High Octane Women

How superachievers can avoid burnout

Redefining Balance

Three gems of wisdom to reduce the stress in your balancing act.

It's crunch time. Not at work-work, though. At mom-work. It's the countdown to my daughter's school musical. And in school theater world, that's what we call a crazy busy week.

As I sit here at the school late in the evening waiting for rehearsal to end ...

after spending the last week coordinating two weeks' worth of dinners for the 40 member cast and crew ...

after spending the morning helping our super high octane parent costume designer with costumes ...

after rushing to my office to get my "real" work done only to rush back to the school to meet the caterer ...

after feeding the 40 ravenous thespians and realizing that if I go home now, I'll only have to turn right back around for pick-up ... 

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... after all that, I'm sitting here at an empty desk in an empty classroom with my laptop open to Psychology Today, wondering, "Hmm, what should I write about in my next blog?"

Just as my mind starts to inexplicably envision a juggler performing a spectacular, jaw-dropping balancing act, a high octane CEO/mom/volunteer races into the room. Still in her work clothes and a bit out of breath, she starts to describe how crazy her work day has been while in the same breath talking about her efforts to organize gifts and flowers for the directors of the musical and get playbills signed before opening night. 

And now that I think about it, this morning the costume designer was literally running back and forth between the opening of a new business office, her sewing room, and coordinating the volunteers she had recruited to help her. These are just a few examples of what I could easily turn into hundreds of examples of a typical day in the life of a high octane woman. 

Let's face it. Today's women lead crazy busy lives! And the craziest part is that the stress brought on by all this craziness is as much from the "life" commitments we make as it is from the work commitments we have. Of course, high octane women take it even a step farther. They don't just strive for excellence at work. They strive for excellence in everything they do, and that includes family commitments, volunteer activities, community involvement, or anything else they take on, which can wreak havoc on any attempts to capture that elusive balance that everyone seems to be talking about, but very few seem to have. And because many high-achieving women take on work/life balance as an ultimate pass/fail challenge (like thinking they should be able to reach the mountain peak each and every day even if the forecast calls for white-out conditions and hurricane force winds), something that is supposed to be stress-reducing (seeking balance) can quickly become stress-inducing. 

So for all of you out there who are stressing out because your life-work has become as stressful (if not more so) than your work-work, here are three gems of wisdom that will hopefully take a little stress out of your high octane balancing act: 

  1. Don't confuse adding more "life" to your schedule with adding more balance. Many women trying to live more "balanced" lives add family, community, or volunteer activities to their schedules, thinking that's what balance means. Yet, they either maintain the same work schedule, or they overcommit to these "life" activities. When they do this, they're essentially adding to their plates without taking anything off, and that typically increases rather than decreases stress. What to do? Recognize your limits and stay within them. If what you "add on" is time-limited (like volunteering to help with a school musical) and you're aware of the commitment going in, this kind of temporary addition can be very fulfilling, even energizing. But be careful that you don't inadvertently end up adding another full-time "job" to your life.
  2. Be realistic. Look at achieving work/life balance the same as you look at wanting to become a billionaire. Most of us would like to achieve it, but the reality is that very few of us ever will. There's nothing wrong with having it as a goal; it's a good thing to strive for, but if you're not realistic about it, it will only add to your stress. At the end of each day, if you expect everyone in your life (including yourself) to be perfectly content because you've devoted the right amount of time to each of them, you're setting yourself up for failure. 
  3. Redefine balance. Defining balance as ending each day (or each week for that matter) with a perfectly balanced scale--equal work and equal life--isn't realistic. In fact, true balance in today's world is rarely achievable (unless you're one of those people who can do anything she wants to do whenever she wants to do it with no time restrictions, and I don't know anyone like that). Although balance is important, don't feel that you have to give each aspect of your life the same amount of time or attention. If the reality of your life requires that you spend 70% of your time at work, then that is your life. If you can't change that, then why stress over it? Commit to making the remaining 30% of your time as balanced and stress-free as possible, knowing that some days you won't even be able to come close--and that's okay.

The bottom line is that balance needs to be self-defined; it's what works for you and your family. If you allow it to be anything else, you're only adding another thing to your "to-do" list. And frankly, isn't that list full enough?

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

Dr. Bourg Carter is the author of the newly released book, High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011). 

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., psychologist and author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout," specializes in the area of women and stress.

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