The Illusion of Work- Life balance

In Time Management  I wrote about the value of time management as a tool but not as a way of life. In my 30’s and 40’s I applied the principles of time management to “work-life balance.” I reasoned I could balance work with lifestyle by defining compartments in my life and then use the management principles to allocate time and schedule.

I divided my life into various buckets — work, family, exercise and relationships. I then decided how much time I needed and wanted within each category and created weekly schedules in my head. Intermittent feelings of successful balance fueled my illusion that work-life balance was useful and achievable. I would feel “in balance” for a week or two until events disrupted the fragile equilibrium. Work might intermittently demand more time or my kids might be sick or I might sustain a running injury.

And even on the weeks when I felt balanced, I sensed gnawing dread that an event would upset my plan. Perhaps a patient would need to be seen late in the afternoon causing me to miss a soccer game or arrive late for a family dinner. I spent enormous energy creating and maintaining boundaries between the divisions I created.

At times I wanted to do something different than what was scheduled. What if I just wanted to watch TV or read a book rather than exercise or what if I wanted alone time rather than being with my family?

The more I chased balance the more I felt imbalanced and frustrated.

Fortunately in my 50’s I realized the chase was futile and built on misleading assumptions. The very phrase “work-life” pitted work against the rest of my life causing me to frame the wrong questions. In fact, most days I found work gratifying and even on frustrating days, work provided security for my family. In other words, work was inseparable from the rest of my life.

Most importantly, the work-life framework assumed a mentality of scarcity rather than abundance. Allocating time to various aspects of my life meant that time was scarce and I needed to carefully measure and guard how I spent my hours. Indeed, even the phrase “spent my hours” sprang from the scarcity of a limited budget of time.

Gradually I stopped running after balance and shifted from a sense of scarcity to abundance and passion. I found that inviting gratitude and compassion into my life filled me with a sense of plenty. I made certain my days included activities that flowed from my passions which made the concept of work-life balance irrelevant.

Instead of “work-life balance” consider the frame of connecting with the energy and abundance of self, others and meaning. Connecting with self may include regular exercise, formal meditation, walks in nature or simply sitting quietly for a few minutes. Connecting with others may occur by opening to genuine conversation, volunteering, finding community, love or compassion. Connecting with meaning may be expressed through being in touch with what’s just beneath the surface of your work, feeling a part of nature or through a formal contemplative or religious practice.

The passions of our hearts bring energy to the activities of our heads. Please use comments below to describe the passions at work that bring you energy. How do you cultivate the energy flowing from your passions as you put head and heart together?

Time Management


The blog Time  posed the question of our relationship with time–how much do we struggle swimming upstream compared to floating in the currents of time? The concept of “time management” broadens this question.

“Time management” refers to the tools we consciously use to control the amount of time allocated to tasks in order to increase efficiency. How do we use these tools while cultivating our relationship with time?

As an executive, I applied the time management approach of Getting Things Done  by David Allen coupled with the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  by Steven Covey. Allen’s approach identifies the vague sense of unease we feel because of the scores of poorly defined tasks floating around in our heads– I need to change the batteries in the carbon monoxide detector; that report is due to tomorrow; the staircase in the backyard needs a railing; we are low on cereal; I wonder what that patient’s potassium was?

Many of these tasks create anxiety because they are unformed and not actionable. As a result, we know we should begin but don’t know how. As an example, if our task is to learn how to ski, we can’t proceed until we have defined a desirable outcome–ski the bunny hill during my February vacation- and an actionable next step– find John’s phone number so I can call and ask him which ski school he used.

Allen asks us to settle our churning minds by collecting all of our “stuff” (the pending tasks of our lives) and listing them in one place in order for us to define desirable outcomes and next actions. He then teaches a process to keep work flowing. His approach appealed to my “inner geek” because I was able to use the advanced functions of the Task List in Outlook to manage the activities of my life. I prided myself on having all of my work flowing through one and only one highly customized inbox

The time management approaches of Allen and others are useful tools for productivity but are less so when applied as a way of life. Indeed, time management tools enabled my illusion that I could outrun time and my infinite task list. I imagined that by running faster than time, I could outrun aging. Managing time is a delusion. We can’t manage time. Our planning does not impress time and it flows unceasingly with or without us. Yet action without planning is impulse.

Though we cannot manage time as a way of life, we can work on the kind of person we want to be as we use tools for efficiency and cultivate our relationship with time. I found Covey’s book particularly helpful in this regard. Covey goes beyond the usual time management lists, schedules, calendars and priorities by articulating the following 7 habits to improve our capacity to accomplish.: be proactive, begin with the end in mind, put first things first, think win-win, seek to understand–then to be understood, synergize (combine the strengths of people through teamwork ) and sharpen the saw (balance and renew your energy for a sustainable life-style).

