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Tips on finding harmony in a busy life

Work, family can actually complement each other

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For many years "balance" has been the predominant work and family metaphor. As we struggle to juggle our jobs and our home life, we think of ourselves "walking a tight rope" and involved in a "balancing act."

We grapple with when to work late on an important project and when to leave on time to attend a daughter's softball game. We agonize about whether to postpone a family vacation because a business deal is looming. With a "balance" mentality, work is the irreconcilable nemesis of family.

Perry Christensen, a work and family consultant, has come up with a better thought. In an intriguing Harvard Business Review article "Work and Life: The end of the Zero Sum Game," he and two colleagues maintain that work and family life are actually complementary, not competing priorities. Success at work often contributes to success in one's family and vice versa.

Instead of "balance," perhaps the music metaphor of "harmony" may more richly capture what individuals do to effectively manage the demands of their work and families. It's empowering to think of yourself as the composer of your life.

Let me share a few thoughts about harmonizing work and family life.

1. Simplify your life — compose a modest melody.

Voluntary simplicity — deliberately choosing to accumulate fewer possessions and engage in fewer activities — is a key to finding a peaceful life.

We live in a materialistic society where we acquire many gadgets and toys. These things have a high cost in time as well as money. When we have too much, we run the risk of obscuring the simple but powerful life melody we hope to compose.

Research by Robinson and Godbey reveals that "time density" is increasing dramatically. We are doing more things, and more different kinds of things, at the same time. In the process, we are stressing ourselves out.

We have heated discussions on the cell phone while we weave in and out of traffic. We are watching TV while we read a magazine, as we eat dinner. The melodies of our lives become dissonant and pretentious. So buy less, do less and do fewer things at the same time. Look for a way to compose a life of modest means and focused time.

2. Create energy.

Recent research indicates it is the depletion of energy as much as the time spent at work that explains dissonance between work and family. When you feel like your job is sapping your energy, you have little vigor left for your family.

One suggestion to increase your energy is to make a list of all the things you do at work that either drain or energize you. See if you can arrange to do some of the energizing things right before you go home.

Another thought: Use commuting time for renewal rather than depletion. Listen to inspirational books or music on tape.

And take relaxing vacations. After the incessant staccato present in many jobs, we often need a peaceful larghetto for renewal. Go to the beach or the mountains and leave the laptop, pager, cell phone and calling card at home.

3. Carpe diem — seize quality time.

Many involved parents strive to increase the quality of the time they have with their children. One work-at-home father found that when his kids walked in the door from school they were the most willing to interact. Early afternoon was also low energy time for him at work. He found that if he took a half-hour break with his children, he could learn a lot about them and renew himself to go back to work with greater energy.

Bedtime can also be high-quality time. Kids don't really want to go to sleep, and so they will let you read to them or tell them stories or sing them songs for as long as you want. The tender interaction with a parent as they fall asleep may very well stay with them throughout the night.

4. Do two things at once — harmony in dual melodies.

Notwithstanding "time density," there are many activities that can be harmoniously combined. For example, I recently brought my 12-year-old, Hannah, to my BYU office for the morning. While I wrote a boring, scholarly article, she enthusiastically organized all the books in my library. Afterward I took her out to eat. I got a full morning's work done and made a memory with my daughter at the same time.

5. Make your sleep peaceful — largo

What you do the last 30 minutes before retiring often determines how restful your sleep will be and how much in harmony you will feel in the morning.

One father tells the story of when he was heading up a high-profile work project with an incredible workload. He would go to sleep only when he was utterly exhausted. Then it seemed he was wrestling with images of his problems even in his dreams. If he woke up in the middle of the night his mind would start whirring, and it would be difficult to go back to sleep. His life was dissonant, and its tempo was out of control.

Then he started taking a break to put his kids to bed with prayers, stories and songs. It felt very peaceful. Even though it was only 9 p.m., he often could no longer keep his eyes open. Instead of fighting it, he would fall fast to sleep and rest peacefully all night. It was not uncommon for him to get up at 3 or 4 a.m. and be rested and incredibly productive. By doing this, both his work and his kids were better off.

Instead of "struggling at juggling," let's seek harmony as we find provide for our families and nurture our children.

E. Jeff Hill is a research associate for the BYU Family Studies Center.