Work-Life Harmony: Finding Your Own Sweet Spot

Thursday, May 15th, 2014


“Define success on your own terms, achieve it by your own rules, and build a life you’re proud to live.” — Anne Sweeney, President of Walt Disney

Work-life balance is a myth.  Even worse, it’s a myth that puts unnecessary pressure on people and encourages people to compare themselves to others, which is destructive.  Balance implies perfection.  Even the well-known “balance wheel of life” that divides your life into a pie chart implies that if there are gradations in your level of fulfillment in various aspects of life, your wheel will be jagged and your life will be a bumpy ride.  People take pride both in being “busier” than everyone else and also in being better at the work-life balance equation.  An alternative to the unrealistic pursuit of balance is to cultivate (love that word) harmony.

Harmony beats balance every time in my view.  One of the amazing things about human beings is our ability to be endlessly creative, for instance in composing music.  Musical arrangements, whether simple or complex, are endlessly unique; they can be as simple as the Beatles’ “Let it Be” or as complex as Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Although harmony typically implies a pleasing blend of notes or tones, music can also have qualities of dissonance. Dissonance can be part of the appeal for some. The harmony we find for ourselves in music is unique to each of us individually—just take a look at any two individuals’ playlists!

The harmony we seek in living is also complicated by the dissonances inherent in life. This may be particularly so at certain stages of life, such as when having a new baby, running a startup company, or caring for an ill family member.  You may not be “balanced” in such circumstances, but your life can still have harmony.  Two days before a workshop I did on “Work-Life Harmony” last summer, my husband had emergency abdominal surgery, and was intubated and on morphine (he is fortunately fine now). I was not in balance, but I was absolutely in harmony (see below for more on the how-to part). At my workshop, I shared what had happened and how it fits with my view that we must seek harmony, not balance.

“One size does not fit all”—moreover, your idea of harmony might be very different from mine.  It depends greatly on one’s temperament and personality, the developmental stage of your life, your core values and life purpose, as well as how you handle the curve balls life throws at you. Understanding and leveraging these factors is what helps you create your own unique life harmony.

Finding YOUR own “sweet spot” with respect to work-life harmony is key.  The sweet spot is considered the most effective spot from which to hit a ball from a bat or a racket (okay, so I am switching metaphors here!).   What is the most effective way to use your own unique talents and gifts and your core values to create a life that fits your definition of success?  That is what you need to figure out.

Three tips to creating work-life harmony:

1)  Identify your core valuesmake a list, whittle it down to 3-5, think about how these values affect every decision you make every day.  Making choices in life will be easier when you know and are mindful of your core values.  One place to derive your top five character strengths is, a website from the University of Pennsylvania that identifies your top five core character strengths.  At the hospital last summer, knowing my top values helped me to be very present with my husband and children, to connect with others at the hospital (staff, patients, and families), to not worry about my presentation or the clients I had to cancel, and to learn from the experience.

2)  Know your personality–I recommend you do this right and hire an experienced coach who can help you identify the best assessments for you.  But whether you use the Meyers-Briggs, the PeopleMap, the DiSC or some other tool, thinking about who you are is key.  For instance, what is your level of reactivity to stress? Your preferred activity level? Your need for closeness? Your degree of introversion or extraversion? Your need for novelty? Your use of intuition? Or need to make lists? What about time alone? How much do you need?  How much of a juggler are you?  Do you need a firm boundary between home and work?  Are you laid back or super organized?  There is no one set of work-life harmony strategies for everyone.  It is vital that you figure out what works for you!

3)  Get the data–Apply basic scientific principles for well being and happiness to create and sustain work-life harmony, no matter how you design your life.  For instance, we know that well-being generally involves optimism and positive mood, self-compassion (lose the guilt!), positive social relationships with others, work that is meaningful, activity in addition to work (whether it is reading, gardening, cooking, doing triathlons, church, bunko) that you enjoy.

No one knows better than you whether it is better for you to exercise in the morning, work from home, clean your garage on the weekend, etc. You get the point.  You have to mindfully, consciously design your life so that it works for you!

