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Work-life balance: Is life too short to be busy?

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Like most Americans, advisors struggle to balance their work with the rest of their life. The financial services industry is extremely competitive, a battle of attrition. Each hour spent doing something unrelated to business can be viewed as time in which ground is being lost to competitors. There’s some truth to the old adage about sales being a numbers game, and the only way to achieve those numbers is to put in the time. Lots of it. 

This cutthroat atmosphere, which penetrates most of the business world, has given rise to a culture in which productivity and success often become indelibly wrapped up with one’s sense of self-worth and credibility. This ever-increasing pressure means stress has become a constant presence, and focus, in our lives. It’s the subject of countless articles, self-help books and Facebook posts. For many, it has even become a badge of honor, a matter of pride. 

“Stress has become a status symbol, like an Ivy League sticker glaring from the back of a Volvo: I am important enough to have things to worry about,” writes Alexander Nazaryan in his review of the book, “One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble With Stress as an Idea.” 

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Tim Kreider writes, “Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work … Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” 

Taking a toll 

Clearly, more hours spent at the office or answering emails at home can lead to success, but often, these actions come with a cost. 

“For most [advisors], the freedom to work their own businesses and help people have more solid financial futures are the two reasons for their passion,” writes Travis G. Perry, in an article titled “Restoring Work-Life Balance.” “Unfortunately, there is a tendency with that freedom and the tightening economy to put other priorities aside and focus even more on the business to keep it thriving or at least surviving. This behavior quickly leads to a life out of balance as the adviser overlooks time in other areas of life, including health or relationships, to work the business even harder.” 

Perry cites the 2008 Health of Advisers Press Report, which states, “It appears that the strong desire to build up their practices and increase their income motivates advisers to sacrifice themselves, their families and sometimes their personal health.” 

The latest study to analyze the toll that job-related stress has on our health, from Tel Aviv University, finds that those with the highest levels of job burnout and stress have a 79 percent increased risk of coronary heart disease. This is in addition to the stress-related obesity, insomnia and anxiety familiar to so many Americans. 

Fueled by an unbalanced idea of what “work ethic” really means and despite having the best of intentions (providing financial stability, putting the kids through college, leading a productive life, etc.), a growing number of Americans are literally working themselves to death.

Lean in or chill out? 

The discussion about what constitutes a healthy work-life balance has become even more prominent in recent weeks thanks to two high-profile executives. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial and best-selling new book, “Lean In,” provides “specific steps women can take to combine professional achievement with personal fulfillment and demonstrates how men can benefit by supporting women in the workplace and at home.” In a recent interview, she said, “You cannot have a full career and a full life at home with your children if you are also doing all of the housework and child care.” 

Meanwhile, Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, recently made waves after announcing the curious decision to ban her employees from telecommuting. 

In both cases, the controversies can be boiled down to one question: How can we maintain successful careers without sacrificing the things that matter most? 

The firestorm of attention received by Sandberg and Mayer prompted Erin Callan, former CFO of Lehman Brothers, to offer her own perspective in a recent New York Times op-ed piece. Callan resigned from Lehman Brothers in 2008 “amid mounting chaos and a cloud of public humiliation only months before the company went bankrupt.” She writes that in the years since then, she has “had ample time to reflect on the decisions I made in balancing (or failing to balance) my job with the rest of my life. The fact that I call it ‘the rest of my life’ gives you an indication where work stood in the pecking order.” 

“I didn’t start out with the goal of devoting all of myself to my job,” she continues. “It crept in over time. Each year that went by, slight modifications became the new normal. First I spent a half-hour on Sunday organizing my email, to-do list and calendar to make Monday morning easier. Then I was working a few hours on Sunday, then all day. My boundaries slipped away until work was all that was left … What I did was who I was.” 

And although many people, and especially young women, have come to admire Callan’s decision to work incredibly hard for a limited period in order to achieve financial success, she concludes, “That is not balance. I do not wish that for anyone … I am beginning to realize that I sold myself short. I was talented, intelligent and energetic. It didn’t have to be so extreme … I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place with at least some better version of a personal life. Not without sacrifice — I don’t think I could have ‘had it all’ — but with somewhat more harmony.” 

Letting go 

Henry David Thoreau once said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” This philosophy clearly flies in the face of our more-is-more, burn-the-candle-at-both-ends society. Yet a recent Gallup survey found that job satisfaction among Americans has sunk to just 47 percent, one of the lowest levels ever recorded. Clearly, something is wrong.

Amidst this growing disillusionment, numerous articles have sprung up offering ways to bring fulfillment and meaning back into our jobs. Not surprisingly, some of the most common suggestions are cutting back on your work hours, readjusting your work ethic and learning to live more frugally so you don’t have to work so hard to support your current lifestyle. 

“Life is too short to be busy”

Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who worked for several years in palliative care, collected the dying epiphanies of the patients she talked to during the last 12 weeks of their lives. She began blogging about the results and eventually released a book titled, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” 

The second most common regret she heard was, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” According to Ware, “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.” 

See also: The death project

It seems that many of us have sacrificed our health, family lives and happiness on the altar of industry. Idleness and leisure have become dirty words. Americans receive far fewer vacation days than the rest of the world, and yet still manage to not take them all. 

Whatever the healthy balance is, most of us aren’t achieving it. So, here’s to stepping back, taking a few deep breaths and reshuffling our priorities. Yes, it’s possible that some of you might lose a client or two to the competition, but if the process is undertaken logically and carefully, everything will be fine. In fact, attaining a more healthy work-life balance will likely translate to higher efficiency and better results. 

If there’s one thing that can be said about Americans (besides the fact that we’re overworked, that is) it’s that we’re adaptable. Besides, wouldn’t a few less appointments be a small price to pay for a little more time doing what’s most important to you? 

As Tim Kreider writes, “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done … I [made] a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.”


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