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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    May 01, 2017

    On Balance
    Is Life Balance Off? Lighten the Load

    Staying upright and afloat in life’s roiling waters can sometimes best be accomplished by setting aside unnecessary cargo instead of merely shifting the load.

    Stephanie Catherine Ziebell

    Fishing boat

    I know what you’re thinking: Another article about work-life balance. Like me, you’ve probably seen countless publications on the topic, and you’ve probably heard the phrase more times than you can count, in both your professional and your personal life. Like the word “awesome,” the phrase “work-life balance” has been overused to the point of dilution, reducing it to nothing but some imaginary ideal, which we all strive to attain.

    But what does it really mean? Do people really balance work and life, so as to remain wholly equalized 100 percent of the time? How do people know when they have achieved this coveted work-life balance?

    I don’t know about you, but I rarely feel “balanced” 100 percent of the time. And I’m okay with that. I honestly don’t see this as failure; I see it as inevitable, and I attribute it to changing life circumstances.

    Seasons Change, and So Do People

    Even if I manage to achieve a true sense of balance for any given time period, I wake up the next day to find that everything is completely different. Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, and months turn into years. Through the course of life, nothing remains the same. How can we possibly claim to achieve the perfect balance all the time when the tides of life are in constant flux? It’s impossible, and since we never possess the power to control the tides around us, we cannot maintain the same sense of balance as those tides change. All we can do is recognize that the tides are changing and respond accordingly.

    Stephanie ZiebellStephanie Ziebell, Univ. of Toledo 2010, is an attorney with Waterstone Mortgage Corporation, Pewaukee.

    When a storm threatens to capsize a ship, the sailors sometimes lighten the load. Like sailors during a storm, sometimes we need to throw things overboard as well. There is no better time to evaluate the obligations and commitments we carry in life. Even things that are good can simply be too much to carry at times. Conversely, sometimes there is no storm and the tides are perfectly calm. In times like those, we don’t need to throw anything overboard. In fact, we may even want to add things to the ship that make the ride a little more enjoyable.

    As Wisconsinites, we all know the four seasons: Winter, road construction, Packer season, and … winter. Sorry, a little Wisconsin humor. But in all seriousness, I feel privileged as a resident of this beautiful northern state to truly experience the full variation of spring, summer, winter, and fall. And just as each year brings changing seasons, along with the need to adapt, each of our lives brings changing seasons as well. The important part is that we recognize and accept the season we are in. Tides are like seasons. We can live our lives pretending they don’t exist, only to be rocked and swayed, feeling the sting of cold air against unprotected skin, or we can acknowledge and accept them, prepare for them, and dress appropriately. By failing to acknowledge where we are, we create unrealistic expectations for ourselves and we force ourselves to fulfill obligations that are reserved for somebody else’s season. In life, this will lead to exhaustion and burnout, instead of the peace that comes from embracing the season we are in.

    Set Your Own Standards

    Analogizing life to a balance beam in her book For the Love, author Jen Hatmaker explains that we must give ourselves permission to examine the things in our life and decide what should remain and what should go.1 We must, however, examine through the lens of our own season, not through the lenses of the people around us.

    Would it make sense to say, “I should be warm in Wisconsin wearing shorts in December because people in Australia are warm wearing shorts in December”? Of course not! Although it’s the same month, people in Australia are in a completely different season in December than people in Wisconsin. In the same way, would it make sense to say, “I should be working 70 hours a week and volunteering in my free time when I have three children under age three because the partner down the hall whose kids are in college works 70 hours a week and volunteers in his free time”? Absolutely not. That’s ludicrous.

    So, take a good look at your life, through the lens of your own season. What do you enjoy? What are you good at? What used to bring you joy that no longer does? What is required of you? What can you afford to let go? Keep in mind that the decisions you make right now may change completely in the next few years, or even the next few months, weeks, and even days. Operate in your current season and know that it will not last forever.

    By failing to acknowledge where we are, we create unrealistic expectations for ourselves and we force ourselves to fulfill obligations that are reserved for somebody else’s season.

    For as long as I can remember, I aspired to become a lawyer. On summer vacations while other kids played outside, I watched Law & Order reruns. Seriously. I spent every summer in the early 1990s hanging out with Mr. Big before he became Mr. Big, and I was utterly devoted to the first real Law & Order assistant district attorney, Ben Stone. There was something so mesmerizing about the glamour of the New York City D.A.’s Office. I loved everything from the opening theme song to the ending credits, and there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t ask myself, “What would Jack McCoy do?”

