How to Take Control Of a Lopsided Life

“Dad, I’ll pay you a dollar if you baby-sit me for an hour.”

Coming from his five-year-old daughter, this offer got the attention of a middle-aged oil-company executive. “All the money in her piggy bank for an hour of my time,” he says. “I realized I’d let my life get pretty far out of whack.”

While the story is a bit maudlin, it isn’t that far-fetched. In the four years I’ve been studying the work-life patterns of professionals, I’ve heard plenty of men relate similar tales of angst and guilt about their lopsided lives.

For women, the pressures of making both a living and a life are nothing new, but their patience is wearing thin. “Work-life balance!” snorted one woman at the beginning of an interview. “That’s the big buzzword around here — and the big joke!”

Such cynicism is becoming the norm– not only at this woman’s company (one supposedly among the 100 best companies to work for), but also in most other U.S. employers. Evidently, work-life balance went on the endangered species list in the 1980s and was officially extinct by Y2K. In its place is a nonstop game of cramming and shuttling as people rush to keep up with the demands of their overstuffed lives.

The numbers are telling: One in three people now report they’re too busy to use all of their annual vacation days — and the days they do take off often get swallowed up in errands. When was the last time you burned a vacation or sick day taking your car to the shop, meeting the dishwasher repairperson, cleaning the house before the in-laws arrived, or picking up the kids when their day care fell through? Such necessary tasks no longer fit into the daily crush of commute, work, commute, eat, and sleep.

Breaking the Cycle

We’ve become a nation of jugglers, tossing one obligation in the air just long enough to keep another task from hitting the ground. It works for a while. But for too many people, juggling has evolved from a short-term coping mechanism into a constant way of life, leaving them exhausted, burned out and desperate — or just resigned. Perhaps more worrisome (but less visible) is the toll juggling exacts on their productivity and creativity. It’s hard to have on-the-job breakthroughs while you’re worrying about everything that’s not getting done. Yet most jugglers see no way to break the cycle.

Thankfully, they’re wrong. There are ways to juggle less — or stop altogether. And they don’t require moving to eastern Oregon, building a log cabin and surviving on organic vegetables and goat’s milk. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

First, let go of the idea of juggling everything. Anthony Gatto, the world-record holder, can keep five juggling pins going for barely 45 minutes. Literally and figuratively, juggling isn’t sustainable.

Next, make a conscious decision to approach your work and non-worklives from a different angle. Professionals who have successfully rebalanced their lives tend to use variations on the following themes:

1. Alternating. Switch on, switch off. It’s a simple idea — throw yourself into your work with abandon while on the job, then go home and focus intensely on your personal interests, allowing no work-related interruptions. During the dot-com heyday, the radical version of alternating was particularly popular: Make a killing on an initial public offering, play around for a few months (or years), then decide it’s time to be a grown-up again.

In today’s economy, alternating is more prudently applied on a smaller scale: Turn off your cellphone after hours. Ignore e-mail on weekends. Take all of your vacation days every year, and use at least 10 of them for an extended getaway. You’ll come back refreshed, rejuvenated and revitalized. If you have doubts, ask the Europeans. They’ve been practicing this for years.

2. Bundling. Find activities that you love — but never get around to — and combine them. This works great with exercise. A group of women meets at 6 a.m. three mornings a week to jog, chat, complain about their husbands, and compare notes on childrearing. They’re getting a whole lot of mileage out of those 45 minutes together.

Commuting is another prime target. Turn your daily road time into an educational oasis with audio books or music anthologies. A more extreme example of bundling comes from a man who loves the outdoors, has two early-teenage sons and is committed to community service. His solution? Volunteer to be a scoutmaster and kill three birds with one stone. The key here ismulti-purposing, not mere multi-tasking.

3. Techflexing. Shake off the electronic tether. Make technology your servant, not your master. Don’t be like the dad who brought his personal digital assistant and phone to his son’s basketball games. After a couple of weeks, his son asked, “Why do you bother coming? You never see anything I do.”

In contrast, my brother works in San Francisco and lives in Livermore, Calif., 45 miles away. Whenever I e-mail him, I know I’ll get an answer sometime between 5 and 6 p.m. as he’s riding the train home from the office. His Blackberry handheld allows him to leave the office at five, answer his e-mail on the train and coach his daughter’s soccer team (sans PDA and phone) when he gets home. With a bit of discipline, you can harness technology to give you the flexibility you need to rebalance your life.

Two Other Techniques

Two additional work-life strategies are a bit more self-explanatory. “Outsourcing,” when applied to our personal lives, involves buying more services in order to free up time for what’s most important. “Simplifying” involves having enough self-denial to say “no.” In the work-life cafeteria line, we’re all kids with eyes bigger than our stomachs. We heap our plates to overflowing, then wonder why we don’t enjoy the meal.

So rather than throw in the towel on work-life balance, stop juggling and take a crack at rebalancing your life. Small changes can have significant impact. An hour or two per week for the things that matter most to you can spell the difference between spinning out of control or feeling tired yet satisfied. And in a world filled with meaningful opportunities and fascinating distractions, “tired yet satisfied” isn’t a bad way to go.

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