And if you are a business or organization, align your company to support work-life harmony for your employees!

Happiness Hype? What’s All the Buzz About and Is it Worth It?

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Screenshot 2013-10-17 22.15.15

You would have to be completely disconnected from TV, YouTube, movies, Facebook, Google and even newspapers and magazines if you have not been exposed to research on “happiness” lately. Millions of people have watched Pharell William’s music video called “Happy” and have gotten happier listening and clapping to it!  However, some people are quick to dismiss this topic as another form of constantly chasing more…and always comparing ourselves to others.  There were even recent articles that rate different geographical locations as being “the happiest” places to live.  Is happiness competition the new way of “keeping up with the Joneses”? Or is it really something worth pursuing?

Happiness has been viewed as important throughout human history.  Aristotle in particular wrote that, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”  The language of the “pursuit of happiness” is embedded into the fabric of our society through the Declaration of Independence (although as Ben Franklin allegedly said, “The U. S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself”).

But what is happiness and is it attainable? I have always liked the idea expressed by Nathaniel Hawthorne that, “Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”  Thus, happiness is not a goal in itself, but perhaps a side effect of other, meaningful, goal-directed activity.

To flourish, research shows us that we need to look for opportunities to increase positive emotion through savoring our pleasures and amplifying our good feelings.  We also become happier when we are actively engaged… “in the zone” so to speak.  Time passes without awareness when we are engaged fully in what we are doing, whether it be having a conversation, playing tennis, or cooking a meal.  This means being fully present, not distracted with our smart phones, Facebook, etc.  Also, the better the quality of our relationships with others and the more we build these relationships, the deeper our satisfaction with life will be.  Identifying core values and living these everyday is crucial to establishing a fulfilling, “purpose-driven” life.  The philosopher Nietzche was the one who said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” So develop a sense of purpose–what you want your life to stand for.  Finally, it helps to feel fulfilled and happy when we have a sense of accomplishment; while endlessly pursuing achievement out of a sense of perfectionism is unhealthy, dedicating yourself to the accomplishment of important goals, whether they be personal or professional, definitely adds to a sense of well-being.

Lots of research suggests that happiness matters; it’s not just hype. A meta-analysis of 300 studies with over 275,000 people found that people with greater levels of positivity lived longer, had better health, happier marriages, and made more money. So what are some take-aways on how to increase well-being and happiness:

  • Increase savoring by focusing on the moment; enjoy healthy pleasure in the here-and-now.
  • Increase engagement and flow, especially through meditation and mindfulness; limit passive activities such as TV and “screen time”.
  • Practice kindness; it increases your own well-being and that of others (the “pay-it-forward” concept has been found in hard research to be very real).
  • Practice daily gratitude or blessings.
  • Identify and use your unique strengths daily and in new ways (e.g., check out for a cost-free way to identify strengths).
  • “WWW”–Identify concretely “what went well” today–preferably write it down and ask others, such as your children, what went well for them.
  • Behavioral economists suggest that “satisficing” (which means going with “good enough”) is better than “maximizing” (always trying to get the absolute best deal) for happiness.  People who research endlessly to get “the best deal” are more unhappy with their choices.
  • Cultivate optimism; Seligman’s book, “Learned Optimism” can help you learn how–you don’t have to be a Pollyanna to find ways to tame those negative messages. These messages are our brain’s way of trying to protect us from disappointment and disaster, but they actually prevent us much of the time from living fully.

For more ideas and information, check out Seligman’s book, Flourish or for a more personal take, read Gretchen Rubin’s, The Happiness Project.

Now That’s Employee Engagement!

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

I-Love-My-Job-Employee-Engagement-300x206 copy

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.”–Helen Keller

The guy in charge of maintenance at my office building, let’s call him Joe (btw his name is Joe!) takes care of a myriad of responsibilities, from minor painting and repairs, unplugging toilets, sealing windows, watering container gardens, shoveling, etc.  This is a three-story building with dozens of offices, mostly medical practices. If there is a problem, you just call Joe and he takes care of it, the right way, the first time.  He is also always friendly and cheerful, happy to see you, hold a door if you are carrying too many bags as I do. When he had foot surgery a year or so ago and had to be out of work on medical leave for three months, he said it was very hard and he was so happy to come back to work.  As you can imagine, we really missed him!

