At a recent lunch, a friend spent much of the time typing furiously on her BlackBerry, all the while complaining, "Why do they copy me on every dumb communication? They know I'm on vacation."
The answer was obvious: Every time she answered an e-mail, she was sending a message to her co-workers that it was okay to contact her while she was supposed to be off work, which, in turn, led to more communication. When I asked why she was participating in this exchange, she said she worried about being out of the loop. She also said her colleagues would be angry if she didn't respond.
She really had only herself to blame. All too often, we take on more than we should, eroding personal time. It's true that employers will try to squeeze out every ounce of productivity. But we have more control over our own lives than we think. Many who complain about lack of balance are active participants in creating their own distress.
Here are some of the underlying psychological reasons for overcommitting, and tips on how to fight these tendencies.
When you think that you are needed everywhere and by everyone, you can't distinguish between when your presence is desired, as opposed to required. The more in demand you think you are, the better you feel about yourself.
These types have their sense of self overly tied to others seeing them as busy, important and achieving. Under the guise of complaining about being too busy, they are actually boasting, and shoring up their egos. It's also a kind of martyrdom: I will rise to every demand thrown at me.
If this sounds like you, or others would say it sounds like you, ask yourself: What would be the consequences of saying no to a work request? Would your business unit fail? Would you be fired?
More deeply, ask yourself what you get out of being overcommitted: Does it really make you a better employee - or person - because you are so busy?
Fear of disapproval
Like my friend, many people, especially women, imagine that others will be angry with them, or they won't be seen as team players, if they don't respond to every request. These fears are typically illusory.
It's up to you to set boundaries. Managers can be brutal but they also don't expect you to do more than you can handle, especially if you speak up and say so. They don't know what else you are working on. You will not be punished if you have proved your value as an employee and show flexibility in responding to important requests.
Get a grip on your negative statements to yourself about the consequences of saying no. How do you know people will be angry with you? Are your beliefs realistic?
The guilty conscience
Many people justify their overcommitments at work by telling themselves how guilty they feel about not being around for their children or other non-work-related commitments. It's as if the act of saying "I feel guilty" alleviates the emotional discomfort of not doing the right thing.
If you aren't really feeling guilty, recognize that you are choosing to do what you are doing. Embrace your choices rather than beat yourself up. This will allow you to focus on what you want to achieve without a nagging voice undermining you.
And if you are truly experiencing guilt, pay attention to the emotional discomfort. Ask yourself if you should be making better choices.
Some people simply can't stand being alone with their thoughts, so they create constant busyness to distract themselves - from parents who overprogram their kids so that they are always on chauffeur duty, to people who constantly take on large and unnecessary work projects.
If this describes you, consider what would happen if, say, your child did not have a piano lesson right after a soccer meet. Practise doing nothing, whether by having a quiet moment with your kid or simply being with your own thoughts. Pay attention to what is going through your head without judging or being frightened by it.
Not knowing priorities
If everything is of equal importance to you - time for children, being stretched at work, getting a workout, and so on - it is impossible to determine what you should pay attention to. The result is always feeling torn between conflicting demands and desires.
Decide what is really important to you. Use this knowledge as a template to evaluate how and where you should invest your time.
Lying about motivation
Many of us actually do love being completely absorbed by our work; the more engaged we are, the more alive we feel. But we're afraid to acknowledge that out loud because there's so much pressure to prioritize work/life balance.
There is nothing wrong with feeling that work is your priority, if you are prepared to accept the personal consequences of work addiction. But if you can't accept the fallout, stop lying to yourself and your family with excuses such as, "These long work hours are just temporary."
In either case, you will be able to focus on what is most important to you. And that, after all, is what achieving work/life balance is all about.
Barbara Moses, PhD, is a speaker, organizational career management consultant and the author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth about Work, Relationships and the Rest of Life. Website: bmoses.com