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Imagine a donkey struggling to make it up a mountain path. The donkey is carrying packages on both sides, and even though the weight has been carefully balanced, the donkey is faring poorly. The reason isn't balance; it's volume – the donkey is carrying too great a burden, over all.

You are likely in a similar position, as you struggle with your burden of work and life, says New Zealand wellness and energy coach Louise Thompson. It's not an issue of balance. It's an issue of volume. You need to do less.

Too often, her clients come to her believing they have work-life balance issues. They are beating themselves up, feeling inefficient and generally inadequate. "But they are just carrying too much," she says in an interview.

She's not fond of the term work-life balance, anyway. The most important item in such a phrase should go first, and that's life. So the issue is life-work balance – or, more accurately, life-work volume. She gets her clients to see this by asking them to add up the amount of time it would take to do all the tasks they face in a week. Invariably, it totals more time than they have.

That leads them to believe they have a time-shortage problem. In some cases, that may stem from an inability to control their perfectionist tendencies. Their work standards may be too high, and they don't know when they should conclude enough is enough and stop working on tasks. Or they are reluctant to outsource activities, such as paying their son to wash the car, hiring someone to cut the grass, or delegating tasks at work.

She tells them they have to give something up. "You don't have a time-shortage problem. You have a priority problem," she insists. "And that's a good thing because we can't make more time – we're not God. But we can reorder our priorities."

She asks her clients, accordingly, to come up with six priorities – three personal and three professional – for the coming year to 18 months. Then, as tasks arise, they need to ruthlessly calculate whether it moves them toward their six prime goals. If it doesn't, they need to look for another way to handle it – or simply not do it.

She warns against phrases like "I should" or "I must" as you assess the burden you have assumed. That only makes it seem like your life is a long list of obligations and ignores choice. "Everything other than breathing is a choice," she observes. "You don't have to stay late and work tonight. You are choosing to stay late. Perhaps it's because work is energizing or you fear a two-minute conversation with your boss [about not working late]."

You need to understand the choice you are making if you are going to come to grips with life-work volume. You are choosing to stay at work rather than go for a run or spend time with the family. You don't have to change the choice (although you might want to, when you acknowledge it's a choice). But you shouldn't hide behind the pretense your boss is making you do it.

Once you start choosing – acknowledging where the choices are, and not just going with the flow – she says you can greatly reduce the volume by saying no and outsourcing. What's left should be items that are taking you toward your six priorities.

Of course, we often say yes to requests for our time because it's easier than saying no. One reason is we fear conflict. She counters: "Saying no very rarely leads to conflict. But our fear of conflict leads us to not say no. And when that happens, you're not choosing for your priorities, you're choosing for someone else's priorities. A no to someone else is a yes to you."

With clients who have trouble saying no, she suggests they practise by saying no to something of little consequence suggested by somebody they love. They learn, over time, that the sky doesn't fall when they utter that word. She contends that saying no is like a muscle: The more you practise, the better you get.

She also suggests you try the "98-per-cent no" technique. When asked, for example, to attend a barbecue, instead of saying yes, tell the other individual you would like to go but you think you are booked and need to check your calendar. Key words: "I'm sure I can't make it but if I can, I'll let you know."

You have now managed the expectations of the other person and can determine whether you really want to attend or not. If you choose yes, you call back. If you choose no, you have already gracefully declined, so there's nothing more to be done.

She finds a lot of times her role with clients is to give them permission to do what they want – whether it is to say no, have fun, or go against the crowd and be themselves. "We're not on this planet to be people-pleasing machines. You need to give yourself permission to do what you want," she says. Sure, she acknowledges, in relationships, compromises are required. But it's wrong if we constantly default to others.

"It's okay to have balance. It doesn't make you selfish," she says.

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