Covey stresses that how we are in time–our character, relationships, attitudes and spirituality is critical for what we do in time..

Please use comments below to describe using time management approaches while cultivating your relationship with time.

What Does Mindful Leadership Feel Like Part II

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The post What does Mindful Leadership Feel Like Part I? addresses the difficulty in describing the nuances,shades, hues, tinges and tone of leading with mindfulness.

This post uses vignettes to convey subtle internal dialogue shifts in 3 dimensions: applied insight, “multi-modal” decision-making and open heartedness.

Applied Insight


Like most novice mediators, my first insight flowed from experiencing “monkey mind,” the incessant, staccato rush of thoughts, feelings and stories that emerge as we attempt to still. I observed my own narrative: that person offended me, better watch out for this person, I will be happy when …,I’m becoming a meditator, they don’t get it, they don’t think I’m competent and so on.

Frequently, a lone thought initiated a cascading story creating powerful emotions including anger and fear. In time, I learned to recognize story telling, bring myself back to breathing and simply watching a thought or emotion float up and away without attaching a story line.

I realized mind’s nature is to create stories with myself as a hero or victim. And if I’m telling myself stories, so are others. Narratives lead to judgment. Emotions emerge from stories.

Soon, I applied these insights to leadership. I did not need to be in a tranquil, “open-hearted” state to hear story telling everywhere, suspend judgment and feel compassion for those caught in their own narrative webs.

Vignette without applied insight during a meeting with organization A after merger of organizations A and B.

“They don’t get it.! Everywhere I go, I hear from A that B wants to take over and from B that A wants to take over. Makes me mad! Why can’t they see it’s not true? They’re just being petty and stubborn. Oh, now they’re attacking me. That makes me really mad!

Vignette with applied insight during a meeting with organization A after merger of organizations of A and B.

Everywhere I go, I hear from A that B wants to take over and from B that A wants to take over They don’t get it. Wait David, now your telling yourself a story about others not getting it. I am simply hearing stories from people who are proud and frightened. You know David, everyone, including you, create narratives. Except more often than not you catch yourself weaving a yarn. Ahhh. I feel compassion for the proud yet frightened people in this room as we all hurt ourselves with the stories we tell.


Multi-modal decision-making


Seasoned leaders do not solve problems; they work them, leaning this way or that while navigating unintended consequences and unanticipated changes. Today’s “solutions” become tomorrow’s problems. Decision-making entails action in the face of unknowns and unknowable’s. These decisions involve dilemmas (deciding between two almost good options or the lesser of two evils) and “polarities”, not problems, that can be elegantly analyzed. Polarities- part and whole, team and individual, standardization and customization, integration and differentiation, centralizing and decentralizing, planning and doing, doing and being- permeate decision requiring that one constantly tunes the balance.

Making decisions within dilemmas or polarities involves selecting which set of ongoing problems to manage. Leaning in one direction offers benefits as well as a set of problems. Leaning in the other direction offers different benefits and problems to manage.

Data driven analysis is necessary but insufficient for these kinds of unsolvable problems, dilemmas and polarities. Contemplative practices offer another mode of clarity and decision-making, an intuitive “gut check,” once the limits of data-driven analysis are reached.

The next 2 vignettes occur at while I am at home sipping coffee prior to beginning a workday. A large decision looms about whether to merge with another organization.

Vignette of decision-making without mindfulness

Wonder what’s in the paper this morning. Good coffee. Maybe I’ll check email. Should we merge? That last analysis didn’t add much. The team is divided. I’ll check the weather. If we merge, what if, what if, what if? I’ll check the local news now. We could merge but, but, but. Oh, another a new email for me to read.

Vignette of multi-modal decision-making with mindfulness

Ahhhh. Good coffee… Stillness….Sip…David, you have confidence that your whole body and mind will know the answer. The right decision will announce itself with a melting relaxed feeling like when you first get into bed after a long day and your entire body quietly sinks into the mattress and you feel that “ahh” of soft release…Stillness…Sip…And with one direction you will feel openness in your chest muscles and brightness in your mind…Stillness…Sip…And the other direction will cause a tight chest and fuzzy, cloudy heaviness in the mind… Stillness…


Openhearted awareness


Meditation provided glimpses of an alternative to being “lost in the thoughts in my head.” Even when interacting with others , too often I was lost in thought rehearsing what I would say, wondering what people were thinking about me or considering how I felt about them.

I discovered a still spaciousness in the midst of movement and how to shift from being aware of spaciousness to being aware from spaciousness. Similarly, I could move from being aware of the heart space in my chest to being aware from the heart.

