Work Life Balance – It Isn’t About Balance

Balancing poses in my yoga practice are the most difficult for me. I’ve learned that the harder I try to balance myself, the more I lose my balance. I’ve learned, from good yoga teachers over the years, that instead of trying to balance to: “Relax. Stop judging. Stop ‘trying.’ Breathe. Sometimes you’ll find the balance; sometimes you won’t. Keep practicing.”

We talk about work-life balance these days as if it is something to be achieved like running a marathon, making a sale or achieving a goal. Then when we fall short of our expectations we are critical of ourselves for a lack of balance in our life. I’ve met people who leave their offices religiously at 4:30 every day, only to go home to a life that is terribly out of balance. I’ve also met people who will stay at work until 10 some nights and actually live in a balanced way. Balance in life, like balance in a yoga posture, isn’t really about balance at all. You can’t achieve balance, because balance is not a destination. It’s a method of travel. Work-life balance is, instead, about being centered and living fully.

Keep in mind three principles that will help you find balance.

  • Sort out what’s work and what is life. Become clear about what work is and what life is, and make sure you have this sorted out. Even if work is tremendously fulfilling, it isn’t my life. In the periods in my life when I’ve been a workaholic, I had this confused. My work was my life. Work defined me as a person, so I had to work harder and harder in order to be a good person. I know today that my work is an expression of my life, but it is not the totality of my life. While work remains important and is fulfilling, it no longer defines me. My life is much bigger than my work. I remind myself these days that when I’m away from work, my life is time with my family, friends, community, being in nature, or helping others. I’ve learned that although work is critical to my development, when I define myself by my work, I am partially avoiding life. That part I need to say no to, walk away from, and learn how to be in life.
  • Clarify your Values. The antidote to exhaustion is not rest. The antidote to exhaustion is alignment and wholeheartedness. In my Authentic Leadership workshops, I have participants reflect upon their future and what matters most to them. I ask them to think about their relationships, health, contributions to others, expression of their talents, and the time they set aside for inner growth. This is an excellent exercise for you, too. From your reflections, list the top five values in your life. Then rate your life in each area on a scale from 1-10. Be honest. This is your list, not anyone else’s. At the beginning of each week, make sure that you schedule time in your day-planner to attend to each of these values. Balance is about living in alignment with your values. Feeling out of balance indicates that energy is being drained from you by living your life according to someone else’s conditions. Carve out time on a weekly basis for your soul’s desires. A key for living fully is to say “no” to the wrong opportunities.
  • Develop a positive relationship with the present moment. Being rushed, impatient, frustrated, or stressed are indicators that you are not present. You are either speeding forward or thinking about the past, without concentrating on being here now. Living fully is about fully living in the present. Next time you are stressed with a project, impatiently waiting in line, or frustrated with a co-worker, heed the guidance of my yoga teacher and take a few deep breaths to connect with yourself. Look around and see how you can be present with the world around you. Notice the beauty of a flower or plant nearby. Smile at the person ahead of you in the checkout line. Take time to really listen without judging the person you are frustrated with. It’s quite amazing how balanced you can feel in the midst of perceived pressure if you remember to stop and be here now. The best present you can give anyone is to be fully present in the present.
  • Stop trying to get more balance in your life, and enjoy your day. Stress isn’t in the task at hand or from the demands of others. Stress is in my head. Being stressed is a choice. And I’m not going to wait for tomorrow to enjoy myself. If I can’t enjoy myself today it’s not going to get any better when I’m on a vacation or retired. I can enjoy each task and stay relaxed in midst of the tasks. There is no stress except what I chose to be stressed about. There is only work to be done. Enjoy the precious moments that are in front of you right now. None of us know how many of these moments we have left. While we can plan for the future, life is lived in the now. Life will never be experienced tomorrow or yesterday. Life is what is going on at this moment. Life happens. Enjoy it.

