Life balance – (or how to work for a living and still be free to live)

Dr. Mary S Williams University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service NAE4-HA Professional Improvement Committee 

“It doesn’t matter how much I do, they never appreciate me,” the martyr in us whines when work and home lives threaten to collide. Volunteers complain that you didn’t attend all of the state fair events, 4-H members want to attend the weekend camp next week after all, colleagues wonder why you took Tuesday afternoon off, administrators looked at your report from last year (which you submitted on time last September) and asked about the program you conducted in February, 1997. Your hair is curling over your shoulders and you tell people you are growing a beard for the winter, even though you tried to shave this morning, but the blade was so dull it wouldn’t take off the stubble. Your son wants you to attend the little league luncheon on the same day you have scheduled an advisory meeting, and your spouse (God bless her) wants you to pick up the dry cleaning and the dog food before you come home. You reply that she’ll be lucky if you even make it home. You have too much to do, you’re tired, you’re stressed, and (most importantly) none of it is any fun any more.

We all feel like this from time to time. If we’re lucky, this is a severe scenario, but unfortunately, Extension work lends itself to scenes like this. For many of us, the spinning cycles of programs, fairs, projects, reports, and the basic office grind seem to take control of our work, and in severe cases, our lives. We internalize this loss of control as stress, and ultimately experience burnout. Regaining a sense of personal control and effectiveness involves more than time management, more than stress management, more than tips for balancing work and personal lives. It does involve recognizing the essence of successful living as balance in all aspects of our lives. It involves reintroducing a sense of passion for and engagement with our professional and our personal roles. It involves understanding our intellectual, material, physical, emotional, and spiritual selves and accommodating the needs of each. It involves an interconnection and interdependence among the many areas of work and life. Instead of debating the differences between personal and professional development, we should seek opportunities to broaden perspectives and approaches for developing the whole person. We should approach this task as life balancing.

The process of life balancing is not an easy one, nor one that can be adequately addressed by a fifty-minute workshop. Preparation for success during any time in life is typically the end result of applying hard work, common sense, intelligence, and discipline to a well-defined set of goals. So it is with life balancing. It involves just as much thought, planning, and hard work as your career. In fact, your career is only one aspect of life balance. It is, however, within your power to achieve personal and professional growth. In fact, only you can do this. You cannot expect your supervisor or your spouse or your secretary to create balance for you. You alone are responsible for your destiny. You have the power to improve your life now, as well as to design your own future.

STEP ONE: One of the first steps in life balancing is to recognize that human lives can’t be separated into boxes. We do not have partitions in our brains or our souls that help us wrap up family and keep it separate from the office or keep our work isolated from our leisure time. We can give lip service to that concept, but any one who has established a career in Extension knows that a volunteer will call you at home and the grocery list will be written at the office and your own children will come to camp and you will recruit events judges from your adult Sunday School class. A key to life balance is to recognize that overlap, accept it, and appreciate the flexibility you allow yourself by breaking down the partitions between your intellectual, material, physical, emotional, and spiritual selves. Recognize that there is a need to grow and develop in each of these areas and if any of them suffer from neglect, it will impact each of the others.

BALANCE YOUR WHEELS: Intellectual stimulation and growth are facilitated by interesting work, but also by travel, music, theater, Sunday newspapers, science fiction, chess games, and any number of other pursuits. We all need to feel challenged and stimulated by our work, and we need to continually look for opportunities to try new programs or accept new responsibilities. When we feel good about our work, we tend to feel good about our lives. When we find our work lives unsatisfying and unrewarding, we tend to let it impact other areas of our lives. Learn to accept difficulties at work as disguised opportunities for growth and development. It is a fact. Those of us who have learned the habit of seeing stressful situations as challenges and opportunities stay physically and emotionally healthier than others in similar circumstances. Learn also to find ways to combine intellectual interests for maximizing opportunities. Turn a love of theater into a children’s theater workshop. Read a great book on lifebalancing and turn it into a leader training topic (or a conference workshop.)

