Finding balance: lessons from my yoga practice

Smiling businesswoman with exercise mat using mobile phone at of

A fundamental principle of maintaining good work-life balance is finding time for recovery. After a sustained period of hard work we need to switch off and do something that moves our attention elsewhere. For me that something is yoga. I’ve been doing it for the past fifteen years.  Yoga undoubtedly benefits both my physical and mental health; and in addition I’m increasingly finding that lessons I learn ‘on the mat’ can be applied to my life ‘off the mat’.

Today I’m sharing three of those lessons that will support your Balanced Leader journey:

Balance is dynamic. It requires moment by moment adjustments. If you practice yoga balancing poses are inevitable. When we first attempt them we discover that balance is not static. As we stand in tree pose (for example) our body oscillates and our muscles make tiny movements. That’s the way bodies are designed to work. Similarly in our lives balance is never a static ‘one and done’. Life conspires to throw things at us that will push us out of balance; and we must remain vigilant so we can make adjustments. At times these will be minor – such as when we notice more and more work-related texts or emails encroaching on the rest of our lives; and we choose to renegotiate our boundaries. At others a major life event – such as the birth of a child or the sudden illness of a family member – will force us to make bigger adjustments.

Balance calls for dedicated focus. If you’ve ever attempted a balancing pose in class and noticed your neighbours wobble you’ll know how easy it is to lose concentration and find you’re also starting to wobble. To avoid this yoga teachers often recommend we keep our gaze focused towards a ‘drishti point’. As we do our mind quietens, we connect with ourselves and we find it’s easier to remain balanced. When it comes to balancing your life where is your focus? What is your ‘drishti point’? The more we keep our attention on the balance we want in our lives, the more likely we are to find it.

Balance becomes easier the more we practice. Half Moon pose is one of my favourites. You balance on one arm and one leg while raising the other leg and arm high. Despite a perfect demonstration by my teacher, it seemed almost impossible to me when I first attempted it myself. Gradually, as my body has become stronger and I’ve learnt how to make the necessary adjustments, I’m able to hold the pose for longer periods of time. The same approach applies to finding balance in your life: the more you practice, the more skilled you become and the easier it gets.

I’ve experienced yoga as a gentle but powerful way for my body to reach a higher level of well-being. Nowadays many employers offer on-site yoga classes; and if yours is one I would recommend trying it. The healthier your body becomes, the easier it is to maintain a sense of well being and balance. And when the wobbles come and knock you off kilter you will know that simply pausing and breathing can put you in the right frame of mind to make the necessary adjustments.

Trust yourself

Japanese Girl Playing With Rope Walking (3 Years Old)

When it comes to balancing work and other parts of life the world is awash with experts. The ones that insist you need to strive for integration or blend since there’s no such thing as ’work-life balance’. The ones that blog about what works for them confident that it will also work for you. The ones that reduce the whole exercise to (choose a number) of useful tips – often along the lines of “remember to schedule regular me-time”.

I consider myself at the forefront of work-life balance experts – which is why I don’t believe in being so prescriptive.

If you have an initial consultation with me the first thing I will ask you is “how would you know if your life was in balance?” And if we have that same conversation five years later and I ask you the same question, it’s very likely your answer will be very different.

I know that work-life balance is both personal and dynamic; and there’s no “one size fits all”. Consequently both this blog and my coaching simply offer guidelines – based on academic research and practical experience – within which you can find your own route to Balanced Leadership.

So if – like me – you’re become confused by the plethora of often conflicting advice, I want to offer you some very simple guidance:

Trust yourself.

You know best whether it feels right for you to separate or integrate work and other parts of life. And you know that what feels right now may change in the future as your family circumstances and their demands on you change.

You know best how to play your various life roles. Which ones need more focus at present and where to dial down the intensity. You know you’re doing your best as you juggle through each day. Show yourself compassion and don’t let others judge you harshly.

Eminent Psychologist Bruno Bettleheim pioneered the concept of the ‘good enough parent’; while in the workplace the Pareto Principle essentially urges us to do the same.

So trust yourself to be good enough. Take five minutes of quiet time to connect with your deep inner knowing and identify what you need at this time – recognising that your needs will change as your life circumstances change. Trust that you know what works for you and stick with it. As the saying goes: “done is better than perfect”.

The power of focus

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We live in a distracted world. We check our mobiles phone countless times during the day while FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) keeps us addicted to social media. Even while working we experience countless email distractions and our #AlwaysOn technology means we’re accessible to others 24/7.