Personal Leadership – A Culture of One

Operational accountabilities are about what has to be done in an organization. Leadership accountabilities, on the other hand, are about how the work gets done. You have to take both into consideration if you want to build a great culture. Culture defines the how.

It is important to regularly assess how your people are achieving operational results, and it is just as important to regularly assess your culture with a Culture Inventory:

  • Are people clear about the values that are espoused – the way we do the work?
  • Are there clearly defined behaviors attached to each of the values so that the expectations of the how are explicit?
  • Are there clearly defined promises between the manager and the employee about what both are agreeing to?
  • Are there clearly defined support agreements, so everyone feels supported?
  • Are there clearly defined consequences – both positive and negative?
  • Is the follow-through clear, so that the agreements remain current and remain useful?

Just as it is good for a regular Culture Inventory, is it important to take a Character Inventory – an assessment of our own personal way we are at work and in the world. Similar to how an organization has a culture – a way of doing things, individuals also have a way.

Much emphasis in organizations is put on the what, and this is true with individuals as well. How many people do you know emphasize the achievements in their life but don’t pay attention to the kind of person they are becoming in the pursuit of these achievements? A Character Inventory assesses the kind of person you are – how you are living your life.

If you want to attract others, you must be attractive. Strong character demands that you shift from being the best in the world to being the best for the world, to strive not for what you can get, but what you can give, to endeavor not for what you can have or what you can do, but for who you can be. A job title, the letters behind your name, the size of your office, or your income are not measures of human worth. No success by the world’s standards will ever be enough to compensate for a lack of strong character.

It’s an act of caring to pause every so often and take an inventory of your character.

  • How are you doing in areas such as compassion, reliability, honesty, courage, prudence, contribution, and maturity?
  • Are you one person in public and another in private?
  • Do you focus as much on what kind of a person you are in the world as much as on what you want to achieve in the world?

Like a business that takes regular stock of its inventory, this is a fact-finding process. There can be blind spots to seeing yourself, so get feedback from the most important people in your life. Being a good person precedes being a good leader in any capacity.

Here’s a list of actions that demonstrate strength of character. See how you measure up with this list, or take the time to write your own list:

Let go of what you want.

Prudence is the common sense – that unfortunately is not so common any more – to live with what you can do without, and the ability to find joy in what is here. Every so often it’s good to surrender something we want, but don’t need. In a world that confuses wants with needs, debt continues to rise as character continues to erode. Practice living below your means, not getting everything you want, and finding freedom in enjoying what you have.

Do something difficult every day.

“Do the hard stuff first,” my mother used to say. The earlier in the day you get the difficult work done, the better you’ll feel about yourself and the rest of your day will improve. Whether it’s having a difficult conversation, getting some exercise, or taking a risk, character is built on the foundation of overcoming the natural tendency to take the course of least resistance.

Clean up after yourself.

Something eats away at your character when you sit in your mess or leave your messes for someone else to look after. And if you really want to experience character, walk through a park close to where you live and clean up garbage left behind by someone else.

Look beyond yourself.

Character means choosing service over self-interest. Character grows in the soil of concern for others and the commitment to act on that concern. We can all find ways to make life better for someone less fortunate than ourselves.

Spend less than you earn.

This is truly one of the best character habits you can develop. Spending less than you earn, whether it’s reflected in your home, your car, or the stuff you buy, is another version of prudence. The space you create in your life by doing so will give you freedom, renewed worth, and contentment that money will never buy.

Practice gratitude.

Gratitude is integral to strong character. It’s the antidote to the entitlement that contaminates character. Be an appreciator, rather than a depreciator, of everything that shows up in your life, including opportunities disguised as problems. What you appreciate, appreciates.

Before you criticize the culture you work in or the leaders of the culture, take a good look in the mirror. Leadership is about PRESENCE, not position. What kind of presence do you bring to your work? What kind of person are you? What is your “way” of being in the world? As a personal leader, you are a culture of one. Make it a daily practice to review your character in relation to your daily life, your friends, your acquaintances, and your work. Keep striving to be a better leader by being a better person. This is the real satisfaction and ultimate goal in life.


