May 25, 2008

Finding Balance between Work and Life

People seem to spend a lot of time working. "Yeah? So?" you might ask. Well, work isn’t a bad thing, and many would claim it a great thing, but too much of it can throw life out of balance and create areas of neglect that become painful to tolerate.

Do you agree that you can be most effective in your work when you are in balance and harmony with life? I know for myself, when I move slowly and take it easy, my work is at its best. When I rush and cram and shove a million things in, both me and my work suffer. My work, and I'll bet your own endeavors as well, come with greater ease and joy when I take time to maintain harmony within my body, mind, and spirit. For me this means I have to slow down. What does this mean for you?

Holistic harmony is easier said than done. To begin, it involves paying attention to the needs of your physical body. This could include the simple message your body gives you that it is time to lay down and rest. We don’t heed this message very well, do we? When our bodies say, “Let’s rest!” we often say, “Later, I’ve got more things to do first!” But the body repairs itself during rest. It is the first thing to do when you have a cold or flu. However, what I see is people go to work anyway, extend the duration of their illness and pass it on to others. Further, lack of rest over time can lead to serious disease states. This is one good reason to listen to your body’s needs and take a break when it tells you to.

Maintaining a balanced mind and positive attitude is another component of work-life balance. There are some obvious signs when a person’s mental state is off-kilter: anger, irritability, anxiety, or just plain stress. I remember something one of my college professors said: “If the mind is in harmony, the body follows. If the body is in harmony, the mind follows.” Over time, I realized this is true. Relax the body and the mind will relax. Balance the mind and the body will come into balance.

The mind-body connection is well-known these days. But I think it leaves out a component important to our wellbeing – spirit. If this vital aspect of our lives is neglected, life can lose meaning, direction, and purpose. How do we keep our spirit alive? One way is to pay attention to what brings us joy and add more of that to daily life.

Most of us have been trained to work hard. If we are not working hard, we have been programmed to feel guilty about not working hard. Have you ever heard someone called lazy because they weren’t working hard enough? If you grew up in these United States you have. We are a hard-working bunch and we get a lot done. We praise hard work. The truth is that hard work holds the promise of reward: promotions or business expansions, bigger incomes, and greater access to the things we desire. But there is another side to it. If balance is not maintained, if the work side is too overloaded, well-being suffers. This includes peace of mind, physical health, and relationships.

Even if you love your work, thrive on it, and can do it all day and into the night, it is important to take time to maintain your equilibrium. Human beings must take time to stop, rest, reflect, and restore. Your relationships need attention, your spirit needs nurturing, and your body needs care. If any of these are neglected, no amount of success in the world can make up for their loss. I speak from experience. I used to be able to work all day and into the night - sun up to sun down. I had to train myself to stop the madness before my body, mind, and spirit had complete breakdowns. It wasn't easy because I had a deeply-ingrained work ethic (some would say a good Protestant work ethic - I call it lunacy). But managing this work ethic was absolutely necessary for me to continue making my contribution to the planet.

If you are on the hamster wheel like I once was, here are 12 simple things you can do each day to stop the madness and get your life and your work into balance.

1. Decide to step off the wheel. You will survive!
2. Inhale with awareness.
3. Walk in nature every day, even for just 10 minutes. Aim for 30. If you live in the city, you've got more stress than the rest of us, so find a park or a walkway along a river, and be there.
4. Sit in silence and still your mind for at least 10 minutes each day.
5. Notice if you are thirsty, hungry, tired. Take care of your needs.
6. While eating, slow down and give your full attention.
7. Avoid people who consume your energy. You probably know who they are.
8. Embrace those who are accepting and supportive of you.
9. Regard the beauty of your surroundings.
10. Exhale completely.
12. And lastly, my favorite - turn off the computer, television, and cell phone and go to bed early. Ahhhh....

Your Thoughts Matter

Do you remain optimistic about the future during downturns in the housing market and threats of recession? Or are you one who tends to lend your voice to doom and gloom? When you hear reports of rising unemployment, foreclosures, and bankruptcies, what is your response? The reason I ask is because of the messages of fear that emanate from newscasts. Like exposure to a virus that comes through the sneeze of another person, if we are not careful we can fortify the virus and pass it forward.

I see fear-based messages as contagious diseases. Those who are weakest will be targeted first. In the case of disease, it is our bodies that succumb. In the case of fear, it is our minds. All of us are familiar with the anxiety that causes the mind to create potential catastrophic scenarios. Mark Twain knew of this tendency when he said: “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened.”

We are currently in one of these times when the news we read or watch on television is filled with fear. Well, it ordinarily is, for that matter, which is why I typically avoid it, but particularly lately it has gotten right under the skin of people whereby it convinces them that their survival is at stake. When we go into "survival mode" fear is a natural consequence. Our homes, jobs, and bank accounts feel threatened. We don’t like them threatened. We want to live where we want, work how we want, drive forever on cheap gas, and be free. We want the promise of security. We want things to go well.

Fear comes when we believe things might not go well. And the truth is, sometimes they don’t. But when they don’t, we have choices. We can contrive doom and gloom, worry about money, our homes, our jobs, and our very lives. We can create potential scenarios (most of which will never happen) and pass the fear on to others, who will catch it and become carriers themselves. Or, we can see circumstances for what they are - passing circumstances; opportunities to practice moving through life with grace and ease; chances to increase our resistance to dis-ease (of the mind) and instead accept the old adage, "This too shall pass."

This is your challenge and it is mine - how to take the ordinary and not-so-ordinary events of life and remain balanced, optimistic, hopeful people. How to take news of change, potential hardship, loss, and even illness and death, and not allow ourselves to be crushed under the weight of it. I believe, and I’ve seen it happen too many times to count, that the power of thought is key in these situations. Instead of diving into the pool of doom and gloom, you keep your face turned toward the possibilities. It is both simple and difficult at the same time. Simple in what action needs to be taken (monitoring the thoughts). Difficult in that we can be lazy about taking this action. (Oh how we love to wallow in a somebody-done-somebody-wrong song!)

Positive thinking got its start during the Great Depression, when people lost almost everything. What did they have left? It wasn’t money, jobs, homes, or food and clothing in many cases. They had the command over one thing only: the power of their own minds. For those who recognized this fact, success followed. And today, though we are not in the dire straights our grandparents might have been, it is important to carry their legacy forward – to remain focused on what is possible, rather than on any predictions or worries or frets.

So when you hear a fear-based newscast, see if you can consciously take note of how the words are spun to create worry. Worrisome news sells, that’s all. And you might really be personally affected by the news in some way. In this case, you have a greater challenge to keep your attention on the one thing you can truly command – your thoughts. Whatever our own situation, we can turn our attention to what we want to see happen, rather than on what we fear could happen.

Some of you are familiar with Les Brown, a motivational speaker whose life began in complete poverty. He tells us, “If you view all the things that happen to you, both good and bad, as opportunities, then you operate out of a higher level of consciousness.” This higher level of consciousness begins with becoming aware of what you think, about the thoughts you allow into your mind. If you find yourself continuing to have thoughts of doom and gloom, particularly after reading the paper, watching the news, or “catching” the dis-ease from someone, you can practice gaining leadership over where your mind goes.

Here are two simple ways to be the leader of your own mind. Look at the scenarios you fear and ask yourself what opportunities could come from them. Then, make a list of what you want to see happen in your life, for example, your home value remains stable or increases, your income remains steady or increases, your health is optimal. Keep this list in a place where you will see it often. This focuses your thoughts on what is possible, because after all, if your mind is going to create a scenario (and it can), it might as well be one you want.