DO YOU HAVE THE RIGHT STUFF? Balance in meeting your material needs means acknowledging your need for security and comfort. Material needs include a savings and investment plan, appropriate insurance coverage, and change left in your pocket the day before pay day. They also include a safe and secure place to live, adequate transportation, and the “things” that make us happy. The key for integrating these material needs with your emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual needs lies in separating wants from needs and appreciating the simple treasures that can fill your life with a sense of abundance. An inexpensive CD player can be a “thing” that helps us meet intellectual and spiritual needs. A fireplace and a load of dry oak are “things” that provide countless hours of spiritual contentment. A decent pair of walking shoes is the only “thing” many of us need to assist in meeting physical goals. A $4 bunch of cut flowers purchased with your groceries can make you feel very wealthy, if you stop to really appreciate their color, texture, aroma, and shape. Lifebalancing means using your material and fiscal resources wisely. Don’t be ashamed to acknowledge material needs. Just be prepared to sift through them and identify the ones which truly bring you pleasure and are critical to meeting needs in the other areas of your life.

FIRM, FIT, & FABULOUSLY HEALTHY! Staying physically fit and healthy is probably the basic goal of your physical self, whether you stop to think about it and plan for it or not. Too many of us take our health for granted. We don’t take the time to exercise, we eat doughnuts for our daily breakfast, we drink coffee by the gallon, we work into the night and lose sleep over work problems. Ask yourself – who will do this work if I get sick? Who will take care of my children if something happens to me? What do I lose if I choose a half-hour walk and bring in my lunch instead of taking an hour lunch break at the local burger joint? Physical weliness means integrating regular exercise, adequate rest, and nutritious food into your daily routine. It means paying attention to your body’s warning signals and going to the doctor before a bladder infection knocks you off your feet for three days. It means practicing what we preach about healthy lifestyles, and recognizing that it will be very difficult to meet other needs if we deliberately fail to take care of our physical needs. It also means searching spiritually for the strength to accept health conditions that are beyond our control, and finding ways of coping and dealing with them productively and constructively.

GOTTA LOVE SOMEONE! Emotional needs are met through satisfying relationships at home, in the workplace, and in the community. They might also be met through intellectual, material, physical and spiritual pursuits, but intelligent minds, healthy bodies, and incredible wealth will be of little value if we don’t succeed in our professional and personal relationships. Good friends, loving family members, and supportive colleagues add up to a special treasure. Take care of this social network. Think about ways to integrate this area of your life with the others. Are your children old enough to take to camp? Have you invited your colleagues to dinner at your house? You can even make housecleaning a family activity if you approach it with a sense of humor and adventure. Keys to integrating emotional wellness with other needs are to learn to listen and communicate effectively, and to look at life with optimism and humor. We need to learn to forgive and forget past hurts and let go of negative feelings that form emotional blocks and keep us from meeting intellectual, material, physical, and spiritual needs. Nurture and enrich your relationships as the foundation for emotional well-ness.

TURN ON THE BRIGHT LIGHTS! When people talk about personal or professional development, balancing work and family, or stress management, they often deny the spiritual needs of the individual. Spirituality does not mean religion, though religion is institutionalized spirit. It does not mean morality, which implies right and wrong as a basis for judgment. It does not mean psychic, or fundamentalist, or flighty. In fact, there is not much to be gained in trying to define what spirituality is or what it is not. People who are truly committed to life balancing will have an easier time by simply recognizing that spirit is an essential need of human nature. Spirituality involves acknowledging universal powers greater than any human can fathom, and acknowledging the incredible strengths of the human spirit that cannot be measured by EKG’s or mph or ES-237 reports. It involves examining why we live as much as how we live. It involves accepting with humble gratitude the mysterious gifts of serendipity and synchronicity in our lives, and using them with strength, grace, and wisdom. 

No, life and work in Extension are not always fun. But fun (in the guises of contentment, excitement, internal peace, creativity, and enjoyment) is the common thread that runs through and connects each aspect of life balancing. When we enjoy our work, our relationships, and our free time, and when we feel positive about our futures, we approach true balance. If we haven’t created a sense of joy about ourselves and our stations in work and in life, then we will continue to see each of these areas of life as just one more demand we have to handle.

Life balance depends on integration of our inner selves, not separation. It involves recognizing our needs for intellectual, material, physical, emotional and spiritual well-ness and learning to h se needs.

Life balance – (or how to work for a living and still be free to live)