The Stepping-Stones to a Balanced Life

Wayne M. Sotile, PhD

Disclosures

May 26, 2021

"No matter what I do, I feel like I'm falling short. My family says I work too much; my colleagues say I don't work enough."

"I want to spend more time with my children. My parents say I don't call or visit enough. And I can't remember the last time my wife and I had a date night that wasn't interrupted by both of us texting or 'just checking' our email…just in case we're missing something."

I could go on, but you get the point: For more than 40 years, I've heard these sorts of laments from physicians and their life mates at all stages of their career and family journeys. And I mean all stages; I'm not just referring to young families. A respondent in one of our national surveys of medical couples wrote this: "I really like spending time with my physician husband, but when we do take a trip or even a brief getaway, I feel guilty, like I should be spending more time with our great grandchildren."

Evidently, new-age guilt has no statute of limitations! No matter what we do well, we seem to feel that we could be doing better in at least one crucial arena: work, family, intimate relationship, or self-care. 

Clearly, it's time to rethink "balance." I propose that you think of managing your lifestyle as being akin to walking across a stream on rocks, or stepping-stones. Success hinges on following certain rules. Here are a few: 

Commit to Where You Are 'Stepping'

When at work, engage fully, harvest moments of meaning and purpose from your work, and enjoy the people you work with. This will assure that you generate the most powerful balm to work/family distress: You'll be in a good mood when you return home. Our research has shown that the most important determiner of whether your family likes you will not be your hours spent at work; it will be your mood when you come home from work.

Don't Stand Too Long on Any Single Rock

We thrive when we have diverse lifestyles. The highest performers alternate routinely within short periods of time (eg, within each day or week) between full engagement in work, family, personal relationships, and self-fulfilling/re-energizing activities. Our research suggests that a more powerful predictor of well-being for physicians than number of vacation days taken each year is how frequently you report exercising, participating in hobbies, and getting a good night's sleep. (Note: The problem with vacation is that we don't take it frequently enough.) 

I emphasize that by diverse lifestyle, I am not referring to the sort of busyness that generates monkey-brained, multitasking distraction to the point of never fully attending to what you are doing or to where you are. Rather, I mean the sort of "busyness" that yields a richly diverse and fulfilling (albeit sometimes stressful) lifestyle — one that entails many avenues of renewal, energy, and meaning.

When Home, Don't Let Addiction to Distractions Disconnect You

Years ago, I counseled a two-physician couple who complained of poor family communication, lost romance, and a lousy sex life. We discovered that they had 11 (that's correct: 11) televisions in their home, and that most of their at-home time found each family member solo TV-watching. 

That was extraordinary for the times. A more insidious form of at-home distraction happens these days, one that even the most mindful couples and families are wise to guard against. At one point during a weekend gathering of our children and grandchildren recently, I noticed that every person in our family — grown daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, and my wife Mary and I alike — were each on our personal screens. 

Fight the New-Age Guilt Syndrome

If I had the power to gift medical families with things that would make life easier, near the top of my gift list would be that, collectively, you would recalibrate your expectations about what constitutes a life worth celebrating. Guilt over how you are living might, indeed, signal that you need to do more or less of something. But the most prevalent form of guilt I hear medical families struggle with is a hollow, shame-based, new-age guilt that stems from chasing that uncatchable ghost: the mythical balanced life.

Please share your thoughts, observations, and experiences about this important topic. What challenges and solutions have you found, both at home and at work, as you've navigated your way over those stepping-stones of work, family, intimate relationship, and self-care?

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About Dr Wayne Sotile
For more than 30 years, clinical psychologist Wayne M. Sotile, PhD, has studied resilience and work-life issues for high-performing health professionals. He has authored 10 books, including The Thriving Physician (2018) and Thriving in Healthcare (2019), both with Gary Simonds, MD. Wayne founded the Center for Physician Resilience, in Davidson, North Carolina. A sought-after keynote speaker, Wayne has delivered more than 6000 invited addresses to corporate and medical audiences interested in resilience and optimal performance. For more information, visit his website.

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