On the subject of “balance”, I must admit I am a “wobbler”, finding my balance as I go along each day.

In the past, I thought of balance as finding some time in the day for myself, all the while using time management techniques to compress more and more billable hours into a day.  Billable hours were king and the measure of my worth.  I have a different perspective now and I’d to share it with you, in the context of the two following vignettes.

The Rush of Having it All

At a CLE on the subject of work-life balance, a bright and likeable young lawyer (“Mary”) addressed the luncheon group.  She spoke on the subject of life-work balance from her perspective as a partner in a downtown firm and the mother of two small children.  Her voice was animated.  In fact, she spoke so quickly that I had a hard time keeping up with her.  She excitedly told about the birth of her first child and the fact that she had taken advantage of the generous maternity leave at her firm.  When she returned to work, her child was in day-care.

Life was stressful.  Rushing home from work in time to meet her child’s bus was just one of many daily stresses Mary felt as a young mom and downtown attorney.  But she held it together, at least until the birth of her second child.  Then, Mary again took advantage of the firm’s maternity leave and again relied on day-care as she returned to work.

Rushing home from work to meet her kids’ bus, and the other hassles of parenting began to wear her down.  Mary became frazzled, and it showed.  The firm (kindly) suggested that she work at home a couple of days a week.  And so she did.  Through it all, Mary was able to generate her billable hours.  For a while she went part-time, while working virtually full-time.  That way, she could exceed the expectations of the firm for part-time attorneys.

Mary described a typical day at home, again in the same breathless rush of words – getting the kids up, fed and dressed and on the bus in the morning.  Then a quick clean-up of the house, a load of laundry, a few quick calls to manage household tasks, and then a few hours of work, before the kids were home again.  Then it was another load of clothes, preparing dinner, all the while watching the kids.  Then supper, clean up, kids to bed and then a return to work until 2 a.m. or so.  (She spoke kindly of her husband, but I couldn’t figure out how he fit into the schedule.)

The only real wrinkle in Mary’s balanced life appeared to be the unwitting clients who, after receiving an e-mail time-stamped at 2 a.m. inquired as to why Mary was working so late at night.

In closing, Mary again credited her firm and its generous maternity and parenting policies.  Mary also acknowledged that her Palm Pilot was as an invaluable aid in shoehorning so many activities into a single day.  Mary summed it all up by simply declaring that she wanted it all, and that having it all was possible.  (She obviously knew what she was talking about.)  Everyone applauded and Mary took her seat.

Then it was time to hear from another lawyer, middle-aged “Bob”.  A friendly and energetic man, Bob explained that balance had never been an issue before the birth of his children.  (But, oh what havoc children can play with anyone’s schedule!)  So how did Bob get balance back into his life?  Bob, too, credited his Palm Pilot.  But, more than anything, Bob and his wife rely on family calendars.  Once a week everyone brings their calendar to the kitchen table, even the littlest ones.  Then the master calendar is put together and everything gels for the week ahead.

Bob reassured the audience that balance, after all, is possible.  It’s all about the mastery of family calendars and the use of Palm Pilots.  Bob’s message seemed to make a lot of sense to the audience.  Everyone applauded.

Before I could raise my hand to ask a question of the experts, someone noted the time and everyone rushed out of the room.  (I imagined myself in a crowded theatre with someone shouting, “Fire!”)  As the room cleared, it was back to work for everyone.  Or, so it seemed.

I left the meeting feeling unsettled.  Perhaps it was two such talented and likeable people giving such a frenetic description of the balance in their lives and their endorsement of the proposition that having it all was do-able.  Perhaps it was the loud applause, as members of my profession reinforced the mad scramble that characterizes the lives of many lawyers.   Whatever it was, my interest in balance was piqued.

The Discipline of Having Less

A week later, my wife and I had dinner with “Kathy” and “Joe”.  Kathy is a middle-aged lawyer, a partner in a downtown firm.  Joe is an executive. They have a couple of kids, now grown.  We met at their lake place.

Kathy reminisced about her interview for her first law job.  The partner matter-of-factly told her that if she wanted a job in his office, the job came first and the family came second.  Kathy calmly replied that if the firm hired her, her family would always come first, as they always had, and the job would be second.  She got the job.

Kathy struggled to keep her balance in her early years at the firm.  She took on more and more responsibility at the firm, she gained the confidence of her clients, and they wanted her to do their work.  She found it all too easy to say, “Yes”, and too often unable to say, “No”.  More and more, living was a struggle and less of a joy.

One day, Kathy asked a friend to go to the movies. They both loved the movies and a weekly night-out proved to be a great tonic.  It wasn’t long before Kathy and her friend had a standing date to go to the movies on Tuesday nights.  Many years have passed and Kathy and her friend are still going to the movies one night a week, sometimes to far-away film festivals.

Kathy credits the movies with helping her find balance.  As she says so, Kathy laughs.  For she knows that the balance she discovered came out of her decision to take time for herself – one night a week.  What movie she saw each week wasn’t all that important.

Still more interesting to me was Kathy’s comment that for many, many years she and Joe have kept their calendar (relatively) simple, by saying “No” to many invitations and opportunities.  And, sometimes Kathy and Joe say “No” to opportunities that are highly desirable.  Then it isn’t easy to say, “No”. On the whole, they have decided they don’t want it all.  Instead, they have devoted a lot of time seeking (relative) simplicity in their lives.

Some of the decisions that Kathy and Joe have made are big decisions, like moving from their beautiful home into a small downtown apartment, only a few blocks from where they both work.  Now, the time they would otherwise spend commuting and doing household chores is free time they can use as they please.

However, most of the decisions made by Kathy and Joe are small and recurring decisions, reflecting the values they hold at any point in time.  Achieving balance is a daily task, with course corrections made as they move through their days.  It isn’t an exact science at all.  It is more of a disposition or resolve, than a formula.  Kathy and Joe sometimes wobble.  They know that balance is slippery and requires self-awareness, discipline, communication, compassion and a sense of humor.  They don’t want it all.  They just want what they prize – a life that is (reasonably) congruent with their values, with time for Tuesday night at the movies!

So, what is my “take” on all of this?  I like these people – Mary, Bob, Kathy and Joe.  I think they could learn a lot from each other.  I bet their discussion of having it all would be animated.  If they asked me for my views on balance, I would weigh-in on the side of “unpacking” the calendar, sorting and sifting daily demands, with an eye on what they value at this time of life.  I would encourage them to become aware of what brings them joy and to dream again, and to note when they are energized and when they feel depleted.  I would encourage them to practice saying “No”, so that they could more often say “Yes” to self.  I would identify resources (including a spouse, partner, friend, or a personal coach) that could be helpful in aligning a busy schedule with one’s personal values, and then staying on course.  While a Palm Pilot might be one of the resources used, it would never be a substitute for “unpacking” the activities that don’t really matter.

I’m not an advocate of having it all.  But, I am conscious of catching my breath, focused on “spotting” what I really want, and intentional about devising a strategy to get where I want to go.  I am sure that there will be continuing course corrections as I go, and occasionally I’ll wobble.  My life is not (and never has been) a straight-line trajectory, nor has it always been smooth sailing.

I believe that discernment is the key – knowing (as best I can) who and what nourishes me, where I’m headed, and who my allies are along the way.  Being 58 years old and having practiced law for more than thirty years, I’ve learned something about the paradox that having less is somehow having it all.  And now in my role as a certified coach, I’m able to work with lawyers, helping them to set their sails, balance their busy lives and find their way on the journey ahead.