Balancing Act


“Physician, heal thyself.”    The Bible,  Luke, 4:23

“How we spend out days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  – Annie Dillard

The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. So here goes…Hello, my name is Jeri, and I am a workaholic.

I have been a workaholic for many, many years.  It has been part of the fabric of who I am; in many ways, it has been the essence of what I have attributed to both my personal and professional success.  I’ve always believed that “busy people get more done.”  Pile it on, I will meet the challenge. I will deliver, and it will be good – damn good.

When my children were young, they ranked #1 on my list of priorities, with work #2, and sadly, cultivating my marriage and relationships with family and friends, a low #3.  My art, my creativity?  They didn’t even make the list.  My long-suffering husband accepted his low priority status with grace and aplomb.  Our shared priority was raising our children and supporting “Team Family”. We were united in this goal. It worked for us.

In 2010, my mother died, after a protracted battle with a debilitating illness.  The next year I became a full empty nester when my baby Ben when off to college.  Suddenly, there was more free time than I had ever considered.  No one at home needed me. There was no one to manage. So what did I do? How did I fill the void?  I threw myself into my job.  And it worked. For a while, it worked.

It worked, in part, because I jumped into a large project, surrounded by an incredible group of seasoned professionals; professionals who were all tremendously competent, capable, and committed to the same goal.  I had found a new team.  We worked hard, we had fun, and we kicked some serious ass.  It was the best work experience of my life.  And then it ended.

So I jumped into another bodacious job.  And now, eight months later, I decided to take inventory.  And the results weren’t pretty.

  • I was working 10-12 hours a day, greeting the cleaning lady at 8pm, leaving the office when the lights in our “green” building shut off, using my phone as a flash light to find my way to the elevator. (That actually happened, more than once.) When I came home, I would plug in my laptop and keep going.  Often, potato chips and diet coke were my dinner.
  • Nothing I or my team produced seemed to quite meet the standards of excellence of my new masters.  Roadblocks and ridiculous requests proliferated my day. And the “to-do” list was never ending.  I was doing little that felt proactive – nothing that I would call true “leadership” – to lift the spirits and productivity of myself, my peers, or my team.
  • I was falling into bed at 1am, too tired to read more than a few pages of a novel.  I ran through several books, putting them aside halfway through, finding none that could really hold my interest.
  • I was dragging myself to work in the morning, exhausted and beat down before the day even started, gearing myself up to do it all again for another day.  I could feel and see that more hours at the work bench were producing LESS, not more, productivity.
  • I was sleeping through half the weekend, my camera gathering dust, my longing for an ‘artist’s date’ with myself barely heard or felt beneath the scream of my aching muscles and the static of my exhausted spirit.  When I wasn’t sleeping the weekend away, the mental to-do list was looming over me, crushing any enjoyment of those precious 48 hours of ‘free’ time

Sometimes our unconscious innately knows what we need to heal ourselves, even when our conscious self is unable to articulate a solution.  I went to visit a friend of mine, a wonderful lady who does executive coaching, specializing in work-life balance and transitions.  I’d been thinking about going to see her for months, and finally made the call.

We talked.  Or I talked, and she listened, guiding me with well-placed, deceptively basic questions.  The advice she gave me was simple – so simple, it was almost embarrassing.  As someone who spent many years in corporate learning and leadership development, I should have known the answers. It was apparent that I was a physician who was unable to heal herself.  I asked her to help me put a box around my work life, to help me find my life and some balance, to help me learn another way to BE.

I wanted to dive into a full project plan in typical yeoman fashion.  Let’s get this done!  But she convinced me, albeit reluctantly, that I had to crawl before I could walk or run. We had to start with the basics – remedial training for this hard core addict.  My assignment was to take 20 minutes in the morning and do the following:  Assume you ARE REQUIRED to leave work at 6pm.  What are the 5-6 priorities you MUST accomplish today?  Write them down, and then return to them periodically throughout the day… particularly when you feel the pile growing, your attention splitting.  Reorient yourself to those tasks and nothing else.  Then go home and do not work.  And when the weekend comes, let your desire guide you to do something that warms your spirit.  As I said, so simple it is almost embarrassing.

