#573 Innovative Leader
Volume 12, Number 3
Your Busy Life
is a career development consultant, Dr. Derr is a management
professor at Brigham Young University, Ms. Buckner is with
BT.Novations, and Dr. Carlson is professor of management at Baylor
University. They are
authors of Beyond Juggling:
Rebalancing Your Busy Life (Berrett-Koehler, San
“It was the
year after my divorce, and I was working full time and getting my
MBA in the evenings,” begins Stephanie, a researcher at a global
electronics company. “My
three kids were involved in Cub Scouts or Girl Scouts—all on
different nights—and hockey or ice skating, also on different
nights, not to mention the games every weekend.
I think I went through that whole year without sleeping.”
recounts her story during a work-life balance seminar.
The exercise is a 21st century version of “Can
You Top This?” with the prize going to the contestant with the
most out-of-control experience.
The tales are startling, outrageous, and, at the same time,
almost universally familiar.
As Stephanie finishes, the 60 other people in the room nod
knowingly, a silent expression of “Been there, done that.”
out-of-kilter lives have become the rule, not the exception.
Little wonder work-life balance has emerged as the Holy
Grail of the workplace. Survey
after survey shows that when people rank what they most want from
their jobs, balance tops the list.
Now, the good
news: Work-life balance is not
an impossible dream. In
our research, we talked to plenty of people who found workable
solutions to the balance dilemma.
In nearly all cases, they realized that they won’t
achieve balance by running faster, working harder, and cramming
more into their lives. They
let go of the idea of juggling everything.
mean they dropped out of society and are surviving on organic
vegetables and goat’s milk.
Most of the successful “balancers” we studied aren’t
interested in an extreme version of the simple life.
They accept, as a given, that the three components of
balance—meaningful work, satisfying relationships, and personal
rejuvenation or self-care—rarely come together in a tidy,
stress-free package. So
they use a variety of methods to “rebalance”
their lives into a more satisfying—and
Juggling Doesn’t Work
minutes, two seconds. It’s
the longest time Anthony Gatto, a professional juggler and the
world-record holder since 1989, has kept five clubs in the air.
Add one or two clubs, and he can’t juggle much more than
Anthony is a
juggler extraordinaire. Most
of us are not. But
we’re trying to do the same thing with six, seven, eight, or
more simultaneous commitments.
Patti Manuel, the president and chief operating officer of
Sprint Long Distance, consciously identifies the roles in her life
as her juggling props. “I’m
a boss, an employee, a friend, a mother, a daughter, and a member
of my church and community.”
(That’s seven.) “Balance
is about understanding what these roles are and not letting any
one of them become dominant. Most of the time, I’m good at it.
Other times, I’m trying to manage my way back from
Juggling is a
knee-jerk coping mechanism—the “default” setting when time
gets tight and seemingly nothing can be put on the back burner.
As long as our reflexes are sharp, it works. We can “have it all.”
For that 45 minutes and 2 seconds, we have a meaningful
work life, a satisfying relationship with a partner, quality time
with our kids and friends, and sufficient snatches of personal
rejuvenation or self-care. Then
something happens and it all comes crashing down.
Wright has observed, with his inimitable deadpan delivery, “You
can’t have everything. Where
would you put it?” In
our hearts, we know he’s right.
But that doesn’t keep us from trying to pack everything
in anyway. And when
it doesn’t quite fit, we juggle as best we can.
If you’re an
exhausted juggler looking for a better way, consider the following
five alternatives, gleaned from interviews with hundreds of busy
Alternating. Alternaters want it all, but not all at once.
Their work-life balance comes in separate, concentrated
doses. They throw
themselves into their careers with abandon, then cut way back or
quit work altogether and focus intensely on their non-professional
Murray Low is
currently an organization effectiveness manager for Eli Lilly. Over the past 15 years, he has been a CPA, has worked for a
strategy consulting firm, and has run the HR department for a
steel plant, with three- to six-month stints of unemployment in
between. He’s made
the most of his time off, skiing fresh powder and mountain biking
with his wife and kids.
on a daily or weekly basis. These
“micro-alternaters” focus while at work, but turn off their
cell phones the minute they get home.
They refuse to check e-mail at night or on weekends.
And they take all of their allotted vacation days, every
year. They consider
their off-work time to be crucial for deepening relationships and
rejuvenating their spirit and energy.
Outsourcing. “We have a family of four and a staff of eight,”
quips Jon Younger, a New Jersey-based executive.
He and his wife have precious little free time to allocate
to a seemingly endless list of demands.
Their solution: Prioritize those activities in which they
want to be personally involved, then hire out the rest.
On the “personal” list are spending one-on-one time
with their two sons, coaching children’s sports, attending
church services and events, sharing quality time with extended
family, and walking the dog.
Just about everything else—yard care, food prep, academic
tutoring, vacation planning, and car maintenance, among
achieve work-life balance by off-loading
responsibilities—usually in their personal lives—to free up
time and energy for those areas they care most about.
Their motto might be, “I want to have
it all, not do it all.” Those
with limited disposable income rely on a robust, reciprocal
network of family, friends, neighbors, and other supporters who
band together to help each other gain a bit of balance in their
Bundling. Bundlers involve themselves in fewer activities, but
they get more mileage out of those activities.
They examine their busy lives and look for areas in which
they can “double dip.” For
example, a group of women gets together three mornings a week to
work out. This
accomplishes an important goal for physical exercise, and at the
same time provides regular social contact and deepens their
to some degree, but we also found a lot of “faux” bundling—a
version of juggling in which people fool themselves into thinking
they’re multitasking. The
most egregious example is people who talk on their cell phones
from the “privacy” of a public restroom stall.
Sure, they’re doing two things at once.
But is it really helping them feel more balanced?
The essence of
bundling isn’t so much multitasking as “multipurposing.” Its genius is in giving separate tasks greater meaning by
putting them together.
Techflexing. Techflexers dream about leveraging technology to the
point where they can conduct their work from almost anywhere,
anytime. The key to
their strategy isn’t just technology, but flexibility. Techflexers figure out
how to maximize the control they have over their schedules.
In contrast to
jugglers, techflexers don’t use technology to increase the work
hours in a day. Rather,
they use it to liberate those work hours from the more rigid
9-to-5 structure, as well as to enrich their personal lives.
have decided they don’t want it all.
They’ve made a lasting commitment to reduce the time and
energy devoted to “non-essential” activities, whether at work
or at home. The payoff, they hope, is greater freedom—from
stress, from minutia, from the rat race.
In the physics of
work-life balance, simplifying strikes us as an equal and opposite
reaction to the craziness of juggling.
Some people pursue it from the beginning of their career.
Others come to it after they’ve tried juggling for
awhile. In either
case, a common characteristic is the willingness to make some
sacrifices—small ones, like “I’ve decided to buy only one
color of socks,” or large ones, like “I took a voluntary pay
cut to work only four days a week.”
Rebalancing Your Life
strategies—alone or in combination—have helped many people as
they strive to juggle less and enjoy life more.
Not one is a panacea.
Each requires tradeoffs.
Balance, like happiness, appears to be a journey, not a
But if you focus
on rebalancing your life—making conscious choices and course
corrections as you go—the small changes can have a big impact.
Work-life balance isn’t an all-or-nothing phenomenon.
Spending an hour or two per week on the things that matter
most to you can spell the difference between feeling out of
control versus feeling tired yet satisfied.
And in a world brimming over with meaningful opportunities
and fascinating distractions, “tired yet satisfied” isn’t a
bad way to go.