In time, I learned how to intentionally shift “being aware from” my head to being aware from my heart space, abdomen, perineum, feet or from space itself. The shift tinged spaciousness with an earthy, rooted tone of gentleness, warmth, friendliness, wonder and compassion. I practiced shifting while engaged in daily activities including walking, listening and speaking. Some contemplative practices call this “embodied awareness.”

Meditation taught me to discern when my heart is open compared to when it feels closed. I sense openness as a spacious, tender softening in my chest. When open, I stand in patient readiness to receive the gifts of the moment. In contrast, “closed” feels like a nagging tightening in my chest muscles accompanied by either a subtle leaning forward if I am anticipating what is next or a slight leaning back if I want to protect myself.

Vignette of closed heartedness in a tense meeting

Be careful, David. Lots of emotion in the room. I better do something, its all up to me to manage the tension in the room- after all, I’m the leader here. But they will be mad at me. It feels tricky and dangerous. Start practicing what you are going to say when you take the floor. Haven’t checked my email for awhile. I know I should model being present in the meeting but maybe just a quick glance at my phone.

Vignette of open heartedness in a tense meeting

David, notice you are “in your head” with that familiar feeling of fuzzy airiness rather than rootedness. Your pectoral muscles are tight. Move your awareness down to your abdomen and chest. Ahh. I feel gravity gently holding me to the ground…I feel the tingly, aliveness of my body. I sense the safe, warm and friendly tinge of spaciousness. I feel my heart open. I hear resonant words arising without rehearsal from deep in my abdomen rather than rasps from my throat. Gratitude and compassion arise for the good people in the room. Oh… the room is settling…I know others sense my engagement and openness.

How does it feel to lead mindfully? About the same as leading without mindfulness. But between the same and about the same lie spacious tinges, hues, tones and textures of applied insight, multi-modal decision-making and open-heartedness.

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What Does Mindful Leadership Feel Like?

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What does it feel like to lead a large health care organization while engaging in a meditative contemplative practice? This post, part 1 of a 2 part series, addresses the difficulty in describing the experience of leading with mindfulness and my core barrier to incorporating a contemplative practice within leadership. The subsequent post applies vignettes to attempt to convey the internal experience of mindfulness.

Describe the smell of fresh rain. Difficult? How about the fragrance of lilacs on a crisp spring morning? Also difficult? Similarly, leading mindfully, like the smell of fresh rain, is a somatic experience; descriptions approximate but fail to capture the feeling tone. The body begets language but is inarticulate in describing its own felt sense. Descriptive language employs similes–this is kind of like that. The smell of fresh rain is kind of like combining the smells of ozone, chocolate chip cookies and wet moss.

Poetry comes closer with evocative images that create experience. Consider the poem, Smell of Rain by K.N. Sheldon

The fresh smell of rain,
So thick, and so sweet,
I feel the rain on my face,
And the wind on my skin,
The fat drops are chilling,
And send shivers down my spine,
I close my eyes and raise my head toward the clouds,
So young and so restless, and so full of life,
So calm and collected, as the wind speaks to me,
Telling me of life, and of sorrow, of love, and of joy,
Of many things, both amazing and sad,
Of so many answers, I wish I had had,
Of hopefulness, and of uncertainty,
The wind goes away,
But I still hear its voice,
And the fresh smell of rain,
So thick and so sweet,
Leaves my world once again,
To help someone else.

Did the poem evoke an image? A memory? A feeling? A tone? An experience? How does the evoked response compare to your attempt to describe the smell of fresh rain?

I am not a poet. Rather, I will approximate the experience of leading mindfully through the use of vignettes that juxtapose inner dialogue, the narrative chatter of our minds, with and without glimpses of mindfulness. Note the word “glimpses.” Like most of us with a contemplative practice, I do not continuously abide in mindfulness. Instead, I glimpse a moment here, a minute there. My meditative practice welcomes more frequent and longer glimpses as I open to the insights derived from this experience.

In order to incorporate mindfulness into leadership, I needed to change how I viewed experiences. I spent most of life involved with vigorous physical exertion and did not feel I had “worked out” until I approached nausea. As a result, I was unaware of feeling tone until it was as strong as a punch in the face.

I initially transferred this mentality to meditation and eagerly waited loud trumpeting to herald the heavens opening with mindfulness. Of course, it never happened. Instead, I learned to open to nuance and subtlety and find what was always there if I was just still enough. I discovered shifts and shades and hues and tinges and tones.

Contemplative practice shifts leadership in at least 3 dimensions: applied insight, “multimodal” decision-making and openheartedness.

The next blog post will use vignettes to explore what these dimensions feel like “on the inside.”