One day last week I came out of my office into the underground parking area at about 4 pm.  It was 50 degrees that day in Syracuse in March during the seemingly loooongest winter on record (it is snowing this morning, the second day of Spring). That particular morning it had been -1 degree F. with the wind chill in the morning and miraculously it had warmed up incredibly.  Cars here were covered with salt, which does very bad things to the paint when the temperature warms up.  Most cars were covered in salt because it has barely been above 9 degrees this winter and has snowed constantly.  I was completely flabbergasted to find that Joe was out there rinsing salt off of the dozens of cars in the underground parking garage with a sprayer! In fact, he was concerned that I was leaving before he could rinse the salt off my car.

This is a clearly an employee who is constantly looking for new and innovative ways to be of value.  He has excellent people skills and also takes great pride in his work and in serving the tenants in the building as well as his employer.

Gallup says that only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged in their jobs.  How do we identify potential employees who have the right stuff like Joe? I know that his act of care and conscientiousness really made my day even though I left before he could wash the salt off of my car.

One takeaway for employers and businesses is to make sure that when you hire you pay at least as much, if not more, attention to attitude and personality as to technical skills needed to do a job.  Attitude and values are not something you can teach, but that you do want to hire for.  Joe and those like him are worth 10 employees.  Does your business or workplace have a Joe?


Getting Off Track Is Normal (And How to Get Back on Track As Soon As Possible)

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Do you find that you are frequently setting goals, but getting distracted and off-task? Do you tend to get caught up in spending too much time on the internet, FB, TV and are not getting your goals accomplished?  Do you then become hard on yourself and put yourself down?  If so, you are not alone. In our attention-starved world, it is easier than ever to get derailed from our goals.  However, I actually think that starting and stopping with any goal is  normal and that there is actually nothing wrong with us for doing this. This IS the normal process for growth and change.  The key is just to get back on track as soon as possible.  This can apply to a diet, a paper for school, exercise, your novel, or whatever goal you set.  Here are some strategies I like based upon the research data I have read.

1. Spend 10 minutes a day and 30 minutes or so a week to get organized; use this time to make and review a list of top priorities for the day/week.   Review your list before you start your day or as soon as possible during the day, so you do not waste too much time on the less important priorities.

2. Procrastination or avoidance of certain tasks is usually about perfectionism.  We avoid tasks that make us feel anxious and that we worry about not doing well, so we allow ourselves to get distracted by e-mail, phone calls, etc, because in the moment it makes us feel better.  Of course, in the long run, we feel worse because we have not made the progress that we wanted.  Try to identify hidden fears or anxieties that may lead you do avoid getting your work done.  For example, if you are afraid of failure, not completing a task can be a way to avoid failing (because you haven’t tried really).

3.  Practice mindfulness and bringing your awareness back to the moment.  This means noticing your distracted thoughts (the phone call you just had from your daughter or the work crisis).  Notice that you have gotten off task and gently bring your attention back to task at hand.  Remind yourself that you can return to thinking about the other issue later.

4. View getting off task as normal.  People often think that being off task means that they are screwing up or not committed.  I believe that starting and stopping (any habit or behavior) is normal.  We need to learn how to get back on track whenever we find that we are distracted, rather than engage in self-blame and self-criticism, which just derails us from achieving our goals.  Another thing that derails people is negative thoughts such as, “I’ll never get this done” because of having gotten caught up in something else. Use mindfulness with no judgment of  yourself for having gotten distracted.

5.  Make the work-reward cycle a habit.  Set work up increments and allow checking e-mail, Facebook or returning the phone call to be a pleasant break after getting a chunk of work accomplished. Practice this regularly.  Do a small amount of work and take a 10-minute break to do something you like; this teaches you that you can get work done.  You won’t feel guilty when spending the 10 minutes rewarding yourself (reading an article in a magazine for example) and it makes it easier to get back to work for longer chunks of time because you know you can count on having more breaks.  Most of the stuff that happens on the break are things you will do anyway.   This work-reward cycle makes it possible to not feel guilty when you are off task!

