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What tai chi can teach us about work life balance

Man doing tai chi outdoors

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I instruct tai chi for an organization whose logo includes the yin-yang symbol, the ancient Asian symbol of interconnected duality and harmony. Often I'll point out to students that if they want to succeed, they must find a balance, like in the yin-yang symbol, between intention and patience. They won't be successful in tai chi if they don't have intention – if they don't work diligently at the art. But they also won't succeed if they aren't also patient, giving themselves lots of time. People join with the Western determination to master tai chi immediately, and discover it will take time for their body and mind to integrate what they are learning.

The need for patience is not something we commonly talk about at work. But if we're seeking work-life balance, we certainly need to be patient with ourselves, seeing balance over a longer period of time than just today or this week. If you decided at the turn of the year to change some behaviours to improve work-life balance, and it's not going as successfully as you had hoped, you must, like my tai chi students, be patient. And in a work world where the motivating maxim seems to be faster-faster-faster, it helps to cultivate patience.

"For many, the most difficult person with whom to be patient is oneself," Allan Lokos, founder of the Community Meditation Center in New York City, writes in his new book, Patience. "We often graciously forgive others and praise their good intentions even if the results of their efforts prove less than satisfactory. Yet when we ourselves slip up and speak or act poorly, we can routinely find our actions deplorable and oftentimes unforgiveable. Patience with oneself is essential if we are to enjoy happiness and equanimity through life's constantly changing nature with its unfair and disruptive conditions. If we are not patient with ourselves it is unlikely we can be patient with anyone else."

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A friend of his mounted a small plaque in the guest bathroom that reads, "God gives me patience, and I mean right now!" Unfortunately, Mr. Lokos points out, it doesn't work like that. It takes patience to develop patience.

For my students, impatience comes out of frustration with not being successful as quickly as they would like. Mr. Lokos links impatience to people feeling they are not being heard, feeling their space being invaded or not respected, fatigue, hunger, technology failures, rude behaviour, and feeling rushed. It can be summed up as stress, anxiety, frustration and anger, which can all test our patience.

Brad Long, a professor at the Gerald Schwartz School of Business at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, says that it's not just important that we be patient with ourselves as we seek the proper work-life balance, but we need our bosses to be patient as well. After all, if in your work environment the employer is demanding a lot from you, even if you're patient, the workload won't change and the balance won't be addressed. "My patience might put a nice veneer on the situation but it doesn't solve the problem. I would need my employer to express patience as well," he said in an interview. And, if you're a boss, you need to be similarly patient with your staff.

Patience is a virtue. But he stresses that "industriousness and hard work are also important virtues that are beneficial for the business and humans." When I raised the yin yang concept, he described the tension as the business and human sides of ourselves, coming together, rather than being in two separate modes.

Jim Fisher, vice-dean at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, says effective leaders are patient-impatient. They want to get things done quickly, but at the same time anyone who runs any organization of size understands nothing happens quickly. They must patiently repeat a consistent message, edging toward their ultimate goal. "Patience-impatience is the art of an effective leader," he says.

Of course, he observes, the subordinates that leaders are trying to change are often all too patient. They have seen impatient leaders – with their new initiatives – come and go. They know if they sit tight, "this too shall pass," as the phrase goes.

Patience shows itself in being willing to listen. "You have something you want to do. You are meeting with the troops. You know the answer. You know where you want to go. But you need to patiently give people a chance to have a voice and express thoughts. People are more willing to accept change if they feel they have a voice," he says.

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How do you learn patience? It comes out of emotional intelligence, he feels – self-awareness. You need to recognize that often you are in a hurry for your own needs – desire for greatness, or trying to deal with your boredom – and must have sufficient self-regulation to move more slowly.

As for the patience to seek work-life balance, he says most leaders he sees rising to the top simply don't live their life that way. "The road to the top is not a road of good work-life balance. They sacrifice that balance and are impatient to get ahead. I don't think people who make it to the top are balanced," he says. At the same time, once at the top, he feels they should have the self-awareness and patience to recognize that not everyone has the same attitude and that to succeed they will need the help of people who prize work-life balance.

Again, a yin-yang for success.


To become patient requires effort. To help, Allan Lokos, in his book Patience, offers a series of exercises. They start with taking five minutes every day for a week, sitting quietly, and considering your motivations for becoming more patient. Don't impose reasons on yourself because they seem "right." Examine your personal experiences, look deeply at yourself, and reflect on your life and relationships. Consider how your impatience affects others. Ask yourself – and answer truthfully – whether it would be worth the effort to become more patient. "At this point just ask the questions. Let the answers come when they are ready," he says. Be patient.

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, 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 column, Power Points. More

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