When It Comes to Work and Life, Balance Is a Verb, Not a Noun

Photo by Roslyn Walker CC BY 3.0
Photo by Roslyn Walker CC BY 3.0

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…”
Ecclesiastes 3:1

I have written about how I have grown to love daily routines. They provide a rhythm of important habits that help me as a person and as a leader. These include prayer, meditation, exercise, journaling, writing and yes, even flossing. Most of these happen in the morning and require that I get a good night’s sleep.

I had a week recently that got wrecked. In fact, I had just been bragging to myself in my journal how I had not missed a day of journaling in several months. I should have known better. It’s like on the TV show Survivor when they show someone bragging that they are in control of the game, you know they’re getting voted off the island next.

It started on Monday. I was supposed to pick up my mom at the airport at 5:05pm. Storms caused flight delays and by the time I got her home, I didn’t get to sleep until nearly 1:00am, more than three hours past my bedtime.

No worries. On Tuesday morning I cut short my journaling. I use a practice called Morning Pages, which calls for three longhand pages of stream of consciousness writing. I hadn’t had much sleep and didn’t have much time, so I knew I needed to be flexible. So instead of three pages I did one.

I knew that I could grind through the day, go to bed early, get a good night’s sleep and get back on track. Wrong.

Tuesday evening we had to take my father-in-law to the emergency room. Nothing life threatening, but medical attention was required. He got great care and we got to bed a little before 2:00am.

No big deal. I would get back on track Wednesday morning by sleeping in until 8:00 am, and do my routine, except for exercising. Wrong.

I was in the middle of morning prayer when I found out my brother-in-law (and next door neighbor) had badly rolled his ankle and it was likely broken (it was). So, back to the same emergency room for x-rays and treatment.

Here’s the good news. Everyone is OK, even if there is some inconvenience and some pain, we are all alive and living life.

But this got my thinking about work-life balance.

Most people I know feel overwhelmed about something. Whether it’s work, family, volunteer commitments or social obligations, there doesn’t seem to be enough time.

Here is what I learned.

Work-life balance is not a noun.

It’s not something to be achieved. It’s not a goal. You can’t ever achieve balance because life is fluid, dynamic, ever-changing.

Instead of balance, think of balancing. The image I like is a unicycle rider. There is constant motion. Back and forth. The rider may occasionally achieve a state of equilibrium, but it doesn’t last long.

Balancing is something you do, not something you achieve.

I learned this concept from the book, The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. They write, “Seen as something we ultimately attain, balance is actually something we constantly do. A ‘balanced life’ is a myth — a misleading concept most accept as a worthy and attainable goal without ever stopping to truly consider it.”

The authors use the term “counter-balancing” to describe balancing as a verb. They write in a blog post, “Counter-balance is the process of focusing exclusively on the important task at hand, whether it’s work, teaching our kids something or working out. We have to choose what’s critical and give it as much time as it needs before switching to the next most important thing.“

There are times when your family needs you. Don’t ignore it. There are times when work is intense. That’s OK, but it can’t last forever. If it does, something has to give. Your spiritual life, physical health or important relationships will eventually suffer if you don’t balance things out.

When you focus on counter-balancing, instead of achieving a balanced life, you can give yourself completely to the moment, knowing that you will be balancing things out. The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that everything has a season. When we remember this we can live more fully.

So, when my sleep schedule, morning routines and work days got wrecked because my family needed me, there was no need to stress about it. It was a part of life. And the balancing act continues.

How Keystone Habits Help Me Grow as a Spiritual Leader

Photo by Goldi Tewari, CC BY-SA 4.0

Both the spiritual life and leadership are like riding a bike. You’re either moving forward or falling down. Growing in faith and growing in effectiveness are ongoing tasks for the spiritual leader.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement was a paragon of habits. The term “Methodist” was a pejorative coined by those who mocked John, his brother Charles, and others in the Holy Club at Oxford as “methodical” in their spiritual practices. Wesley would say, “The soul and the body make a person, the Spirit and discipline make a Christian.”

Wesley combined Spirit and discipline through regular habits of prayer, fasting, journaling, meditation, bible reading and good works, both individually and with others in community. These habits became known as the “Methodist Way” and were the foundation of a spiritual revival in both England and America.

Establishing habits is the key to a productive life. Willpower is an exhaustible resource. The more energy you spend deciding what to do, getting yourself going and actually doing what needs to be done, the less willpower and self-discipline you will have for other tasks. You can check out the blog I wrote on habits to find out more.

Habits enable us to do things without thinking so we don’t use up our willpower. So we have more energy for self-discipline. One thing that I learned is that self-disciplined people don’t have more discipline. They have turned their most important tasks into habits, enabling them to save their willpower for other important things.

But not all habits are the same. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg emphasizes the importance of Keystone Habits. These are habits that create momentum to establish other positive habits in your life. As you might guess, exercise is a keystone habit that results in better health, eating habits and personal productivity. A surprising keystone habit, according to Duhigg, is making your bed. This keystone habit is correlated with increased well-being, higher productivity and better budgeting skills.

