The Myth of Balance
The Myth of Balance
May 17, 2017
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Nan S. Russell
Nan S. Russell
Psychologist, Workplace Consultant, MountainWorks Communications
I tried time management, increased efficiency, being more productive, working more hours plus weekends-and-nights during a first-act career that took me from a minimum wage employee, through various management roles, to a Vice President of a multibillion dollar company. At the same time I was a wife, mom, and sometimes elder care giver, seeking to have "balance" in my "real life" while trying to squeeze in time to work on a few life dreams along the way.

Some years I did okay; some I didn't. For the first decade and a half of that career, I got accustomed to bouts-of-overwhelmedness I held inside, scarfing extra strength Excedrin throughout the day, highlighted with increasing side-trips of anger, frustration, lashing out at those I loved most, plus the occasional health scare.

Maybe I was just slow at recognizing my own stress limits and signs back then. But one day, midway through that career, I found myself unable to get out of bed—overwhelmed and exhausted. I was emotionally spent, with no more to give to anyone. I spent the day in bed, reading and crying my way through a book that sparked my thinking.

That book, and others I devoured after it, served as catalysts for me to see a different path and to gradually transform from being a passenger in my life to being its driver. Years of reading, research, thinking, exploring, self-discovery, reflection, teaching, and learning later, I still don't presume to know what is best for anyone other than me, and even then I'm not always sure. But, I do know those who get great results, the results they want for their lives, are masters at managing themselves.

Myth: You need employer support for work-life balance

This is the myth of balance: that work is separate from life.

Real balance isn't something someone gives you. It's not a program, but a mindset. And it doesn't come from the outside. Consider that 429 million paid vacation days in a given year are left unused by U.S. employees. Despite cries of "overwhelmed" just 51 percent of employees use their paid time off. Some cite job-insecurity or the need to save it for emergencies as the reason why. Yet only three percent said it was because their "manager would frown on it."

Even when support for time off is there from employers, most don't use it all. With workaholism prevalent in the U.S., some employers are offering time off bonuses, mandating the time be taken unplugged or the bonus forfeited. As Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association notes, "We're becoming a nation of work martyrs. People really wear it on their sleeves how they don't take time off. Everyone around the world looks at Americans like we're crazy."

We complain our employers don't enforce work-family balance, government doesn't do enough, or time is devoured by others without regard to our well-being. But, bottom line: no matter the policies, benefits, perks, and programs implemented, you can't have work-life balance without your own support. No one can give you balance. For those who view their "work" as separate from their "life," instead of part of it, balance remains elusive.

Self-managing people approach well-being and life balance differently. They don't expect others to draw a line for them. They draw it for themselves. After all, it's their life. For some, work and play are the same; for others, definitely not. They see "balance" as individual as "success" or "happiness." And they respect balance differences, understanding what may be too much of something for you, may be too little for them or vice versa.

While many see a balanced life as an outside-in endeavor, self-managing people know that real balance is an inside job, as unique as they are. People 30 and unattached, 40 with a family, or 50 caretaking a parent have different "balance" needs. When life issues change, our balance requirements do, too.

People who are drivers in their own life use awareness to adjust their actions around changing needs. They're alert for cues, paying attention to their emotional, physical, social, spiritual, and mental well-being, adjusting according. They realize there are consequences for them, at work and at home, if they stay unbalanced too long.

Like the African proverb reminds, "There are three things that a man must know to survive long in the world: what is too much for him, what is too little for him, and what is just right for him." Want more balance? Start by figuring out what those three things mean for you.