Achieving Work/Life Balance

Last Updated Jun 8, 2007 7:23 PM EDT

The cliché is that "time flies when you're having fun." Time also flies when you're very busy — but rather than having fun, you're so stressed that your mental, emotional, and physical health are affected. When there isn't enough time in the day, something has to give: Will it be your work or your personal life? Achieving balance has long been a burning issue for almost everyone, no matter the job. Here are some primary reasons why more and more people are addressing work-life balance:

  • A workforce consisting of both men and women means greater demands on parents to juggle job and family.
  • Increasing longevity means growing numbers of workers caring for elderly relatives.
  • More pressure and longer hours at work, intensified by ever-present technology, mean people burn out younger and faster.

In fact, however, research shows that workforces in countries with longer working hours aren't always as productive as those in countries with shorter hours! So, while people are spending more time at work, they aren't necessarily achieving more.

The rationale for greater balance and flexibility at work is compelling: Greater satisfaction among employees means fewer stress-related illnesses, less time off for sickness, lower staff turnover, and higher productivity. People able to balance their work with other responsibilities and interests tend to be more motivated and productive—that means that happy workers are better performers.

What You Need to KnowHow can I regain the feeling of being in control?

It's good to feel in control; some people call it "being in the zone." Whenever that sensation is slipping and you need a lift, close your eyes and remember how you feel when you're in "the zone." See if thinking about one of the positive triggers helps you regain that sense of control. Or simply close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Imagine breathing out all the negative or stressful thoughts that you've been remembering.

Will exercise help?

Undoubtedly! As little as 25 minutes of daily walking can deliver wonders: Walk 10 to 12 minutes to get the heart pumping at a faster rate and another 13 to 15 minutes while sustaining that rate. Banishing the pressures of the job from your mind while you walk helps even more.

What else can I do?

Successful chief executives of any era will readily testify to the wisdom of two recommendations: First, be sure you're tackling the single most important task you need to be doing at a given moment; it may take discipline at first, but it's good advice. Second, "leave the office at the office." Carting home the hassles of the day won't help you unwind and get refreshed.

What to DoUnderstand what "Work-life Balance" Means For You

The ideal work-life balance is a very personal concept. It isn't an obvious, tangible, or static state that one can readily identify, achieve, and then expect to sustain. It's dynamic and has different elements for different individuals at different times.

Work-life balance is sometimes confused with finding ways to work less or to work flexibly, because for some people fewer hours or more flexibility are the most important elements of a good balance. In concept, work-life balance is the feeling of being in control of your life, able to exercise choice and find equilibrium between your own needs and those of others, whether at work or at home.

If you're unhappy about the way things are at the moment, don't worry; there's a lot you can do to help yourself. Step one is pinpointing what being "in and out" of balance means to you and understanding the triggers. Once you have achieved that step, you can move on to find a solution.

List Your Symptoms Of Feeling Out Of Balance

To get your life back in sync, it's a good idea to first look at how you've felt in the past.

Take a sheet of paper. Remembering the last time you really felt out of balance, list some words that describe your feelings. For example, you may have felt as if you were… spinning out of control… chaotic… panic-stricken… stressed… shattered… or just ill. List how people at work would have described you during this period and your behavior they might have noticed at that time. Now list how your family and friends would have described you during that same period. Do the same for each out-of-balance episode you can remember.

Pinpoint What Triggers an Out-of-balance State

Think through the episodes above when you felt out of balance and narrow your focus. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What incident or event started each out-of-balance episode?
  • Was it an action I took? If so, what triggered that action?
  • Was it an external event? If so, what were its first signs?

When you've done this for all the episodes in step one, review your triggers. Are there common themes? For example, did you feel out of balance when your boss put too much pressure on you? When you had a dispute with your partner or a close friend? Were you already out of sorts before that?

List Your Symptoms Of Feeling In Balance

Surprisingly, describing how you felt in balance may not always easy. It changes according to who you are, what's happening, and when.

Take another sheet of paper. Remembering the last time you were really in balance, list some words that describe what you felt. How will you recognize that feeling again? List how people at work would have described you and your behavior they might have noticed during this period. Now list how your family and friends would have described you during the same period. Do the same for each in-balance episode you can remember.

Pinpoint What Triggers an In-balance State

Now review each of these pleasant periods and try to identify what happened to start each period. Ask yourself questions such as the following:

  • Was it the result of an action I took? If so, what triggered that action?
  • Was it the result of an external event? If so, what were the first signs of the event?

When you've done this for all of these episodes, review your positive triggers. Are there common themes?

Study What You've Written

Now that you've identified what the ends of the spectrum are like for you, you can "map it out" in a simple table or grid. Add descriptive words to the range of feelings below. Below is an example:

  • Totally in balance In tune with myself and my family, happy, relaxed, confident, generous with my time, proactive
  • Tipping in Kind to myself, take time out, cancel work, make more time for family
  • Neither in nor out of balance Indecisive, reactive, not very kind to myself, perfectionist, OK with others
  • Tipping out Unkind to myself, don't rest, take on too much, pile on the pressure, snappy with my kids and partner
  • Totally out of balance Hate myself, rude/unfair to others, exhausted, defensive, ill, no sense of humor, depressed

Once you've added your own descriptive words for each part of the spectrum, you can identify the "box" that best describes your current state. You can use this personalized tool to tune in regularly. If you are tipping out of balance, you'll find that you will see the warning signs earlier. This will help you take remedial action before things get really difficult to deal with.

Find Your Own Center Of Control

A key theme of any study of work-life balance is the locus, or center, of control. This isn't a static factor, but one that can be changed by beliefs and events. When people feel in control, they can make things happen, and psychologists have associated feeling in control with a better sense of well-being. When people feel like this, they're said to have an internal locus of control.

When people feel controlled by others or by events, things are happening to them and they're said to have an external locus of control. They're more likely to feel anxiety, a loss of confidence, and report physical symptoms of stress. In extreme cases, an external locus of control can lead to a long-term state of helplessness and depression.

A locus of control is best thought of as a ratio, because it isn't the same across all situations. To identify whether your locus of control is generally internal or external, keep a diary for a week. Each day, think back over its different stages, tasks, meetings, encounters, and interruptions, and then identify how in control you felt. You need to suspend your logic; what you are doing is honestly recording how you felt.

What to AvoidYou Feel Trapped

If you allow yourself to believe that you can't change anything, you're ignoring an array of everyday choices that you make by habit alone. Suspend this belief while you conduct these exercises, deciding instead what you would like to change "if you could." Allowing yourself to visualize the future you want is an incredibly positive exercise. By the time you've taken the steps described here, your belief will be more consistent with "I choose to…" and you will be making things happen.

You Don't Change Your Routine

"Wishing won't make it so," another adage declares. Just lamenting any feelings of being out of balance, or hoping that balance will magically appear tomorrow won't change a thing. You must first decide on an action and take the first step.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Drago, Robert W. Striking a Balance: Work, Family, Life. Dollars & Sense, 2007.

Molloy, Andrea. Stop Living Your Job, Start Living Your Life: 85 Simple Strategies to Achieve Work/Life Balance. Ulysses Press, 2005.

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