Good luck on accomplishing your goals.  Shoot for more in your life!

I would love to hear how it goes.

How Guilt Affects Work-Life Balance

Friday, April 1st, 2011

Working Mother

A recent study in the March 2011 Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that women tend to feel more guilty about work behaviors at home than do men (such as taking phone calls, answering e-mail, etc), even though they were no less effective than men at juggling these responsibilities. “Guilt seems to play a pivotal role in distinguishing women’s work-family experiences from men’s,” says the lead investigator of the study and a graduate student in sociology at the University of Toronto.”  Women are taking on more work at work and continue to do the lion’s share at home, but struggle with our feelings of guilt.

How can we as women let go of this unnecessary guilt?  It doesn’t make us more productive and it definitely interferes with enjoying life outside of work; in fact, the guilt may more directly affect our family members than does our actual work!  If we are unhappy or negative, others in the family pick up on these emotions.  Moreover, we demonstrate confusing and conflicting values to our daughters: be successful, but don’t enjoy it, making it harder for our daughters to own their own ambitions and goals.

Perhaps we can transform the guilt into a positive emotion through recognizing the core of guilt as deriving from care and compassion, which is a strength of women.  If we can let go of unhealthy perfectionism and the thought that we are doing something wrong, perhaps we might recognize our uncomfortable emotion as one of concern for doing well at work while creating  rich family lives for ourselves, spouses, and children (instead of framing it as “guilt”).

In letting go of this guilt and perfectionism, perhaps we can establish routines and boundaries that derive from our values rather than from the notion that we have to be superwomen or supermoms.  For example, if having dinner together at night is an important value for your family as it is for mine, you can establish a plan that (all other things being equal and thus many if not most nights), you will sit down together at the main dining table and eat dinner.  This means that cell phones and TV are off and that whether you are eating sandwiches, pizza, a gourmet dinner, or the lasagna you froze last weekend. You and your family spend 20 minutes or so talking about the day, discussing what’s happening in the world, and generally laughing and connecting.  Perhaps on days where work creeps into family time, the kids can help more or dinner is a simpler affair. And if once in awhile, you have to take a call at dinner, so be it. Oh well.

Getting stuck in guilt (and its “cousin” perfectionism) saps us emotionally, which prevents us from being good role models to our daughters (and sons). It also interferes with our success at home and work.  Though the research above found no difference is men’s and women’s effectiveness in balancing work and family responsibilities, women’s guilt can take a toll on our mood, our health, and ultimately on our children.

My Non-Bucket List

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

As a psychologist and coach, I tend to think more about creating and living a life of value and meaning than I do about what I have achieved or what things are left to do. I care as much about the journey in life as I do about arriving at a destination.  I AM interested in the big experiences that I have yet to have (such as swimming with dolphins or taking my children to Australia where I lived as a teen), but I am more concerned with the ordinary things that I want to do EVERY day that give my life meaning and purpose.

This is what I have figured out so far (definitely, a work in progress).

1. I want to connect with those I love everyday, be it a hug, a shared activity, a phone call, or especially a conversation.  I make the effort to connect because love is the most important thing in life, without a doubt.  Today I called my in-laws in Florida when I was home making dinner just to say hi and check in.

2. Identify your core values (the things that have been part of you your whole life) and look for opportunities to express them every day.  One of mine is growth–I like to learn something new every day and try to learn from even my most challenging experiences. When I was young, I would often sit high in a tree and read my books; I still like to read, but from more ordinary spots like the couch!

3. Take care of your body.  I try to sleep when tired, eat when hungry, stop when full, eat real (non-processed) food, and to eat with others for at least one meal a day. I try to be active everyday even for a little while; we were meant to move.

4. Breathe, meditate, stop and smell the roses.  I try to take time daily even if it is just for a few minutes to do nothing, to notice what is, to be present in the moment.  As a person who tends to overdo, meditating daily, even for a short while deepens my appreciation for life.

