It’s Not About Balance

Over lunch as I listened to a very bright, well educated, accomplished and successful woman talk about how she felt pulled apart by all the demands on her I thought about the insanity of balance, once again. While she was not clear about who all the individuals were who felt they needed a piece of her, it was clear that balance was beside the point. Have I gone mad? If so, I’ve been mad for a long time now. Just ask anyone who knows me, especially those who know me well.

Someone once described himself to me as a wheel with many spokes on it. It was his objective to keep all the wheels—his role as a son, husband, worker, artist, handyman, friend, and so on—at fairly equal lengths. Otherwise, he reasoned, he would have a bumpy ride. That’s a metaphor, more or less, of balance. I think of myself as a many-faceted jewel. When you shine light through me different colors in that light show up depending on which facets the light travels through. Almost no one knows all the colors I am capable of.

Thich Naht Han in the first chapter of The Miracle of Mindfulness relates a remarkable bit of thinking with regard to the challenge of finding time for oneself in the context of raising a family:

. . . I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.

But now, I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him interested in what we do during that time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!

Some years ago while managing the project which I still remember as the most difficult project of my entire career, though we were ultimately quite successful in our delivery, I was scheduled in a minimum of seven hours of meetings per day and was often triple-scheduled. I was matrixed to six people—two groups of three. The two groups were having a “battle of the Titans,” as one of them put it, over who would control my function and my team. One of the two groups was internally divided among themselves and constantly bickered, which didn’t help anything. And I had eleven souls on my core project team relying on me for support and direction—not to mention a certain sort of protection. Some were in the same building I was in and some were out on the road. This, not to mention the more than 3,000 people dependent on our successful delivery of the product we were building which could make or break at least some of their careers.

Eventually, I became pretty tired. Sometimes my meetings started as early as 5AM, and I often worked as late as 8PM or 9PM. Everyday at 9AM I attended a meeting where I knew I would be yelled at for half an hour. I had to make some choices about why I was staying in that job and what I could realistically accomplish.

A key learning for me at that time was similar to what Thich Naht Hanh’s friend learned: be where you are right now, or, as the pop phrase goes: BE HERE NOW. No matter whether I was scheduled to be in three meetings at the same time, I could only physically be in one. I had to pick one and be there with my full attention. No matter whether there was work unfinished that would need to be presented in the next meeting or conversations unfinished with people who depended on me, I could only be in one place at a time, and it seemed to work best if I was fully present with the people I was with at the time.

I’m not a skilled meditator, though I have practiced various forms of meditation. I am not, I would say, a “deeply spiritual person.” And, my tendency toward mysticism didn’t help me at all in this situation. What seemed to help most was really more like letting go of what I couldn’t do anything about once I decided what I could realistically achieve according to my own goals and values and setting the right expectations with people dependent on me.

As I remember, I gave all of the team access to my calendar; it’s typically my practice to open up my calendar so everyone can see it. I told them when I would come to their offices and talk to them, and when I was with them I tried to give them all the information I could to help them feel well-informed. I also gave them a means of accessing me immediately in true emergencies, and always responded immediately, though some coaching on what a “true emergency” was, as I remember, required. And, I was clear with them about risks and issues I was dealing with, often on their behalf. At one point, I even enlisted them in rewriting the description of my role, though it turned out that what they most needed me to do I was already doing.

It made me less jumpy to “be here now,” but in the context of constant change or many competing demands, it can be very difficult to do. We think ourselves into the future and the past, and in the workplace, we can often have that as part of our role description. That said, now is all that exists. What will you do with it? How will you be in it?

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