In addition to the above advice, we talked a little about the possible roots of this vicious, self-induced cycle. She reminded me of this powerful truism, Dr. Phil’s Life Law #8 –  “We teach people how to treat us.”  I keep coming back to this simple message. Dr. Phil’s strategy for this life lesson is simple: Own, rather than complain about, how people treat you. Learn to renegotiate your relationships to have what you want.

So, the very next day, I gave her advice a try.  How did I do?

I made the list.  It was surprisingly hard to keep focused on it. Fire drill after fire drill reared their ugly head. The list I made was too ambitious, too long. An IM from my boss at 6:30pm presented an urgent problem to solve.  I left work at 8pm.  But I came home and I did not work.  And I felt OK with that.  Well, mostly OK with that.

But I am writing again. Progress.  Baby steps for this addict. Wish me luck and perseverance.  I am going to keep at it. The rest of my life depends on it.

6 thoughts on “Balancing Act

  1. It’s noticeable that you are trying something as you have started to post your pictures again. Tells me you are moving the dust on your camera – and I enjoy the pictures so glad to see them again. One day at a time, one step at a time. You make the choice each morning to do that one step for the day – no one else does it for you. Interesting on the “we teach people how to treat us”. Here is another way to think about it. Well – if you answer that im or email at 6:30 you have taught us that you are working at that time – so it’s okay to im or email you. Why would we think otherwise.

    and you should do 3 weeks in Italy…!

  2. Jeri, I’ll be thinking of you as you wend your way toward a more relaxed and fulfilling life. You need to know that your writing and your lovely photographs are all about who you are and what you have to share with the world.


  3. If you find it hard to stay on track with your list, try this thought: I want my children to learn from my actions, not just my words.
    Love ya!

  4. Boundaries are a good thing – especially regarding our jobs. Others will expect you to respond if you are usually working during hours that you should be spending with family. Establish some boundaries with your manager and tell them that you will be signing off at a certain time to spend time with your family. I think this is more difficult when there are time zone differences, but even more important. I agree with Scott, we teach by our words and our actions, but actions speak louder than words. That is what I want my children to learn and live. I’m here if you want to talk. Love you!

  5. I really, really related to this post Jeri- as a writer and a self-supporting one at that, work has become more and more of a refuge (especially in times of great loss). My rationale was simple-If I did not work, I did not get paid. But what has gently been pointed out to me is that when I am sleep-deprived, not eating well, and cramming art time into a few minutes here or there-then really, what is going on-A fiend of mine jokes that balance is something we see when we are swinging from one extreme to the other-how right she is-so these days, I work a little harder at walking away from the computer and forcing myself to just *be*-you are on the road to an amazing journey–
    Love the new photo in your header-sunflowers are I think my most favorite flower of all.

  6. I got my wake up call in 2004 when my first grandchild was born. After an all night labor and morning delivery, my son and daughter-in-law were exhausted. My husband drove my son home to shower and call friends and recharge. I stayed with my daughter-in-law in the hospital. She asked me to hold the baby while she slept — and for the next three hours I held my 5-8 hours old grandson in my arms, staring at him, singing to him, talking to him. Afterwards I realized it was the first time in many years where I had just focused all my time and energy on ONE thing — I had become such a great multi-tasker that I did it all the time — and missed a lot. My solution shortly afterward was to “take a package” and retire early — which then gave me time to start to focus on all the things I had been missing (starting with enough sleep). Jeri, what you are doing is harder since you are negotiating this while you are working. But you’ve accomplished the first really hard task — you’ve noticed what you were doing. You’ve become mindful of the overworking syndrome with all it’s related issues (poor eating, poor sleeping, lack of attention to those you love, etc.) — and you’ve committed to changing your life. I have no doubts you will succeed — though it may take days and weeks and months, and even some false starts — but Jeri, as you stay focused, I know you will succeed. Love you.

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