Work/Life Balance: Is It Possible?

Yes, but it means we have to work at creating and preserving a space in our lives for the things that matter most.

Work/life balance consistently ranks close to the top in employee surveys. “Balance” continues to be the hot career issue and buzzword for employees of all ages. As a leadership development consultant, I often am asked to address the topic of “balance.” I believe much of the stress and pressure people perceive in the workplace is a result of the digital invasion with an emphasis on speed. Mark Taylor, author of “Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left,” explains the current situation this way:

“The worship of speed reflected and promoted a profound shift in cultural values that occurred with the advent of modernity and modernization. With the emergence of industrial capitalism, the primary values governing life became work, efficiency, utility, productivity, and competition. When Frederick Winslow Taylor took his stopwatch to the factory floor in the early 20th century to increase workers’ efficiency, he began a high-speed culture of surveillance… Then, as now, efficiency was measured by the maximization of rapid production through the programming of human behavior… Contrary to expectation, the technologies that were supposed to liberate us now enslave us, networks that were supposed to unite us now divide us, and technologies that were supposed to save time leave us no time for ourselves.”

There is no doubt the line between work and life is blurring. It is possible to be “connected” 24/7, yet there are still only 24 hours in a day! While there is a movement to “unplug” and “disconnect” in order to create a more definitive line, it feels as if we are on a cultural treadmill that encourages us to accept as fact the all-stress-all-the- time lifestyle. It is as if seeking and living a balanced life is the impossible dream. Many people are accepting the out-of-balance craziness as the new normal and even are rewarded for it.

As noted in his book, “In Search of Balance: Keys to a Stable Life,” Richard Swenson believes balance is possible if we set intentional boundaries that allow “margin” in our lives. Swenson is also the author of the book, “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives.” “Margin creates a space in our lives for the things that matter most. Balance preserves that space in our lives for the things that matter most,” and our core priorities are the things that matter most. “Margin helps us keep our balance; balance helps us preserve our margin.”

Similar to words on a page, margins add space and establish boundaries. Rather than having words cover the entire page, the space helps us to focus and allows room for adjustments. When we are pushed to the limits and there is no margin, there is no room for what matters most, and balance is not possible. According to Swenson, “without margin, energy is replaced by exhaustion. Without margin, instead of fixing problems, we become the problem. Without margin, instead of helping people, we avoid them… As we carve out margin in emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances, our resilience is strengthened… Relationships are energized. Our batteries are recharged.”

Balance will not just happen. We have to work on it and be intentional about establishing margin in our lives. Recovering balance to work and life takes awareness, courage, and might involve risk. Swenson suggests the following:

  • Learn to decline with gratitude. Before you agree to something, don’t check your calendar—check your goals. Only say, “Yes,” out of genuine interest.
  • Defend boundaries. Having clarity around our core priorities and what matters most gives us the courage needed to defend our boundaries.
  • Have severel gears. In many workplaces, there seems to be only one speed, and that is fast. There are times when we need to shift to “park” or “neutral” in order to be mindful, which can lead to better decisions and healthier relationships.
  • Obey the speed limit. Everyone might be “speeding,” but you know yourself. When you are going “too fast,” you are likely to break down.
  • Seek solitude. Find time to “unplug and disconnect” in order to remember your priorities. Consider a silent retreat to stop thinking about work.
  • Maximize our energy. Energy, not time, is the main component of high performance. According to Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in their book, “The Power of Full Engagement,” “Full engagement begins with feeling eager to get to work in the morning, equally happy to return home in the evening, and capable of setting clear boundaries between the two.”
  • Take care of yourself. While it is common sense to get sufficient sleep, nutrition, and exercise, as a result of progress, this is not often the case. Our body is a system and just as with automobiles, we have to take care of maintenance if we want the vehicle to operate properly.
  • Cherish the home. Swenson says it best: “If we wish to have a work/life balance, we first need a ‘life’ and ‘home’ to occupy that side of the equation.” While not everyone has a spouse and children, at the end of the day, we each have some type of family in broad terms—people who care about our wellbeing. “The family, traditionally, is the great shock absorber of society… The shock absorber itself has been shocked.”

Most of us have drained our margins instead of sustaining them. In my book, “Leading With Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts,” “leaders model resilience” was one of the themes that emerged. The book includes these tips on how to become more resilient and increase our margins:

  • Create a stop “doing list” and create a “learn list.” Stop doing the things that add stress and start making time to learn new things.
  • Build support for renewal. The higher we go in an organization, the more we tend to live in a “fishbowl,” where it feels as though everyone is watching us and we are all alone. Create or join peer groups to share best practices and to address common challenges.
  • Plan a personal retreat. Find a place where you can get away from the pressures and tensions of daily life—both professional and personal.
  • Develop a practice. Find a way to “break free” in order to stay grounded. Yoga, mindfulness meditation, and journaling are examples of practices to help you get in touch with your core values—with what matters most.
  • Find a role model. Seek out someone who is living life in a way that appeals to you – a like of resilience and renewal. What are they doing to renew their spirit and to keep life in balance?

The most important person to lead is yourself, so self-development is critical to leadership development. In order to have a sense of balance in your work and in your life, be a resilient leader by intentionally building your margin.

Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, and leadership development and change management consultant at The Genysys Group. Her most recent book is “Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts” (ASTD, 2013). For more information, visit and

Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, coach, and leadership development and change management consultant. Her most recent book is “Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts” (ATD, 2013). For more information, visit: