Work-Life Balance: It's Never Too Late

Step back, think, and reflect. You can gain renewed focus and a fresh perspective on your children, your marriage, and your job

"My daughter Amber came home from camp this summer, and I almost didn't recognize her. She's 12, and honestly, she looks and acts like a teenager. Where did my little girl go? Got me thinking, you know? Soon she'll be 18, and she'll be gone. So this summer I've tried to spend a lot more time with her. But it just isn't working. It breaks my heart, because I know it's my fault. All these years, all the travel, the meetings, the deadlines… I just wasn't around. I missed her plays and her games and even her birthdays…My wife took care of all that so well, I thought we'd be fine. But we aren't. I don't know her, and she doesn't know me. She doesn't really want to be around me. We can't even have a decent conversation, and it's so clear that she isn't having fun when I try to do things with her. I've lost her."

Max was in so much pain. What made it even worse was that the reason Max and I were talking was that he was also in deep trouble at work. His team wasn't coming through for the company, a couple of key people had recently quit to join the competition, and his yearend review had been pretty grim. With a tremor in his voice, Max said that he suspected he wasn't going to be promoted into that longed-for seat at the executive table (he was right). Here was a man whose career was leveling off at best, maybe even falling apart, and his family life was also in tatters. To top it all off, Max looked tired and unhealthy. A terrible situation. But one that I, as an executive coach working with top global leaders, see all the time.

What had happened to Max? Sure, he was bruised and fragile. But I could see that underneath he was a smart, engaging, and genuine person. There were glimmers of a great sense of humor. He was fluent with his emotions and had a great passion for his family and his work. Max had all the makings of a successful executive, a top-notch dad, and a loving husband. He hadn't intended to ignore his daughter, his wife, his life. Where did things go wrong?

A Typical Case

As tragic as it sounds, Max's story is one I see too often among the executives I work with. Like them, Max spent his 20s and 30s positioning himself in his company, working really hard to make his mark. He got married, had two kids, and tried hard to balance the new (and welcome) responsibilities that went along with his young family. He was pretty happy at home, well respected at work, and seen as a good team member and a good leader.

Somewhere along the way, though, Max lost sight of the real reasons he was working so hard. He had senior leadership positions in sight. And his ambition, once a strength, became a liability. It was clouding the bigger dreams he had for himself as a person, a husband, and a father. If he'd been paying attention, he might have noticed and tried to do something: He was missing a lot at home, sleeping poorly, and having far too many small but troubling arguments with his wife. If he had taken the time to stop, consider the big picture, and build in regular and sustained downtime (not just vacations, but regular, daily reflection), he probably wouldn't have ended up in such a bad place. But Max hadn't practiced mindfulness. He worked longer and later, stopped seeing close friends, and couldn't really relax or unplug.

By the time Max was in his mid-40s, he'd been ultrafocused on work for a very long time. He'd been rewarded handsomely, too—bonuses, accolades, promotions. It was an endless loop: Over and over he worked hard to grab that next brass ring, demanded more and more of himself and others, got short-term results, and was encouraged at every turn to do it again. Even the best leaders (and people) crack under this kind of pressure, especially when personal dreams are clouded by dysfunctional ambition and power stress.

What is power stress? It's that state of chronic tension that occurs when people in extreme, high-pressure jobs simply never stop. In the BlackBerry Age, more and more of us are afflicted.

We power-stressed people are pretty typical: We take our responsibilities seriously, work hard, and constantly step up to the unending small problems and big crises that are inevitable in many of our companies. All the while, though, we feel guilty about what we aren't doing at home. Emotionally, we are constantly on high alert, prepared for "fight or flight." When we live this way for a long time, without deliberate and regular renewal, we become less able to see the big picture. We are less creative, less self-aware, less mindful. We are trapped in an endless cycle of sacrificing too much, for too long, and for the wrong reasons.

Collapsing Under Pressure

This happens because our brains and our bodies are simply not equipped to deal with constant pressure, constant sacrifices. If we want to truly be peak performers, we have to regularly turn off. Research into neuropsychology tells us that when we live with chronic stress, as many people do these days, we shut down to ourselves and to others. We lose our edge. We make bad decisions, don't think things through, become sharp with people, micromanage. Our emotional intelligence disappears and our cognitive abilities are compromised.

So, if you are heading in this direction, what can you do? Take the advice I gave to Max: "It's not too late. Don't assume that this is the way the rest of your life has to be. Find your dreams again. Your daughter's only 12. This is a wake-up call, not a curtain call." I encouraged Max over and over again to envision how he wanted the rest of his life's movie to play. Then we set about taking these steps to make that story become reality:

Listen to life's wake-up calls. Perhaps your wake-up calls aren't as dramatic as Max's. But maybe you've noticed that you don't laugh as much as you used to, you've quit going to the gym, or you don't have time to do the things you enjoy most. Maybe you're more irritated with people at work, and it shows. Or family life seems too focused on everyday tasks—you're not just hanging out and having fun together as often as you used to. Listen! Don't wait for a big wake-up call: Make course adjustments now.

Practice mindfulness. Find balance inside. Pay attention to your mind, body, heart, and spirit. Managing power stress requires that you attend regularly to all aspects of your self and become more attuned to others as well. This doesn't happen by accident. Most of us need to develop and then practice the art of reflection. Try finding a few minutes of quiet time alone each day, even if it's just five minutes before getting up in the morning, walking from the train, or a quiet moment in the park. Focus simply on breathing and calming your mind.

Find hope. Hope—an image of a positive and feasible future—inspires us to dig deep down, to find the strength to move in the direction of our dreams. Hope is a powerful force, what researchers call a positive emotional attractor. On a neurological level, the experience of hope actually helps us to counter the negative effects of life's pressures and burdens. Positive emotions trigger our parasympathetic nervous system, releasing biochemicals that enhance our capacity for creativity, resilience, and focus. The positive emotional attractor is a powerful driver of behaviors—particularly when it comes to changing our behaviors and adopting new ones.

So imagine your life in 10 years: What will you be doing? Who's sharing your life? What work will capture your passion? What's your ideal?

Over time, and after he could imagine the full life he wanted most at home and at work, Max began to have the courage and the energy to change. It began with small steps: He started going to his daughter's soccer games. He just showed up with no expectations of her, just of himself, wanting only to be a true supportive presence in her life. After a while, they started biking the few miles to the games together and chatting a bit along the way. At the same time, he and his wife agreed to take walks every Sunday together—no talking, just being together. It didn't take long before they felt comfortable with each other once again, open enough to share their thoughts, their frustrations, and their hopes for their family.

But change didn't happen only at home. In his new frame of mind, infused with a new kind of optimism and a sense of what was possible, Max approached work differently, too. Every single morning he found time to close his door for 10 minutes and simply reflect. He focused optimistically on the day before, on the day ahead, and became adept at thinking about the challenges, problems, and solutions without letting the stress knock him off his game. And instead of eating on the run every day, he began inviting a direct report or another team member to join him for lunch several times a week. By spending more and better time with the people in his life, he slowly reawakened his own passion for his career as he rebuilt his connection with his family.

I imagine Max's advice would be: You can change. Listen to life's wake-up calls. Allow yourself to imagine and dream. Reconnect to yourself and others, and you will find your way back to a more meaningful life.

It's not too late.

Return to the Business @ Work Table of Contents

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.