality time" and improved work-life balance? Again, if you have not yet defined what experiences you are seeking, you may settle for the symbols of fulfillment and wind up just as frustrated.

Life has a way of coming at you in unpredictable ways. Change keeps happening. Your challenge is to keep making those micro-adjustments that Kaarina hinted at that will keep you in a dynamic state of balancing as you go. The paradox is that you may never wind up in balance -- some kind of fixed, stable place that doesn't change -- but you may find that you can maintain a constant state of balancing.

We'll pick up on this next week with a few more thoughts about how to make choices that both produce that state of balancing while also allowing you to experience the "quality time" you seek.

Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at

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If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life, or how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, download a free chapter from Russell's new book, "Workarounds That Work."

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website at You can contact him by email at