    I wanted nothing more than to grow up and become a lawyer, so much so that I rarely allowed room for other dreams. Throughout life, everything I studied and everywhere I volunteered had the end goal in mind. Only after I graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and secured my first job, did I begin to think of other things, like getting married and having kids. Cue the changing tides.

    Before I had children, it didn’t matter how late I worked. I wanted to stay late, not only so I could get more work done, but so I could avoid rush-hour traffic. Now, I have a strict stop time at the end of the day so I can pick up my son from daycare. I had to throw staying late overboard. Needless to say, because my son thinks 4:30 in the morning is a reasonable hour to wake, repeatedly defying the directives of his “OK To Wake! Alarm Clock,” which doesn’t turn green until 6 a.m., I now wake up much earlier than I used to. In turn, it balances out. Now I start my workday much earlier, but the late-nighters are few and far between.

    Also, before I had children, I used to devote a few weeks each February to judging high school mock trial tournaments. It was something I was good at and something I enjoyed doing in my free time. Now, free time is all but nonexistent. I’m sure I could make it work, but in this season of my life, I have chosen to throw mock trial judging overboard. As a working mother, I only get so many Saturdays with my son, and although it’s disappointing to give up something I treasure dearly, I had to lighten the load. Thankfully, I have peace of mind knowing that it’s not forever. Someday, in a different season, I will bring it back aboard.

    Redistribute the Load at Work as Well as at Home

    Keep in mind that these principles do not apply only to life outside the workplace. If you truly want to achieve work-life balance, it’s equally important to evaluate the items on your ship at work. Is there anything that you can throw overboard?

    Understandably, not everyone has the luxury of throwing things off the ship at work, but I think we hold more power than we know. If you have been tasked with something that you don’t enjoy and are not good at, you simply must figure out a way to get it off the ship. There is no sense in doing something that stresses you out and strips away any sense of enjoyment you get from having a career. Lighten the load. I promise, it takes more energy to keep it on the ship than to just throw it off.

    Recognizing When the Balance is Off

    So, is there such a thing as work-life balance? And if there is, how do we know if we have achieved it? Ultimately, it comes down to our response to the things going on around us. Instead of claiming to embody the perfect balance at all times, we must recognize and respond to the changing tides. Failing to acknowledge that things change and that we must change as well will leave us feeling depleted.

    As David Spiegel, director of the Center of Stress and Health at Stanford University suggests, we must proactively confront stressors “rather than running away from them.”2 If we ignore the tides and keep everything on the ship, all the time, we are effectively doing just that: running away. In the end, it’s only when we meet those stressors head on and respond accordingly that we will experience true balance.

    Like sailors during a storm, sometimes we need to throw things overboard.

    As I write this article, I am 34 weeks’ pregnant with my second child, and I sense the tides are about to change … again. I could press on, pretending that the impending change is nonexistent, or I can accept reality and prepare for what’s ahead. It’s hard to imagine throwing anything else overboard, since I already threw so much overboard when my first child was born, but I know that if I cling too tightly to things that no longer fit on the ship, I will sink. That doesn’t help anyone.

    Remember What’s Important

    Above all, we must remember what’s important. Today’s culture glorifies being busy. People are constantly bragging about their hectic schedules. For some reason, society finds busyness impressive. But while it may look fancy on the outside, inside we are wearing ourselves thin. When we overload our schedules out of pride or selfish ambition, we will grow tired. We simply must acknowledge that we cannot do it all. And it’s refreshing to know that we don’t have to. It’s completely unnecessary.

    After the collapse of Lehman Brothers, tax lawyer turned chief financial officer Erin Callan was interviewed about her plans for the future. In an article aptly titled “A Lawyer’s Regret,” Callan candidly admitted:

    “I am beginning to realize that I sold myself short. I was talented, intelligent and energetic. It didn’t have to be so extreme. … I didn’t have to be on my BlackBerry from my first moment in the morning to my last moment at night. I didn’t have to eat the majority of my meals at my desk. I didn’t have to fly overnight to a meeting in Europe on my birthday. I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place with at least some better version of a personal life.”3

    Always remember that you too are talented, intelligent, and energetic. And you can achieve your goals without giving up the balance. There’s no reason to be so extreme. Look at your season, reflect on your obligations, decide what stays and what goes. Then you will find that coveted “work-life balance.”


    1 Jen Hatmaker, For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards  (Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson Books, 2015).

    2 Meryl Davids Laundau, “Chronic Stress: The Hidden Health Risks,” Huffington Post (Sept. 22, 2012).

    3 Debra Cassens Weiss, “A Lawyer’s Regret: My Boundaries Slipped Away Until Work Was All That Was Left,” ABA J. (March 13, 2013).

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