As I See It: Balance
January 3, 2006 Victor Rozek
This is the time of year that invites assorted foolish commitments to change and self discipline. And if you are among the legions of the overworked, you may be contemplating a little more balance in your life. Well, good luck. What manager wouldn’t be thrilled to have his 60-hour-a-week star employee morph into a 40-hour-a-week plodder. Face it, working for a salary is like playing baseball: The game has no time limit. You’ll be standing under the hot sun until your team records 27 outs. Then you can go home.
The revolutionary act of announcing that you intend to work less will likely result in some form of blowback. At the very least it can become a boulder in the promotional path. But even if it doesn’t, by the time awareness finally dawns that your life is like a wobbling wheel in urgent need of rebalancing, chances are you are already way, way out of round. And when things become intolerable by virtue of being habitual, reversing them will be more difficult because the muscles of change have atrophied. Additionally, the people around you who might be called upon to offer support have been conditioned to see you unidimensionally, have adjusted to the limitation, and may be annoyed at your attempts to become someone other than who they think you are.
As a consequence of living life out of balance, you have raised expectations in one area of your life and lowered them in others. In the workplace, which is naturally organized around keeping you from participating in the rest of your life, teetering towards over-functioning is both welcome and expected. But within your family system, your personal relationships, and your communal obligations, a single-minded commitment to work creates an expectation of unavailability. Or, as Susan Cramm, writing for CIO Magazine, so devastatingly puts it: “Eventually, your spouse, children, church, and community become accustomed to your absence and develop routines that require your funding but make your day-to-day involvement unnecessary.”
It reminds me of a biting quip a comedian made about wanting a man in her life, but not in her house.
It must indeed be dreadful to discover that the reward for your labor is welcome, but your presence has become unessential if not actually disruptive. Or worse yet, to regard your wealth as the primary measure of your contribution to others. Perhaps, then, balance is worth striving for even though pulling back the reins of workaholism contains an embedded invitation for management disapproval.
In Cramm’s article about finding balance between work and the rest of life, she quotes an unlikely consultant–the onetime foreman of General Electric’s corporate chain gang, Jack Welch. Asking someone like Welch about balance is like asking Elton John to tell you everything he knows about ice climbing. Nonetheless, Welch knew just enough about the subject to know it wasn’t management’s problem. “Work-life balance is your problem to solve,” he opined, and “people who publicly struggle [with it] get pigeonholed as ambivalent, entitled, uncommitted, incompetent.”
Wearing a virtual sandwich board with the words “entitled” and “incompetent” stenciled on it probably won’t do much to solidify your career opportunities. Mr. Welch’s insightful, albeit limited, contribution to the subject of balance, is to inform us that it may not be possible to find at our current place of employment. Changing your work habits without consequence is easier when you’re starting fresh and have no work history to combat. Taking a new job and resetting expectations may be the simplest way to reclaim your time and establish greater balance between work and the life that waits beyond.
Curiously, Cramm disagrees about the value of expanding available time. “It’s important to realize that balance is not about having more free time,” she claims, “it’s about living a fuller, richer life that is more enjoyable and more significant.” How one is supposed to live a more enjoyable and significant life while spending every waking moment in the service of his employer is a mystery to me, and apparently to Cramm as well. Balance, she advises, means “gaining control over when, where, and how work is done.”
Evidently, the idea is to juggle work around more meaningful commitments once “control” has been established. But work is notoriously uncontrollable, dependent as it is on managerial whim, the cooperation of unpredictable humans, and the use of temperamental machines. This smacks of the great child-rearing myth which was embraced by a generation of overworked yuppies to assuage their guilt for being unavailable to their children. It was called “quality time” and the presumption behind it was that the amount of time available to spend with your kids was less important than what you did with the time you had. In practice, quality time usually translated into frenetic activity, which was often forced upon the child so that the adults could feel like good parents before rushing off to their next meeting.
Squeezing meaning into every second of life is neither possible or even desirable. It would require the intensity of a bomb assembler and would attract few willing collaborators. Creating balance requires slowing, not accelerating, the frenetic pace and includes time for solitude and reflection.
Reclaiming free time is, I believe, vital because a lack of balance is a reflection of investing too much time and life-energy in a single aspect of one’s life. Without the balm of sufficient time, exhaustion kicks in and will either prevent you from enjoying your limited leisure or, if your leisure is frenzied, will impact the quality of your work.
Short of leaving your job, you can try to negotiate off-loading some of your duties. This is more difficult, but not impossible. Although many jobs expand beyond the original job description, it is in management’s interest to maximize your skills rather than spread them thin. If there are irrelevancies hijacking your focus away from your primary mission, you may be able to negotiate a reduction in workload.
It is instructive to ask yourself who you would be if you couldn’t identify yourself by job title (I’m a programmer; I’m an analyst; and so forth). Such statements describe our capabilities, not our identity. The fact that the answer is puzzling to most people suggests the need for expanded horizons. Resistance comes from a perceived threat to our identity (what will I be if I become less of a programmer?), when in fact what is called for is not an identity change but an expansion of behavioral options.
Achieving the “significant life” Cramm alludes to depends, in large part, on clarifying priorities based on the difference between personal and profound integrity. In our culture, the two are often inverted, which is one reason people report feeling dissatisfied with the choices they make.
Personal integrity governs, among other things, the agreements we make with our employers. It’s what ensures that we arrive on time in the morning, give full effort, treat others respectfully, and are accountable for the outcomes we create. Profound integrity governs the agreements–both explicit and implicit–that we have with our family, the significant people in our lives, and (often overlooked) ourselves. Profound integrity is why men leave work to attend the birth of their children, women take time off to drive an aging parent to a medical appointment, and parents attend a soccer game or a school play when they have promised to do so. It is what compels us to keep our promises to ourselves, to our health, our fitness, our growth. When personal and profound integrity are in conflict, profound integrity trumps personal considerations. Where the reverse is true, an imbalance exists, and where imbalance exists unhappiness eventually follows.
It is a great gift to be fully engaged in our work, but it is not the only gift. For centuries, philosophers have pondered humankind’s ideal state of being. Goethe went so far as to say that “so divinely is the world organized that every one of us, in our place and time, is in balance with everything else.”
I’d like to think so, but then again, Goethe never met Jack Welch.