Coping With Obstacles to a Balanced Life

April 27, 2001

On paper, yesterday should have been a breeze. Everything was written down in my daily planner: Get a prescription filled, get to an important meeting downtown, and make lamb chops for dinner. Unfortunately, the line at the pharmacy was so long that I was late getting to work. And although I'd left myself adequate time to get to the meeting downtown, there was a problem on the Metro line and the train was delayed 25 minutes. When I went to defrost the lamb chops, I discovered they had freezer burn, so I had to run to the grocery store. And, as luck would have it, that evening I was invited to write a chapter for a book to which I'm delighted to contribute. The only problem is that the manuscript is due in 30 days, and I have three articles and two presentations to complete in the interim. And then, of course, there's my regular job.

So much for trying to achieve balance in my life.

I'm betting that my day sounds very similar to yours. Perhaps what we all need to do is to subject the concept of "balance" to some rigorous scrutiny. If we understand it better, we can cope with inevitable obstacles more easily.

Self-help books are replete with "foolproof" systems for managing your time, your space, and your life. They suggest you can "take control" and be "stress free." If it's all so straightforward and simple, why do so many people continue to feel that their lives are out of control?

The trouble with all these books is that they define the problem as being within the individual's ability to fix. If that were the case, then changing ourselves ought to solve the problem. But it doesn't. Remember my carefully planned day? I didn't make the train late or create the line at the pharmacy. Balance requires planning -- but how can you plan effectively when things that are not "supposed to" happen continually occur?

There's another obstacle to balance that's deeply embedded in our culture: We separate our work from our life. Work is where we work, not where we live. We are asked to leave our personal lives outside of work. Our families and our lives are looked upon as impediments to our commitment to our academic careers.

Women used to encounter this assumption explicitly, and not too long ago. When I interviewed for graduate school, it was not illegal for my interviewer to ask me how committed I could possibly be to my career if I planned to marry and have children.

The skepticism still lingers today behind the unasked questions. Every academic on the tenure track feels the expectation to put work first. Female academics often plan their pregnancies around tenure demands, hoping that things will go smoothly enough to allow them to publish sufficiently before the baby is born. Men in academia who want to be actively involved with their families face similar challenges.

The idea that it's even possible to keep one role in our lives from impinging on another seems inherently flawed. It harkens back to the Cartesian notion that our minds are separate from our bodies. The fact is, our minds and bodies, our thoughts and emotions, constitute an inseparable whole. The same is true for our life roles.

When something unexpected happens at work, doesn't this affect your personal life? If a loved one is ill, can you separate your work self from this reality? The fact that events in one corner of your life have ramifications in all of the other corners demonstrates that the segmentation required of most academics is impossible. When we view our lives as made up of discrete parts, we wind up competing with ourselves. Suddenly we are in a zero-sum game -- time devoted to family is time lost to work.

Of course, you will find people in academe who are adept at compartmentalizing their lives. All too often they are men whose wives assumed the parental role. Many achieved success at great personal sacrifice -- they divorced, became depressed, missed their children's childhoods. And the emotional spillover most likely influenced their behavior at work -- whether they acknowledged it or not.

The point is, we are limited in how well we can balance life and work while operating in a system that denies the reality that all of our roles are part of an interrelated, organic whole.

Fortunately, there are several obstacles to a balanced life over which you do have some control:

Lack of clear goals

Having clear goals in each of your life roles is essential to establishing some sort of equilibrium. Your goals serve as a compass -- they guide you back when you get lost in one role. Most often, we need help extricating ourselves from the demands of work.

Research suggests that goal-setting is the effective component of time-management efforts -- not scheduling. Clarifying your goals is more effective in changing your behavior than making to-do lists.

Think about it. You've probably achieved every important accomplishment in your life -- finishing graduate school, preparing to teach a new course, or completing the next project in your research program -- because you had a precise goal in mind. Having this goal provided direction and motivation.

People frequently resist the idea of articulating clear goals for their other life roles. But perhaps this is why work often overtakes the rest of your life.


All of us have tasks we prefer to avoid. And avoidance is the crux of procrastination. We procrastinate in order to push back the anxiety created by the possibility of failure or the inability to meet standards set by significant others. People who set their own standards for success do not procrastinate. If your work is meaningful to you, if you have a sense of purpose and coherence and direction, if you're doing what truly interests you, then you can focus on your work, not on how others evaluate you. Of course, we all worry about evaluation sometimes -- it's endemic to life on the tenure track. But while you are working, try to focus all of your attention on your work instead of worrying about things you can't control. The easiest way to overcome procrastination is to be sure your work is an expression of your self -- that what you do is meaningful to you.


Trying for perfection is sure to paralyze you. And having a flexible schedule, support from the administration, and help at home won't enable you to achieve this elusive goal.

It's far more effective to work toward "good enough." Rather than focus on outcomes, focus on the process of doing. Again, if your work is meaningful to you, then the process of doing it will be engaging. Likewise, being completely involved in the relationship with your child while you are with her will help her far more than trying to "get it right" by striving for "quality time."

Lack of the right kind of planning

Self-help books often emphasize the importance of time management. What they often neglect to say is that intentions alone do not produce the desired behavior. If you want to actually do something, you have to have a specific plan that specifies when, where, and how you will do what you intend.

For example, suppose your involvement in your work has led you to neglect exercise. Yet you just learned from your doctor that your family history puts you at risk for cardiovascular disease. Don't just decide to increase your exercise. Determine where and when you will exercise -- exactly which days and at what times you will go to the gym. Decide what you will do and with whom. Would it help you to be able to tell someone about your progress? Do you want to ask your spouse to support your efforts by providing child care while you exercise?

When you plan, be sure you accurately estimate how much time you need to accomplish the task. And take your natural energy cycles into account when you plan. Rather than schedule a mentally challenging task at a time when you know you tend to flag, tackle it when you're feeling energetic.

At times, balancing your work and life seems nearly impossible. The white water never stops -- and apportioning your time by compartmentalizing it doesn't help you navigate. In fact, trying to segment yourself just becomes another obstacle to balance. But you can work toward an overall sense of balance that grows out of a sense of purpose and life vision.

When the train is late, or the line is too long, or your editor wants you to rewrite your manuscript a second time, calm your frantic feelings by reconnecting with your goals -- and then you'll know exactly what you need to do.

Ellen Ostrow is a clinical psychologist and founder of Lawyers Life Coach, which provides coaching services to women lawyers trying to balance professional success and personal lives. She has served on the psychology faculties of three universities and as a staff psychologist at several university counseling centers.