5. Do something nice for someone else every day.  I challenge myself to look for opportunities, such as giving someone the parking spot I found first or offering to return someone’s grocery cart to the store.  These small Random Acts of Kindness have been found in research to truly trigger a chain reaction of positivity, the “pay it forward” concept.  It also helps me to feel happier.

6. Try to do something new everyday.  This stimulates the brain and helps to keep us vibrant.  Drive home a different way, taste a new food, listen to a new song.  Think about what you could do differently or brand new each day.

7. Do something for yourself every day, just for you, whether it’s reading your novel, watching a favorite TV show, going for a walk, or painting your toenails.  This is especially hard for parents, but is essential and good role-modeling for your kids.  Parents are people too.

8. Laugh often.  Read the comics, watch a funny show and try to see the lighter side. Laughing is so good for the brain, our heart, our mood.  Try to find the humor in daily life.

9. Admit mistakes, learn from them, and then move on (i.e., make different ones).  I figure we all make mistakes; I just don’t want to keep making the same ones over and over.

10. Acknowledge negative feelings such as sadness and anger.  Let them wash over you like waves on the ocean. Don’t cling to them or push them away, deny or vent them. I try to simply feel them and let them go.  They tell us what is important to us and we can use our emotions to spur us to constructive action and change.

11. (I couldn’t possibly end on #10)  Maintain your connection to something larger than your self, some sense of purpose in the world whatever that is for you.   When doing my coaching training and my daughter was 8, I asked her what her life purpose was.  Without missing a beat, she told me, “to leave the world a better place for my children’s children.”  I believe we all have a purpose in life and we have to figure out what that is and stay connected with it daily.

I will keep refining my non-bucket list, the list of things I try to do everyday to make my life worthwhile.  I encourage you to do the same.

(But it’s still fine to plan that safari!) 8)

How Not to Have a Steven Slater Moment

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

If we are honest with ourselves, it is certainly a fantasy that most of us have had in one job or another…the fantasy of doing something outrageous to express how fed up we are… with a boss, a customer, a co-worker…some version of “take this job and shove it”. Like Steven Slater did…you remember, he was the flight attendant who after cursing a passenger out on the loud speaker, grabbed some beer and exited the plane via an emergency chute (and ultimately was picked up by federal marshals!). Fortunately most of us don’t act on these impulses, which even when not violent, can land us in a whole heap of trouble. Not surprisingly, most moments like that are triggered by interpersonal frustrations that taken one at a time are not that big…like the woman who glared at me in the grocery store when I started to back up with my cart and failed to see her immediately. She kept glaring and did not speak even when I apologized.

What helps us take these moments in stride, to not fight fire with fire, to keep our cool even if only for our own sake? (And as I noted in a previous blog entry, scientists now think that we influence each other through our “mirror neurons” – the mechanism for emotional contagion).

From a business perspective, I think that companies need to provide a lot of support to their employees, to communicate to passengers or customers that they will not allow their employees to be mistreated and will reserve the right to call security or not serve a rude customer. Individually, members of a team need to support each other. Perhaps blowing off a little steam to a co-worker for some moral support and then also having the co-worker step in and deal with the rude or demanding customer are options.

Most important I believe is our own work to calm down our own over-reactive brain, particularly the amygdala. The amygdala is that part of the mid-brain in the limbic system that feels threatened when someone behaves rudely or aggressively. Through breathing, mindfulness, connection to core values (e.g., kindness, civility, integrity), we are able to curb a knee-jerk reaction, let our fantasies of revenge remain just fantasies. Cultivating mindfulness at work, home, or even the grocery store is also a habit that takes practice. The good news is that as with any habit, it becomes easier and more automatic the more we do it.

Simple Tips to Stay Healthy when Your Life or Job Stress is High

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

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Share Everything

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

I attend a weight training class almost every Saturday and there are never enough of the smaller weights (more…)

Nourish Your Social Connections

Friday, August 20th, 2010

In his recent book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Daniel Goleman, (more…)