Is balance even possible?

In one of my recent workshops, a very successful businessman was struggling with balance. He adores his wife and children and also has a hugely demanding job that includes long hours and travel. He came into the session wanting mostly to find a way to produce that elusive dream of “work/life” balance. His high achieving mind was determined to make it happen, yet the more he forced the issue, the less balance he felt. Worse still, when spending time with his family, he felt guilty about not being responsive to the people he worked with. You can guess how he also felt at work. Yep. Guilty. Guilty that he was not spending time with his wife and children. Guilt is a heavy weight – it’s certainly not the best emotion to make life feel harmonious and in balance.

With further exploration we discovered his definition of balance was defined by a core belief that was making him miserable. Since time is quite measurable, he was under the belief that equal minutes spent in work and home would generate work/life balance. With a new definition of balance, he saw a totally different possibility for his life. The weight could be lifted.

What I have come to realize for myself is that time is the wrong measure for balance.

Being able to fully shift from one activity to the other has made all the difference in my own well-being and sense of balance. When I first started experimenting with watercolor, the most difficult thing for me to do was actually do it when I went into the studio. I would leave my office, full of left brained work, and enter the studio, which begged for the unshackled right brain. Then I would be paralyzed, intimidated and scared. Sometimes it would take me a couple of hours to really get into it and actually paint something. My untrained brain just did not want to shift and instead of painting, I would organize things. One day, I tried doing a warm up instead of trying to instantly paint a masterpiece. (Somehow I thought every painting should be a masterpiece.) Just putting paint on paper with no intention other than to get the creative juices flowing helped my brain make the shift more quickly. With practice I’ve been able to train my brain to make the shift almost the minute I walk into my studio. This has had consequences – my studio is pretty messy, because I almost never feel the urge to organize anymore!What if balance is actually a function of attention and being present to where you are at the moment?

Maybe the reason we bring work home and then bring home with us to work is that we are not good at the shift. What if we trained ourselves to truly bring our full attention to our families and then bring our full attention to our co-workers? Imagine being able to master your attention (which sometimes operates like an unruly child in a toy store, running around from one noisy attraction to another.)

One of my all time favorite quotes was in the George Leonard book The Way of Aikido. I’m paraphrasing here: The student said to the teacher “Master, you are always in balance. How can I ever learn to do that?” and the Master replied “I am out of balance many more times than you are. I just recover more quickly.”

This quote and idea were quite useful to the businessman seeking balance. He found a way out of guilt and into attention. Not instantly, but with clear intention, he eventually was able to magnify those tiny moments of attention into something that brought him closer to his vision for a balanced life.

​What would it take to practice the shift? What happens if you put down the phone? (I am terrible at this!) What do you need to do to train your brain to focus? Imagine being fully present with the people who matter to you when you are with them. 

How do you get balance? Do you measure it in time or in some other terms? Do you even think work life balance is possible? Let me know in the comments below.

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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email

diana richards
1/25/2017, 7:20:49 PMRiding the waves of continual change, as in surfing or sailing, is balance in living.
1/26/2017, 10:38:18 AMI love this! In full agreement that balance is not a matter of time rather attention to being fully present. Putting our full attention to whatever we are doing is not only rewarding to ourselves but those who we share our lives with. Thank you Lynn for writing a blog post that is so meaningful.
Corey Vaughn
2/16/2017, 3:33:37 PMBrilliantly put, Lynn. You wrote that like a life-long Daoist speaking to a western audience. I like the concept of switching. For me, it’s far too easy to get stuck in left-brain, task-oriented living. Simply being conscious that I’m trying to switch modes/hemispheres, will ease the transition, and prevent me from grinding gears. Thanks for the insightful words.