Skip to main content

The evening that Steve McClatchy figured out that balance in our lives was an entirely different concept from what most of us conceive, he became so excited and energized he stayed up all night to bring the ideas together for a chapter in a forthcoming book. The next day, however, the Philadelphia-based corporate trainer and consultant was confronted by the reality of everyday life: He had an eight-hour presentation to give, and was groggy. So he upped his caffeine levels and, despite the resulting jitters and hangover from the overnight stint, felt wonderful.

His life, to everyone else, was totally out of balance during that period. But he felt energized and balanced, because balance, he believes, is a constant juggling between routine maintenance activities and energizing improvement activities that help us to achieve challenges and goals.

Mr. McClatchy notes that we have two conceptions of balance, neither of which he feels serves us well.

The first focuses on boundaries. We need to protect our work and our life from each other, ensuring sufficient time for both.

A new school of thought proselytizes for work-life integration: Work and personal stuff intermix, since it's all one life.

But even when people are overtly successful in trying those approaches, they struggle. Their days never feel balanced. And that's because he believes they are fixated on the wrong measures: work and non-work. Instead, he asks you to consider your days as a continuum, in which you carry out maintenance activities, such as writing routine reports, answering e-mails, mowing the lawn and taking out the garbage, as well as improvement activities at the other end of the scale, in which you work on goals – initiatives that help you to move ahead professionally and personally.

Maintenance activities are tasks that will be brought to your attention if you don't do them. Don't answer e-mails, and somebody will send a follow-up. Don't take out the trash, and the garbage will start to stink up the house.

Maintenance activities find you. They demand your attention. Goals – improvement activities – don't find you. Instead, you have to find them. They aren't brought to your attention and will be missed unless you seek them out. Life can easily become a round of maintenance activities – an unbalanced string of maintenance activities – if you don't find your goals, and add them to your daily round of activities.

He points to his activities on the day we speak. He was up at 3 a.m. to catch a flight for a speech he was giving, and after that had a round of activities, including this interview. All maintenance. But that night he was taking his 11-year-old daughter, Amy, to the Philadelphia Phillies game. He didn't even know who the Phillies were playing, but he knew it would be just him and his daughter, one of the one-on-one activities he carves out time for with his four children, because the sessions build the solid relationship he wants. Having that one-on-one time is a major goal for him, and so the evening falls into the improvement category. "Your life gets a little better with each improvement. It provides balance," he says.

Get stuck primarily or solely on maintenance activities, and you'll likely run headlong into burnout. You are working really hard, but feel as if you're on a treadmill, getting nowhere. You're stuck in a rut of nitty-gritty.

Maintenance activities always confront us. There is no difficulty finding them. Complete one, and another pops up, often related to the first. Eat breakfast and the dishes have to be cleaned and you need to buy some more milk on the way home. A returned e-mail often leads to another one, or many.

Goals – initiatives that add something extra to our life – must be found, and that's the difficulty. We don't have deep goals, or won't admit to them. "It's so easy to get up, go to work, and do the same-old," he notes. In workshops, he asks participants to tell the person beside them one thing they would like to do in life that they have never done. Being prodded to admit to one unusual goal seems to open up the floodgates, from climbing mountains to adopting a child to volunteer activities, to special projects at work.

Once you have such goals – improvement activities – you must protect them from being shoved aside by the many maintenance activities lined up for your attention. His simple rule is that maintenance activities go on your to-do list while the improvement activities go on your calendar. "Things on your calendar have a higher priority than items on your to-do list," he says. They are an obligation. We tend to protect activities on our calendar, unlike items on our to-do list. He defended the baseball game with his daughter from many assaults by maintenance activities that cropped up and seemed more urgent.

Balance, then, is a yin yang between your maintenance activities and your improvement activities, your to-do list and your calendar. Figure out your goals, keep up momentum toward achieving them, and you will feel alive and happy – balanced, in his view.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter