Balancing Act

By Kellie Goodman Shaffer
Dolly Parton is credited with saying “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”
It’s good advice in a world that seems to be spinning faster and faster every day, and even more so with the holiday season upon us.
The concept of work-life balance is more than a hot topic: it’s a matter of employee productivity as well as personal wellness and fulfillment, which are increasingly believed to be inextricably linked.
A study by Family Living Today revealed the United States’ ranking of 30 out of 38 in the world in finding work-life balance, with more Americans working over fifty hours per week, while spending less and less time focused on personal care, recreation and leisure activities. Two-thirds of Americans say they know they lack work-life balance. In truth, our own culture is working against us.
Computers and cell phones allow us to take our work with us everywhere: from the office to the dinner table, to church, and everywhere in between. These advances have given us greater connectivity, but that has come with a price:  expectations of instant gratification and universal accessibility. Everyone wants what they want, right now. That puts pressure on all of us to be available and responsive to others all the time.
Add to those daily demands the additional stress, events and obligations of the holidays, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed.  So how do we balance high performance at work while giving our best to family, friends, and ultimately ourselves?
Cherie Snyder, Professor and Program Director for the Human Service Program and Integrative Health at Allegany College of Maryland and faculty member of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington D.C. says finding work-life balance is crucial for our physical and mental health.
“Beneath all of our stress and anxiety is this pressure of feeling like we’re not enough,” says Snyder. “During the holidays, those feelings are amplified, so it’s important to know that it’s about being present and a mindfulness that allows us to be fully engaged with the people we love and the joys of the moment.”
Snyder recommends a focus on self-care: using tools such as meditation/breath work, imagery, movement and gratitude to help achieve that mindfulness; tools which can be worked into even the busiest of schedules a few minutes at a time.  
“I show my students a video clip with the line I bought this ticket but I’m only watching half the show,” she says. “That’s what happens in our busy lives – we’re here, we have the ticket, but we miss so much just by not being present and then expressing it to ourselves, to others.”
Here are few suggestions to consider when trying to strike that balance:   

We’ve all heard the adage: no one says on their deathbed they wish they’d spent more time at work. But what if you love your job?  Author/educator Steven Covey described it as one of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: to put first things first. The simple concept of prioritization is illustrated by filling a jar with sand and then trying to fit large stones on top.  The sand takes up too much room. If the rocks are put in the jar first, representing the most important things, our priorities, the sand finds its way around the rocks and ultimately more fits into the container (our life.) By recognizing what’s most important and devoting our greatest time and attention to what means the most to us helps us let go of the inconsequential little things: distractions, busywork, people who drain our energy. We have a better chance of doing the things we love and loving the things we do.   

Finding time each day to recharge the batteries is crucial to achieving work-life balance.  Taking time to separate ourselves from work: to walk or work-out, or just move; to read, listen to music, meditate, or anything that provides peace or joy, separate from the stresses of the job, either by ourselves or with family and friends goes a long way to finding that all-important equilibrium.  For most of us, work isn’t life or death, even if it sometimes seems that way, so making time for personal pleasures while putting some distance between the stress of the job and downtime is vital.

Just because we can be reached, doesn’t mean we should be. It might seem impossible, but unplugging from the seemingly never-ending pings of emails, text messages, social media notifications and mindless screen time is an admirable pursuit.  Remember the days when you’d have to be in your kitchen, attached to a wall to call someone on the phone? Or you’d write a letter and send it the mail, and wait a week or more for a response? Or you’d go to a restaurant and have nothing to do but eat and talk to the person across the table from you? Giving ourselves permission to unchain our consciousness from screens, large and small, even for short periods of time (like family dinner) can help make more valuable connections with the ones we love.

We all need that small group of friends who “get” us:  the ones you can call when you need to vent, or to sit with and say nothing at all. It’s easy to let friendships fall by the wayside when the demands of life and work take hold; but making, keeping and cultivating those friendships that inspire and fortify us may be the best gift we can give ourselves, and may be the best medicine for our crammed calendars.  A 2016 WebMD report revealed many health benefits of friendships, including a 50% chance of outliving loners, not to mention better sleep, fighting depression, lower blood pressure and even faster recovery time from illness. Friends make our lives better – so celebrate them.

“We are often our own worst critics,” says Snyder. “Our inability to accept imperfections in ourselves and the pressure to uphold an unrealistic standard that no one can reach – and that’s reinforced in the media and the culture – so it’s important to know that you are enough.”
Adopting a spirit of gratitude can complement self-acceptance:  recognizing and celebrating the gifts, large and small that come into our lives every day.
“Gratitude is free,” says Synder.  “It’s an attitude, and like any habit, it needs to be cultivated – to notice and express that gratitude can be done throughout the day.”
Snyder adds that there is no magic potion or special secret to achieve work-life balance.  But recognizing the need to care for ourselves and putting effort into that self-care can make a difference in the small moments of every day, that can become long-term gifts we give to ourselves.  
With a little effort, we can enjoy peace and goodwill this holiday season, by focusing less on presents and more on being present for ourselves and those we love.