Maintaining balance in your life

John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

Recently, I was at a meeting where a successful, high-performance executive was sharing his leadership philosophy.  Every bit of what he said I agreed with, but for some inexplicable reason, the presentation made me nervous. 

During the Q&A, which he handled skillfully, someone asked him how he managed to maintain a healthy balance between his career and his family. He answered quite honestly that this was an area where he had been less than successful. Later, as I was reading the reviews of the presentation, I noticed that one person noted that his inability to balance this important dyad disqualified him from being truly successful. I was struck by how much I agreed with this comment.

Being an organizational consultant, I am fascinated by formal organizations and try to remember that perhaps the most important organization in our lives is our family. Most of us are fortunate to begin our lives in an intact family, and a major challenge for young adults and others among us is how to construct and maintain a family for the duration of our lives. How then do we maintain a personally satisfying balance between the two structures?

In many respects, the job and family are an accurate representation of our lives and in the past decades, both have changed markedly. Consider the following contemporary family structures. First, there is the “traditional” family, working families that come in many types: Two-job family, dual-career family, DINKs (dual income, no kids), flip-flop family (wife works, husband doesn’t), traveling/commuting family, military family and no-job family.

Take a deep breath and consider: the single-parent family, “blended” family, grandparents raising grandchildren family, “boomerang” family, retired family, single adult living alone family, cohabitating family, “sandwich” family (caring for two generations) and the gay or lesbian family. I have probably missed a few and I apologize.  Most of us have a fair chance of progressing through many of these family structures in our lifetimes.  Doesn’t this look like change at maximum warp drive?

Those of you who read this column regularly know that I have spent many words talking about how jobs and companies are changing.  Much of this is about productivity, globalization, muscle-to-mind job creation and technology.

So, a brief review of what is known about the job-family intersection. Here are the six primary findings:

1. Behaviors at work are repeated at home.  One of my lines to people who tell stories about bad bosses is “you could be married to….” Closely related is

2. Moods/emotions carry over from work to home and home to work. So much for the advice to not take your work home or bring your family issues to work; it’s pretty much impossible.

3. Work affects status, self-concept and well-being. This is why job separations, demotions and other negative at-work events can cause disproportionate effects in peoples’ lives.

4. Work patterns are related to parenting practices. Maybe this is why we have so much trouble getting some managers to be more respectful. I once worked with an executive for a couple of years and never heard the words please, thank you or any of those other small, magical kindnesses that mean so much to people. He was one of my all-time most difficult clients.

5. Work takes time, energy and involvement. This time has to come from somewhere, often the family.

6. Work is inherently stressful and insecure. There are tons of studies that show that unpredictability is a big stress producer and the effects of high stress are well understood. The Japanese, who have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, have a word that translates into “work-death.”

So what can you do to manage these issues? First and foremost, clarify and act on your values. If serious time with your young children and your spouse are important, why are you working 70-plus hours a week and never using your vacation time? Reframe the context. At the end of your life, you probably will not be wondering how you could have spend more time at work. Some moments pass and never can be repeated.

Once you understand what’s important to you, revisit your values from time to time and ask the hard questions of yourself. I was at a pig roast recently that was awash in small children and my takeaway was these people know what’s important to them.

Communicate – communicate – communicate. Suffering in silence is not going to solve any problems.  Put issues, problems and opportunities on the table and discuss them with your significant others at home and at work. Talking about problems helps to clarify them and thus begins to solve them. Acknowledge that many problems you cannot solve alone.

Ask for what you need from your boss, co-workers and family members. My experience is that most people are more than willing to help out – but you have to ask.

Learn to accept that sometimes you are less than 100 percent; you are not always the “uber-performer.” This is part of working smarter. Don’t get caught in the working harder trap.

Work organizations of all types can demand unreasonable portions of your life. If there is more to your life than the job, act in ways to assure that you have no future regrets.

John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at