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The Art of Balancing an Unequal Life
by Eileen McDargh, CSP, CPAE


Over the past years, two books appeared repeatedly on the best seller list: Peter Lynch's "Beating the Street" and Thomas Moore's "Care of the Soul."  This juxtaposition captures the dilemma facing all of us in the business world.  How does one swim with the sharks, squeeze the margins of an angst-filled financial world, and still lead a life of wholeness in spirit, mind and body?

Nor is this a new question. Marsilio Ficino's 15th Century treatise, "The Book of Life," sought to help the Medicis and their merchant counterparts create a renaissance of spirit amid the draining demands of commerce and a new creature called capitalism.

Whether a Renaissance banker or the CEO of a high tech conglomerate, whether a guild master of stonework or a manager of information services, the issue is still one of balance.

But balance is not an equal measure of  work, love, prayer and play.  Nor is it a state that can be achieved and frozen in form for all time.  Rather, this amorphous thing called "balance" is an on-going, deliberate set of decisions that make the journey of life much like the metaphor of sailing.  Briefly, there will always be competing and  unequal demands upon our time ... much like the tug of the tiller or the push of the wind.  Depending upon the course we have chosen for ourselves, we respond to these demands.  We might decide to change direction, seek harbor, or give full rein to the beating waves and blustery wind. The quality of these decisions depends upon the direction of our sailboat, the prevailing winds, the depth of the water, and the need for overhaul and repair.

Direction refers to the goals, created  by our values, which we have established.  The wind and the depth of the water represent those people and events, outside our control, which make demands upon our time.  Lastly, overhaul and repair stand for the need to cease and desist, to nurture and renew our physical and spiritual self, and to re-examine the course we are sailing.

What could help all of us on such a journey is a process, a formula, whereby we might take stock of our decisions, weighing them against our personal values, goals, and physical requirements. Since  we are all bound by the same relentless 24-hour day,  we would be best served by  looking at not how much we can cram into the blocks called "time", but  how wisely do we choose what we put into our finite day.

Step 1:  Answer these questions to help you determine what is of value to you. Value has more to do with who you are and how you live your life, not what you have achieved.   For example, you might value life-long learning, financial security, service to others, loving relationships, and spiritual growth.   Once you have identified what is of value, you have a screen with which to filter through goals and activities. 

One of the best ways to identify values is to create an imaginary sounding board composed of 4-5 people whom you  value and admire and who, in turn, sincerely respect and like you.   If each one were to give eulogy, what  type of person  would they say you were and why.  What values arose?  What goals or activities supported  those values?   Isolate those values and write them down.  You might even be able to rank order the values. 

Step 2:   For the period of one week, keep a pad of paper handy and make a note of every task you perform and what role you play.    For example, my roles are professional speaker, writer, wife, mother, grandmother, friend, office worker, manager, daughter, sister, student, volunteer, and just plain ME.  The latter refers to a role that nurtures and cares for me, not necessarily anyone else. Amazingly, I've discovered that every task is related to a role and that almost all tasks come in 15 minute increments.

Step 3: On a scale from minus 5 to plus 5, rate these roles and accompanying tasks  according to enjoyment and  personal value.  In looking at the tasks of a week,  interesting discoveries arise. 

Are the various tasks and roles you've played congruent with the values you've identified?  Are you putting more time than is reasonable into some tasks and roles?  The operative word here is "reasonable."  For example, a special friend lost her husband and had no one to help her with grief and anger, not to mention funeral arrangements and lawyers. My value of service and loving relationships and the role as "friend" and also surrogate "daughter" created  many  tasks and demands.  For me, it would have been unreasonable not to spend considerable time with Jeanne.   The sailboat headed in her direction.

 Another example.  I discovered that I was putting far too much time in the role of  "office worker" rather than in the role of  "manager".  Instead of assigning tasks and growing others, I was taking work on that did NOT need to be done by me.  Time to alter course and allow my associates to hold the tiller.

Finally, by putting so much emphasis on the role of professional speaker and its tasks, I had let drop ME.  Time to make decisions for overhaul and repair, saying  "yes" to a day off, to a day of contemplative silence. I realized that without the silence, all I bring to the platform and my audiences are echoes of words rather than insights.

Step 4:   Now that you have identified what is, make a list of questions to ask yourself  when you begin to take on a role  and task.   My list looks like this:

Does it support my value for life-long learning and make a difference?  Will it stop another person from growing?

Will it stretch my abilities?

I recently accepted an assignment that will cost time, money and effort as well as time away from home.  I accepted it because it will move me into trying something that I have never done before ... an activity directly related to my role of professional speaking and service.

Does it allow me to be with people whom I care about?

How often have we all said "yes" to an engagement because we feel "guilty"?  The reality is that we find the people tedious, demanding, and downright boring.  I have finally determined that if I have limited time with my family and friends, it is perfectly fine to periodically decline such invitations.

Is it irresistible?

"Irresistible" means that without a doubt I would say "yes" and that the request comes without compromise or force from either the offeror or me.   There is no emotional blackmail, no "should", no social obligation.   Irresistible requests are gifts to be gratefully accepted. If our time is filled only with "resistible" demands, how we will ever be able to accept the irresistible?

Is it fun and will it allow for creativity and a change of pace?

Will it create organization and structure in my life?  Am I the only one who can do this?

Will it nurture my physical well-being and respect my natural pace?

I have discovered that unlike many of my colleagues, non-stop travel is exhausting and not fun.  My body requires seven hours of sleep, regular exercise and down time. I can take only so many back-on-back engagements before I must say "no".  Trusting that I can say "no" is a lesson I struggle to learn.

Is it authentic to me and of service to others?

I was asked if I would run for the Board of a non-profit.  Knowing I have strong organizational and leadership abilities not to mention an ego -- saying "yes" to serve the membership SEEMED appropriate.  However, when I tested the request against the other questions listed above, more negative responses appeared.

The art of balancing an unequal life means that we seek answers to all these questions before choosing the next activity to put in our life.  Yes there will be days, even months, when the press of every day pushes us into knee-jerk reactions and  work seems to be working us.  External forces and folks seem to be pushing us for more, for faster, for further.  Once realized, stop. Lower the sails.  Breath.  Ask yourself these questions.   Remember, there is a big difference between the leading edge and the bleeding edge.  Alienation from our authentic, deepest self and each other draws blood.   Connection to our core and the humanity around us draws life.


The Author


For over 20 years, Eileen McDargh, CSP, CPAE has consulted and addressed  organizations who seek to make a difference in the lives and the well-being of their customers, stakeholders, and communities. Her ability to connect with mind, heart, and spirit makes her one of the most sought-after international keynoters. A dynamic speaker, she draws upon practical business know-how, life's experiences, and years of consulting to national and international organizations to help audiences discover and learn. She also serves as a high level retreat facilitator and coach for helping managers wade through the morass of systems and relationships. 

Author of Work for a Living & Still be Free to Live, she's a frequent contributor to numerous business journals and news magazines and has appeared several times on CNN Headline News. 

Visit her web site .

Many more articles in Health & Lifestyle in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2000 by Eileen McDargh. All rights reserved.

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