The upside of this technology is that it’s made parenting and caring easier. We can be connected to our teenage children in ways that were not available to our parents – so we can stay at work longer knowing they’re safe. In recent months I’ve even been introduced to the idea of a family WhatsApp group as a way of keeping in touch.

The downside is that it limits our attention spans and makes it difficult to do what Professor Cal Newport calls the “deep work” of creativity. It’s becoming increasingly clear that multi-tasking doesn’t work – it simply pulls our energy in too many directions and leaves us exhausted. To achieve anything worthwhile we need to focus. As the saying goes:

Energy flows where attention goes.

Before we can focus we need clarity. What do we want to accomplish? As our children grow and our parents age our own role within the family will change. And as we progress our career we find the nature of our work also changes. So as we approach the end of another year let me ask you:

  • Who do you want to be in 2018?

  • What do you want to achieve in the coming year?

You may want to start – as many of us do – by reviewing how 2017 went. If so you’ll find this blog entry from the end of last year helpful.

Clarity requires us to review and adapt our behaviours. We may need to be more mindful. And separators are likely to find focus more easily than integrators.

Cal Newport maintains a novice is only able to do deep work for one hour at a time: to work for longer requires training. Attention is a skill that can be cultivated; and you will get distracted.

When you do take five minutes to refocus with this short visualisation adapted from the work of Piero Ferrucci:

Take a slow deep breath and bring to mind your main focus for 2018 – whether at work or home. Close your eyes and imagine a long straight clear path reaching directly to the top of a hill where the object of your focus lies.

On both sides of the path are beings who will try and divert you from the path and prevent you reaching the top. They can do whatever they want except one thing: they cannot directly obstruct your path.

These entities represent the various people and situations in your life that divert you from your focus. Experience yourself having the clarity to keep walking your path. When you reach the top enjoy the positive emotions you experience at having reached your goal. Think about what this goal means to you – how achieving it makes your life better.

Open your eyes and make any notes you need to remind you about the distractions you’re likely to face during the day and how you will overcome them. Notice how doing this impacts your energy.

To quote Cal Newport:

It’s surprising how much you can do in an eight hour day when you’re not distracted.

Wishing you a more focused and better balanced 2018.

Reviewing progress and celebrating victories

We’ve reached that point in the year when even the busiest of us endeavour to carve out some time for reflection. To consider the year that’s finishing and how the New Year might be different. Reflection is generally a good thing and when we choose to carve out our path as a Balanced Leader it becomes essential. We’re slowly creating a new paradigm of 21st Century leadership and recognising that work-life balance is personal and dynamic. As we close 2016 I offer you five questions. Reflecting on your experiences will enable you to find better balance in 2017.

  1. When during this year did you feel your life was in balance? Please think hard and try to identify even the briefest moments. What made you notice that things were balanced? What else did you notice? What were you doing at the time? How could you do more of it in the coming year to make balance a more regular feeling? What were people around you doing to support you? How might you influence them to support you more regularly?
  2. How did your life roles change this year? Did your children grow another year older and less dependent on you? Or did your parents grow another year older and more dependent? How did your work circumstances change? Did you feel compelled to work longer hours? Were you able to find more flexibility – perhaps by working remotely? Did these changes highlight areas where your skills need to be enhanced?
  3. How did technology impact your quest for balance? If you’re a separator to what extent did other people’s expectations and behaviours add to your feelings of imbalance? If you’re an integrator did you spot areas where you need to set better boundaries?
  4. What role models did you come across this year? Who inspired you or opened your eyes to alternative working possibilities? Who encouraged you to strive for better balance? And where were you able to be a role model for others?
  5. When did you show courage? Perhaps in managing your boundaries or renegotiating expectations. When did you experience moments of mindfulness that led you to realise boundaries need to be more clearly defined?

So, as the old year closes we celebrate the small steps that led us in the direction of our vision, acknowledge the journey continues and ask ourselves: what’s the next small step for 2017?

Going deeper with our self-care

The received wisdom is that women tend to be poor at self-care – putting the needs of others ahead of their own. And much of the advice about rectifying this centres around suggestions such as finding some “me time”, having a regular massage or pamper treatment and making time for fun activities and friends.

These are all laudable pursuits but if we’re going to rise to the challenges of Balanced Leadership we need to go much deeper with our self-care. Specifically we need to cultivate self-compassion, healthy breathing (yes, you read that right) and control of our boundaries.