A first-grade teacher recently told me of a sad trend among her students. At the end of the day, she stands in the playground waving good-bye as her kids climb into the backseats of their parents’ cars. As they excitedly scramble into the car seats she witnesses their enthusiasm as they can’t stop talking about their day. The parents, however, are becoming increasing non-responsive. Instead, they are looking, not back towards their child but down, absorbed in their electronic devices.

When I heard this story I was imagining what the relationship between these children and their parents would be in a few years when the parents want their teenager’s attention.

The distraction of these parents is a symptom of how we have allowed technology to capture our attention and disrupt our connections. Daniel Goleman in his book, Focus, tells us that in 2006 the word pizzled entered our lexicon: a combination of puzzled and pissed, it captured the feeling people had when the person they were with whipped out a BlackBerry and started talking to someone else. Back then people felt hurt and indignant in such moments. Today it is the norm.

The onslaught of incoming data leads to an inability to focus on a simple task like reading or attending to people before we get an urge to go online to check our email or texts. The volume of the messages leaves us too little time simply to reflect on what the messages even mean.

This inability to attend was foreseen in 1977 by the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon. Writing about the coming information-rich world, he warned that information consumes “the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Learning to make contact with people in an attention impoverished world works like strengthening a muscle. If the skill isn’t developed it can wither; exercise it and it grows. Here are three ways to develop your capacity to attend to what matters – a vital leadership and relationship skill in our complex, demanding world.

1)    Turn off technology.  I know people who, after reading two pages or talking with someone for two minutes, become anxious or have a craving to check email or incoming texts. It’s addictive. Schedule times to check your email, and turn off the message alert in between. Make a pact with people at work that you will be present during certain times in the day or the week – without technology interruptions. Remind those who depend on you that the world won’t stop if you take a few hours before responding to an email. When you get home from work, practice leaving your phone in a drawer while you are present for the people you care most about.

2)    Practice a little dose of empathy every day. Empathy is the ability to “feel with” another person, to convey understanding from another’s frame of reference. Empathy isn’t about trying to “fix” somebody or rescue anyone from their unhappiness, but means putting yourself in their place, and attending to them with caring presence. Every day presents opportunities to express empathy and connect with someone on an emotional level, even for a few moments. You can even do this at a bus stop when you recognize that the person standing next to you is cold, or pay some attention to a colleague down the hall who is nervous about the possibility of being laid off. This is how you cultivate trust, give others a sense of belonging, and make room for human contact. Devices will never be able to convey empathy.

3)    Get on the bench. I heard once that when Wayne Gretzky sat on the bench between shifts on the ice, he could lower his heart rate from 180 BPM to below 50 in less than a minute. He was able to completely unplug from the intensity of the game during these rest periods. For many of us, it’s a luxury to get some uninterrupted private moments during the day when we can lean back, rest, and reflect. We are always “on the ice,” in the midst of nonstop emails and demands from others. Without time to rest, our brain is thrown into a state that opposes the open focus where innovation flourishes. In the tumult of daily demands and to-do lists, there is no room for creativity that comes from focused attention. The stories of significant discoveries are rife with tales of brilliant insight during a walk, in the shower, or on a vacation. Down time lets the creative juices flow. Tight schedules kill innovation and connection. Take some unproductive time daily to simply tune in and attend to the natural world around you. Or just stop for a few moments at your desk. Sit back. Close your eyes. And take a little non-thinking time for yourself. What Daniel Goleman calls a “creative cocoon.” Get off the ice of demands every so often and onto the bench.

How do you strengthen your attention muscle? How do you practice being present and tuned in to the world around you? How are you there for others? How does increasing your ability to be attentive improve the quality of your life and relationships?