catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 22 :: 2006.12.01 — 2006.12.15


Get out of the mosh pit

We can all probably recall at least one personal story of work/life imbalance and the harm it caused a loved one.  My own story of work and life imbalance occurred several years ago and, as in many of these stories, it ends with an epiphany, a moment of clarity that brings life back into focus.

I had been working as a field representative for my current employer for only a couple of years.  As many young people do, I poured myself into my work—working long hours, working weekends, staying in hotels for several days at a time.  My wife was also working but her routine (and mine) changed when we had our first child.  No longer were we the couple with two careers, we were now a couple with one career and one important mission:  to provide a safe, nurturing, and loving environment for our growing family.  I vowed to improve the balance between family and work obligations but found it difficult to do both well.  Unintentionally, I began to favor the obligations of work over family.

The consequence of this decision pierced me in an unforgettable way one day as I was standing in the Vancouver airport on a call with my wife.  I was calling to tell her that my flight was delayed and that I would arrive home very late.  This call was coming at the end of a five-day stint of meetings out of the province, which had been preceded by evening meetings at home, which had been preceded by early morning work site visits.  I was having difficulty remembering the features of my young son’s face and I was concerned that the mailman was getting more face time with him than me.  Broken, empty, and feeling alone with our one-year old in her arms, my wife said over the phone, “I miss you” and began to weep softly.  Immediately a tingle traversed through my whole body, momentarily fastening me to that spot. 

“What have I done?” I thought.

Too often we are woken out of our stupor and called to action because of crisis, and this was my wake-up call.  I had to bring balance back to my life or I would lose everything that was important to me.  Many studies now confirm what we know in our hearts—appropriately weighting our priorities and allocating appropriate measures of time and energy to them is essential to health and well-being.

But how do we achieve this harmonization of priorities?

Every year my colleague and I run a workshop for new representatives hired by the union.  During one of the sessions my colleague takes the new recruits through an exercise that helps them connect their deepest desires or loves with their work as labour relations specialists.  By identifying what we love, so the reasoning goes, we can identify what matters to us and learn about what shapes us into the people we are.  The first step to achieving work and life balance is to consciously list our loves, which in turn provides the bearing for all of life’s efforts.

Secondly, we need to do a self-assessment.  What factors are standing in the way of successfully achieving harmony?  Bill Butterworth, author of On-the-Fly Guide to Balancing Work and Life, suggests that we identify the hazies, lazies, and crazies that pop up and disrupt our bearing.    Attending to the urgent at the expense of what is important leads to the hazies.  The small and sometimes large distractions that we believe require our immediate attention tug us away from the important activities and soon we find ourselves in a debilitating fog that muffles our wider perspective. 

There are times, like in my personal example above, where we fail to achieve our priorities because we fail to take responsibility for the imbalance.  The lazies are a common defense mechanism for the busy status quo.  We say, “You have no idea how difficult it is manage all my obligations:   I have a mortgage, a team to lead, people are counting on me, I must take care of an elderly parent, I need to go to the gym, I am a single parent.”  Shifting the blame to external factors is not helpful; balance is our responsibility.

If you have every been to a rock concert you may have experienced or witnessed what is appropriated called the mosh pit:  Tens and tens of people close to the stage gyrating wildly from head to toe, slamming into each other at breakneck velocity.  From the objective viewer’s perspective this is chaos, a crazy environment that epitomizes disharmony.  The crazies are the workaday version of the mosh pit.  Our lives are out of control and the only direction we have is the one given to us by the next activity that sends us careening towards another activity and so on until we fall to the ground in complete exhaustion.  The remedy to the crazies is simple:  leave the mosh pit.  Gain fresh perspective by evaluating your list of loves, ask yourself if you are doing justice to your loves, and plan to engage in activities that accomplish your priorities.

A third way to promote balance in our lives is to recognize the ingredients of a well-rounded life.  Butterworth suggests that there is a “priority triangle” of attention, connection, and reflection that may help you realize these important ingredients.  Life requires that we do things—that we get things done—because human beings are hard wired to produce and contribute to the common good.  This is attention.  Connection is achieved when we offer ourselves in relationship with others, another critical element of human flourishing.  A much neglected ingredient of the priority triangle is contemplation—time to reflect on the interconnectedness of our loves, plans, and activity.  As Butterworth puts it, “The key to making the Priorities Triangle work is to ascertain which of these two [priorities] is your natural tendency and then make a plan that capitalizes on your strength to improve your weakness.” 

For example, if your strengths are tasks and relationships, and your weakness is contemplation perhaps a personal “board of directors” is what the doctor ordered.  A personal board of directors makes use of your task-orientation (decision-making body) and relationships (friends and family) to help you reflect upon the imbalance in your life.  Receiving critical and helpful feedback from people you trust will bring you decisively into the contemplative realm.  The result:  a life of activity that is linked to your loves.

Balance is difficult to achieve but, like anything that is worth having, it requires consistent effort.  For the sake of healthy relationships with our co-workers, friends, and family we should, as Butterworth suggests, run the race of life as a marathon and not as a sprint.  When running a marathon we should remember to pace ourselves and implement endurance strategies (planning and recreation) for the long haul.  Such a strategy may eliminate the airport phone call that leaves you stunned and ashamed.

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