Balance: The Challenge of the Century

By Fran Hewitt

Many women think it is impossible to live a balanced lifestyle without being wealthy or enjoying a leisurely retirement. I quite agree—acquiring a satisfactory balance between work and family, with time for personal and spiritual growth, fun, friends, relaxation, household chores, community activities and vacation, seems unattainable for most women today.

The two most common statements I hear are, "I always seem to be rushing because there's never enough time," and "I just wish my life was simpler and more meaningful."

The philosophy of balance still being touted by some self-help experts doesn't fit anymore. "We can have it all, and do it all," they say. But that's not even close to being within the grasp of most women. The word balance implies equality. It suggests spending equal amounts of time and energy in all areas of our lives. But for most of us, that's impossible.

For working mothers in particular, family life collides with job requirements. Hassled, hustled and hurried, too many women are experiencing too much stress and feeling out of control.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to defining balance. Balance depends on our personalities, and our particular set of circumstances. As women, we go through many stages, including being single, getting married and raising a family. Some of us experience divorce or become widowed, and eventually we all must deal with retirement. Balance differs with each stage.

Finding balance involves two main issues-time and stress. Time and stress are inter-related. With more time, you feel less stress. The big question is: how do you find more time and reduce your stress?

The bad news is that there isn't any more time. What makes the difference is how you use that time. Use it skillfully, and you can enjoy better balance. Waste it and you will feel like you're always on a treadmill, racing to catch up.

Standards and Expectations

Rethink them. This is a touchy subject for some people, especially perfectionists. I'm not suggesting you lower your standards, just re-frame them in the context of living as a woman in today's real world. What drives some women crazy is not the messy house, dirty car, job or even a hectic schedule-often it is their own impossible expectations.

In my opinion, today's society places far too much emphasis on having the perfect house (I don't call it a home) with nearly impossible standards of cleanliness. Unless you have the time to totally focus on cleaning, lighten up!

When all is said and done, you'll discover it's your relationships that matter most. Make sure you nourish those more than anything else. When kids look back on their lives they rarely say they're glad the floors sparkled. Instead, they're happy because Mom let go, and allowed them to use the couch pillows to build forts on the floor.

From Chaos To Calm

Managing stress is essential for maintaining balance and having a healthy body. To conserve emotional energy, we need to become clear about which situations we can, and cannot, change.

Most working women struggle with something called spillover. This occurs when one area of our life affects another, creating stress. If our job involves inflexible hours, a high-pressure environment or a lot of travel, the negative spillover can affect our family life. On the other hand, having a sick child, finding convenient daycare, dealing with an unsupportive partner or looking after elderly parents can have a spillover effect at work. It's difficult to focus on doing a good job when other urgent matters are demanding our energy and attention.

For most women, spillover is a fact of life. No magic wand will erase it. The best we can do is to learn how to manage each situation, and put a lid on the stress. It helps to keep everything in perspective, and to trust intuition.

The Juggling Act

Most women do an amazing job of juggling work, kids, home, health, fitness, extended family, bill paying and so on. But sometimes life adds an unexpected ball to the mix. The car breaks down on the way to pick up the kids from swimming, you have parent teacher interviews in an hour and you still need to prepare and pack for tomorrow's business trip. Your supervisor at the office asks you to work Saturday on yet another project that has an impossible deadline.

The unexpected can cause your stress to surge out of control. The bad thing about negative stress is that the buck stops with your body. Your healthy habits, such as exercise programs and nutritious meals, are usually the first to suffer when you are struggling to cope with a heavy workload. When you are always over-committing, juggling more and more balls, your body finally says, "Enough, I can't handle this anymore."

Identify Sources of Stress

As always, awareness is vital. Thinking on paper will give you clarity, so you can make better decisions. One of the most valuable skills you can develop is the ability to ask yourself really good questions. Often simple questions provide the greatest insight. Ask yourself:

1. What specifically am I stressed about?
2. What is the root cause of this stress?
3. What can I do right away to alleviate the situation?
4. Who or what can help me?
5. How can I prevent this from happening again?
6. What resources can I use to learn more?

Time Out

Another great way to de-stress and improve balance is to adopt the traditional day of rest. Remember when stores were closed on Sunday and families had fun together? Now the pressure is constant. We even have a name for it. 24/7. Instead of having a day to breathe and recoup, the weekend pace has women running on empty before the new week even begins.

Although it is a different type of busyness, the weekend often leaves us feeling depleted and resentful about going back to work on Monday.

It's easy to get caught up in the hectic activity of daily living and lose sight of what you truly value. Unless you schedule a day off, it won't happen. I suggest getting out of the house - it's too easy to get distracted by your to-do list, by feeling guilty about not working on it. Get away if you can. Don't let your mind burden you with worry, guilt or thoughts of work. Learn how to slow down and have fun. Give yourself permission to take this day. It's a gift. You deserve it. All the other stuff can wait.

Once you start doing this, you will be amazed at how well you can manage. This day off will go a long way toward restoring relationships, bringing family members together, encouraging recreation and regaining your balance. It is one of the most important things you can do to help you de-stress and regain balance.

Taking a day off will not only rejuvenate you and preserve your balance; it will replenish your nurturing reserves because you have taken the time to nurture yourself. When you nurture yourself, it does wonders for your psyche. You will feel happier and more generous. Everyone benefits, especially your family.

Prioritize Your Values

Another key to creating excellent balance lies in knowing what we value most and making this a priority. We are more likely to stay true to our values when we know what they are, but people are often vague when it comes to defining values. We know some of our surface values, like maintaining good health, but deeper values that are connected to our core, remain elusive. Making our values a foundation for everything we do gives us a great feeling of congruency. When our goals, work and relationships are in alignment with our values, life flows more easily. This is the catalyst for creating joy and peace of mind.

The opposite is also true. If we do not integrate our most important values into everyday life, we experience stress, tension and conflict. It's like having a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that don't fit. No matter how much we force them to mesh, they never do. Instead of creating joy and harmony, life feels disjointed, frustrating and meaningless.

I cherish many values, especially health, quiet time, family and work. How do I integrate these values into my life? I exercise every day by going to the gym, doing aerobics or walking the dog, or a combination of all three. Exercise not only keeps me fit, it's the best way for me to handle stress and stay healthy.

I also schedule quiet time every day. That's the time I can reflect without interruption. It helps me solve problems and nurtures my creativity. It's also time to connect with God. That relationship is significant to me. He is my compass and provides direction and purpose for my life.

My family and my relationship with Les are important, so family time is a high priority. In our house, meal times are a focal point for communication.

My work provides meaning and helps me to expand my competence and confidence. It also balances my week. Not every day is perfect -the unexpected can knock my best-laid schedule off course.

But most of the time I feel balanced and satisfied that I am in harmony with myself.

Another key to creating excellent balance lies in knowing what we value most and making this a priority. What would your day look like and feel like if you lived more from your values?

The good news is that you don't need to integrate everything all at once. Pick one or two values to start with, then focus on these for the next few weeks. Make decisions that are centered on these values, and be more conscious of how this affects you each day. You'll likely feel more in charge, more confident and more congruent. That's a lot better than filling your days with too much stuff, feeling bombarded and out of control.

This article is an excerpt from the recently released book, "The Power of Focus for Women", by Fran Hewitt and Les Hewitt. Fran is an internationally acclaimed workshop facilitator whose passion is helping women to create more joy and meaning in their lives. She is the founder of The Inner Circle Program, a unique self-awareness experience for women from all walks of life. Les is one of the top performance coaches in North America and the author of the international bestseller, "The Power of Focus".

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