It’s important to note the difference between correlation and causation. A keystone habit doesn’t cause a cascade of other positive habits. But it does create conditions that make them more likely.

The keystone habit that changed my life was prayer.

I had always prayed, but life often got so busy that it was difficult to keep a consistent practice. It wasn’t a habit. About 10 years ago, I made a commitment to make prayer the first thing I do every day. It took a few months of doing this regularly before it became a habit. But once it did, the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the last decade, a series of habits have “cascaded” from the keystone habit of prayer. These include exercise, meditation, journaling and fasting. They didn’t happen all at once. Each time, I would feel led to apply my focus and effort to a particular practice. Over the course of time, that practice would become a habit. My own experience is that each time it gets a little bit easier to develop a new habit.

This process of habit formation has transformed me as a leader.

I am more energetic, have a greater awareness of the need to serve others and have more patience and perseverance. I am more grateful and less judgmental. I am more focused on what matters and am better able to stick to my priorities. It started with a keystone habit.

Every person is different, so what might be a keystone habit for one, might not work as well for others. Some things that tend to work well as keystone habits are prayer, meditation, exercise, tracking what you eat and journaling. The best thing you can do is try something and see how it works.

I am far from perfect. I am still growing. God is not finished with me. But, by the grace of God, I have found a way to help me do that. You might say it’s the Methodist Way.

Questions for Reflection:

What spiritual promptings have you had recently to improve your life?

What might you try to develop as a keystone habit?

What’s stopping you?

How to Have a Conversation with Someone Who Disagrees

Face Off by Aaron from Seattle, CCA 2.0

Few people want to have a conversation anymore. They want to rant about their own opinion, but don’t really want to hear from those who disagree. This is especially true in politics and in the church. Now, to be fair, people don’t negotiate their closely held values. Politics and religion are values-driven. But there’s a difference between being firm in your beliefs and refusing to hear those with whom you disagree.

I was at Annual Conference a few weeks ago. This is our yearly gathering of clergy and laity in our region. I happened to run into a few of my colleagues who were staffing a display booth for an association that I was pretty sure was advocating a position on an issue that was opposite mine.

I’m not going to share the issue because that is not relevant. In the family systems approach to leadership, one mantra is, “It’s process, not content.” Understanding the emotional process is the key issue. The approach is called leadership through self-differentiation, which is being able to define and articulate your own goals and values, amidst surrounding togetherness pressures, AND stay in touch emotionally. The process part of this is the ability to say what you believe, in a non-anxious way, without cutting off emotionally from the other. This is true regardless of the issue. It’s the process that matters, not the content.

The key to having a hard conversation is to be able to share what you believe while giving the other the freedom to disagree.

If people don’t negotiate their closely held values, then why would you try to convince them to change their minds?

The best way to have a hard conversation is to be straightforward. You can say, “This is what I believe, but you don’t have you to agree with me.” The fact that you will continue to respect who they are as a person, even if they don’t agree with you, is implicit in this statement. If you want, you can say it explicitly. “This is what I believe. I respect that you may not agree.”

If you are dealing with an emotionally mature person, this may be the start of a real conversation. If not, things can get anxious. When you self-differentiate, that is, say what you believe while staying in touch, a more mature person will do the same. She might say, “I see how you might think that, but I disagree. What I believe is…” You can work with that.

I had a conversation with one of the colleagues mentioned above. I consider this person to be a friend, as well as a partner in ministry. We’ve known each other a long time and we both know each other’s positions. So in this case, we didn’t start there. There was no reason for either of us to state our positions or to try to convince the other to change their opinion. But we did have a conversation. More on this later.

When you state your position, the less mature will respond by trying to define you, not themselves. “How can you say that? You are going to lead people astray with that kind of thinking. You are way off base.” These are the folks who rant on social media about how everyone who disagrees with them is ruining the world.

When you get this kind of response, it’s best to politely cut things off. If you can do it in a light-hearted way, that’s even better. “Hey, I can see we don’t agree on this, but that’s OK. I still love ya.”

But, let’s assume that you’ve gotten off to a good start. You’ve stated your position in a non-anxious, non-threatening way, and so has the other.

The best thing you can do in a hard conversation is to ask questions.

If there is common ground to be found, then the only way to get there is to stop battling and start listening. Remember, this is not about trying to convince the other person to agree with you. It’s about learning from the other. Asking questions is how you learn.

It also helps you to maintain a non-anxious presence.

Edwin Friedman, in his book Generation to Generation, says, “Asking questions is a great way to remain both non-anxious and present (p. 72).”

Here’s how I started the conversation with my colleague. I tried to keep it light, so I said, “Tell me about your association. All I have heard is rumor and innuendo.”

And we talked. We listened. We actually found some common ground. I came away from this conversation thanking God.

Real conversations about difficult issues are rare these days.

Our country is polarized. It’s easier to hang with like-minded people and criticize the other. It’s scary to think of having a conversation with someone who disagrees because it can get messy. But we’re never going to get anywhere in our country or in the church if we aren’t willing to try.

Questions for Reflection:

Who do you know that disagrees with you on an important issue?

How can you have a conversation with them?

What is stopping you?