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Walking the tightrope of life

How can we strike the proper balance between work, family and community in a manner that is both responsible and fulfilling?

8 min read



“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.” ~ Thomas Merton

Many of us, particularly busy leaders, struggle to achieve and maintain proper balance in our lives. We seek to succeed at work while simultaneously being there for our families and loved ones. We have a strong sense of community and want to give back to those around us while also ensuring that we attend to our emotional, spiritual, and health-related needs on a regular basis.

Despite our best intentions, however, these many aims oftentimes come into direct conflict with one another. We simply cannot allot as much time as we would like to each of these areas in a manner that is fully satisfying. And we need to recognize this well before we become consumed by stress and/or guilt.

So how can we manage to strike the proper balance between these oft-competing realms in a manner that is both responsible and fulfilling?

A story is told about an American businessman who was on vacation in Mexico. While at the beach, he saw a local fisherman docking at shore with many fish in tow.  The American complimented the fisherman on his catch and asked him how long it took him to catch that many fish. 

“Not long, a couple of hours.”

“So why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asked the tourist.

“Because this is enough for me and my family,” he was told.

The businessman persisted. “So what do you do with the rest of your time?”

“I sleep late, fish for a while, play with my children, take a siesta and spend time with my wife,” said the fisherman. “In the evening, I go into the village to visit my friends. I have a few drinks, play the guitar and sing a few songs. I have a full life.”

The American couldn’t believe his ears. “I am a successful businessman and I can help you,” he said. “You should spend more time on the water fishing. You can sell the extra fish, make more money, and buy a bigger boat.”

Fisherman: “And after that?”

“Use the extra money made from the bigger boat,” said the businessman. “to buy a few boats and hire more people to operate a fleet of fishing vessels.” 

“All of this fish will give you market leverage. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can start to negotiate directly with the buyers. After a while, you would be able to open your own plant. Then you could leave this little village for Mexico City and maybe even New York! From there you could operate the whole business.”

“How long would that take?” asked the fisherman. “Somewhere between 20-25 years,” came the reply. “What next?”

“Well, that’s when the fun starts,” explained the tourist. “When the business gets really big, you can sell stock in the company and make millions!”

“Wow, millions. This is getting interesting. What happens after I earn millions?” asked the fisherman.

“After that you’ll be able to retire on the coast, sleep in every day, do some fishing, play with your grandkids, take a siesta and spend time with your wife. In the evenings, you will be able to go out drinking and singing with your friends.”

The fisherman just shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

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As this simply illustrates, too many folks have confused priorities or, at the least, lose out on the means in order to enjoy the ends. We all know that life is about more than money, perks and notoriety. We have to be able to live, not just work. And for too many of us, this crucial balance gets lost in the rat race.

Folks with strong work-life balance:

  1. Lead purposeful lives. Balanced people give serious thought to how they want to live their lives. They confer with those who are most important to them and develop and then commit to a road map that will help them get there.
  2. Adjust as needed. Like most things in life, well-conceived plans can easily go sideways if we let them. People who stay on track continually ponder and dialogue about what is working or not, and adjust as needed.
  3. Carve out time. It’s one thing to say that things outside of work are important to you. It’s another to make the time for those things. Purposeful people don’t wait to see what time is left over after work. They make a point of planning and booking time off to spend outside of work and powerfully guard this time.
  4. Develop personal definitions of success. People who have strong work-life balance have a clear vision of what success looks and feels like. They use that to pursue their goals with greater purpose and discipline.
  5. Turn off distractions. Today, more than ever, it is so easy to become distracted. Our phones and other technology sidetrack us often from what’s important and what needs to get done. People with clear priorities are able to turn off their devices to focus and achieve their goals. They prioritize the need to for quality uninterrupted time to do the things that they enjoy.
  6. Tap into their spiritual sides. Often lost in the workplace shuffle is our need for spiritual connectivity. Religion, meditation or other spiritual outlets offer an element of fulfillment and purpose that keep us going and recharge our souls.
  7. Engage in relaxing and rejuvenating activities. Balanced people know the importance of sharpening the saw. They use music, yoga, physical activity, hobbies or other interests that allow them to get away from the pressures of everyday life to regenerate themselves.
  8. Hold short- and long-term views. Some people have a clear sense of what a balanced life looks like but feel a need to put such thinking on hold for the short term as they get through school or get their business off of the ground. Instead, set timeframes for when you expect to transition into a more balanced lifestyle and then hold yourself accountable to that timeframe, adjusting as needed.

It is critical that we take the time to identify and prioritize our core values and aspirations. Often this is best achieved through the creation of a personal mission statement, which helps you to lay out what is most important to you and pinpoint what you want to achieve in each realm. A coach, guide or mentor can be helpful here in asking the hard questions that drill down into what is truly critical and a priority.

Once you arrive at some answers, you can compare it to your present reality (this Wheel of Life tool can help). Keep tabs on how you presently use your time and compare that data with what’s truly important to you. Use this insight to make adjustments to your schedule and in how you prioritize your daily activities.

Not only will this process offer you a fresh new focus and a revitalized sense of purpose, but it will also strengthen your self-identity. Self-identity emerges from the way that you see yourself. What makes you tick? What is most important to you and how does that impact your decision making? Knowing who you are at your core can be extremely empowering and allow you to forge ahead despite the inevitable challenges that arise.

As the great developmental psychologist Erik Erikson once said, “In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”

You may be tempted to tuck your values list away for personal reference. However, I strongly suggest that you share it with those that they impact most. Let them know what you consider most when making decisions. Giving others around you a window into how you value and budget your time can help them better understand your actions and appreciate your perspective.

Another important consideration for leaders is to be careful to avoid burnout. Burnout can occur quickly when leaders fail to maintain proper balance and act in a manner that is unhealthy and unsustainable. Take good care of yourself by eating well, getting enough sleep and taking vacation breaks from the daily grind. Stephen Covey called this sharpening the saw (a reference to taking care of yourself) so that the lumberjack (leader) could continue to cut down trees (by having the energy and drive to lead and influence change).

We all struggle to make proper use of our time and energies. We want to be as successful, as helpful and as accomplished as possible in every important domain. But we simply cannot do everything, and it is critical to find ways to manage the ongoing conflict that exists between competing domains in a way that helps us to feel most fulfilled. To make proper choices, we must root ourselves in positive values and establish clear guidelines that govern our choices and actions.


Naphtali Hoff (@impactfulcoach) became an executive coach and consultant following a 15-year career as an educator and school administrator. Read his blog at Get his free leadership e-book, Core Essentials of Leadership, by clicking here.

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