According to world leading self-compassion expert Dr Kristin Neff:

With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.

Many of us are very bad at doing that. A wealth of research suggests working women have a tendency to be perfectionists. And we’re very quick to beat ourselves up when we think we’ve screwed up. The truth is: sometimes you will screw up –  we all do. And if you’re a working mother people will lay the blame on the fact that you’re not focused enough on your career. Should you be working a flexible arrangement they’ll be keen to point out it’s clearly unworkable.

The point of my Balanced Leader coaching and training is to support working mothers to feel confident they’ll screw up less. To develop skills and to be prepared for contingencies. But we’re all human and it’s an uncertain and imperfect world. To regain our composure and focus on being Balanced Leaders in those moments we need to practice self-compassion.

Many of us also need to develop better breathing habits. We spend our days hunched over devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops which compresses our lungs and leads to shallow breathing. When the going gets tough and we’re concentrating hard we may even have a habit of holding our breath. It’s no wonder we end up feeling tired much of the time.

According to Max Strom – one of my favourite yoga teachers – in Chinese medicine the lungs contain, store and express grief and inspiration. How can we fully open ourselves up to these emotions if we don’t fully open our lungs? Those of us who are parents know how joyfully babies breathe. And how quickly that joy can become suppressed with hours and hours spent sitting at a school desk.

Developing the regular habit of checking our breathing and of having moments of self-compassion will ensure we remain more mindful as we go through our busy days. Those moments of mindfulness will make us more aware of where we’re losing control of our boundaries and more likely to make adjustments. In this way we become focused on deeper self-care, nurturing ourselves on the Balanced Leader journey.

The two key skills you must cultivate

 

Businesspeople Quarreling In Front Of Businessman Meditating

To succeed on the Balanced Leader journey there are two key skills you must cultivate: mindfulness and self-responsibility.

Despite the current preponderance of books on the topic, interest in mindfulness is not a new phenomenon. As an Eastern concept and practice it’s been around for centuries. One of the earliest pioneers to bring it to the West was Jon Kabat Zinn who defines mindfulness as:

“The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

Many people consider mindfulness a spiritual or religious practice but Kabat Zinn’s definition implies this is not necessarily the case. Indeed, I came to mindfulness many years ago while taking lessons in the Alexander Technique. The point was to notice what I was doing with my body moment by moment. To catch myself when I tensed my neck and shoulders leading to stress headaches; and when I was slumping in my chair restricting my breathing leading to feelings of tiredness.

I first chose to apply mindfulness to my work while interviewing others. I realised that in many cases my interviewee’s future was directly in my hands. I would make a decision about whether to take the process further based on our discussions; and I must be present to the other person in order to make the right decision. Being present in the moment – moment by moment as Kabat Zinn says – was a challenge then and is an even bigger one now that we’re surrounded by so many technologically based distractions.

So mindfulness is something we make the commitment to cultivate and it’s like anything else. The more we practice the better we get. I’m not an avid reader of mindfulness books but one I have come across recently that I rather liked is ‘This is Happening’ by Rohan Gunatillake who also developed the buddhify app.

Mindfulness is an essential tool in our armoury since without it we can easily lose sight of our boundaries and our vision of how we want our balanced life to work.

Self-responsibility on the other hand is the attitude we adopt when we choose to be one hundred per cent responsible for everything that happens to us. Yes, of course there are other players and outside circumstances going on. And we always have a choice of coming from a place of being the victim of these or one of self-empowerment.

Let’s say – for instance – that your workplace culture doesn’t currently support flexible working at managerial levels. You have a choice. You can either tell yourself “it’s not going to be possible here – I may as well leave” or you take a deep breath and ask “how could I change this situation?” You prepare a short TED talk style presentation summarising the way your new arrangement would work and the benefits to everyone.

Or let’s say one of your clients is a little miffed because he couldn’t reach you yesterday – even though you made it clear from the outset that you work flexibly. Rather than being annoyed he’s forgotten you look at how you can improve your client management skills so there’s no repeat of the situation.

Accepting radical self-responsibility requires us to constantly step up to the leadership role in any situation. To be clear on the balance we want in our lives. To identify where our power lies to change things; and which of our skills we need to enhance to achieve the results we’re looking for.

A commitment to cultivating mindfulness and self-responsibility is the essential foundation we need to support us on the Balanced Leader journey.