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Occupational Health Strategies, Inc.
Kent W. Peterson, M.D., FACOEM
901 Preston Avenue, Suite 400
Charlottesville, Virginia 22903-4491
TEL: (434) 977-3784
FAX: (434) 977-8570
Email: OHS@HealthySelf.org

Last updated: February 17, 2009

A Matter of Balance?

By Nita Catterton, MA

We live in a fast paced world of multiple demands and multiple opportunities. The media provides constant assurances that we can, not only have it all but enjoy it all. The assumption is that success is simply a matter of effort and balance! So we attack our lives with frantic urgency and a variety of products, time-management classes and scheduling materials in order to achieve “perfect balance”. Unfortunately the end result is often a sense of failure and frustration. We are left with the thought that we are just not approaching it in the right way, or that we are just inadequate and lacking what it takes internally to reach our goal.

Perhaps the real problem comes from thinking we should be balanced! It’s certainly true that the imbalance found in demanding and complex times can be overwhelming. It’s also true that the challenges we face can be exhilarating and exciting. We gain a true sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in solving problems and meeting challenges. The difficulty is in having the energy and focus needed to create positive outcomes from these experiences. If we approach balance as a process, as in nature, that ebbs and flows with a natural rhythm, then we gain a different perspective.

Two new books recently published (in the Spring 2003) both address the importance of utilizing restorative approaches and techniques to assist us in maximizing our ability to deal effectively with the current times. The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz advises us to approach life’s demands from the point of energy management vs. time management. At work, do you find yourself taking the path of least resistance, rather than focusing on what’s really important? Are you too tired and mentally drained to tackle the difficult tasks? It takes major energy to both identify and then handle the truly important things. Consider the many times you’ve come home from work, flopped on the couch and thought about what you’d like to do, realizing that you just don’t have the energy. A key point made by the authors is that if we want to bring our best skills and energy to any project (at work or home) then we need to make sure we balance the intense times with periods of renewal. The book’s emphasis is on a model for developing ourselves into “Corporate Athletes”. The premise is that by working through hard times we can toughen ourselves and actually increase our performance. Just as we physically strengthen a muscle by using the overload principle together with appropriate recovery, we can also increase our strength mentally and emotionally. We gain the energy and endurance needed for success. We run into problems when we use the work harder and faster approach and ignore the needed recovery.

Their approach that provides the “Power of Full Engagement” requires the following change of paradigm

Old Paradigm New Paradigm
Manage time
Avoid stress
Life is a marathon
Downtime is wasted time
Rewards fuel performance
Self-discipline rules
The power of positive thinking 
Manage energy
Seek stress
Life is a series of sprints
Downtime is productive time
Purpose fuels performance
Rituals rule
The power of full engagement

Also crucial to the model is defining your purpose. The authors state “The most compelling source of purpose is spiritual, the energy derived from connecting to deeply held values and a purpose beyond one’s self-interest.” Steven Covey’s First Things First also supports establishing this fundamental base. Additionally, in examining research on exceptional leaders, we find that they recognize this importance. These leaders are willing to do the hard inner work. They consider it to be their core of strength that they draw from during difficult times.

The other new book that addresses the topic of balance and personal well-being is The Break-Out Principle by Herbert Benson, M.D., and William Proctor. Their book examines a powerful mind-body impulse that we can use to sever ineffective mental patterns. A break through (“breakout”) is initiated that can then provide a variety of personal benefits: greater mental acuity, enhanced creativity, increased job productivity, maximal athletic performance and spiritual development. It may seem counterintuitive that letting go, backing off, or releasing your mind from the hard work mode actually increases your effectiveness, yet both books emphasize the benefits of doing just that.

Benson’s work in identifying the relaxation response is well known. His continued research has culminated in the discovery that dramatic insights (breakouts) are all rooted in the same medical and biological phenomena. They are triggered in precisely the same general way. Initially there is a struggle phase (i.e. intense period of work) then the individual “triggers” a change (letting go). A new unstressed mind-set emerges that can lead to new insights (peak experiences). And then finally a new-normal state emerges involving ongoing improved performance and mind-body patterns

Each of us may have specific triggers that work best for us. The book does list the following basic triggering mechanisms:

For you a trigger could be working on a craft, going for a run, spending solitude time, soaking in a tub, or viewing a work of art. What things refresh you and give you a sense of balance? By inserting this recovery (balance) into our lives we are better able to meet the many demands rushing at us.

We often have little control over the world around us, yet we do have a great deal over our reactions to it. Crucial to success is developing an inner balance based on individual life purpose. Giving serious thought to establishing and focusing on this important center appears to be the key to dealing effectively with a complex and demanding world.