How to Get Back on Track When Your Life Is Out of Balance

By Monica R. Parker, HLS ’99

When you think of work/life balance, what comes to mind? For me, it used to be that I could only attain balance when every aspect of my life—practicing law, exercising and eating well, maintaining relationships, pursuing hobbies, etc.—was in perfect alignment. Forever and ever, amen.

Just what you’d expect from an overachieving Harvard Law School graduate.

Now, thanks to my coach training, I’ve got a very different perspective on work/life balance, and it’s one that’s much more attainable.

So how do you balance your life? We’re going to use a tool called “The Wheel of Life,” which was developed by The Coaches Training Institute. Whether you’re a senior partner at a large law firm, a first year at a public interest organization, a parent who has stepped off the career track to raise your children, or a “recovering lawyer” aspiring to be the next Scott Turow, this exercise will help you make significant improvements in your quality of life.

The first step is to take stock. Draw a circle and divide it into eight pie wedges. Label each wedge with an area of your life—money, career, physical environment (of your home and/or your office), personal growth, friends & family, significant other, health, fun/creativity.

Now, think about the level of satisfaction you’re experiencing in each area. Are you at the center of the circle at “0” (no satisfaction) or the outer edge of the circle at “10” (total satisfaction) or somewhere in between? Draw a line in each wedge to indicate your response. If you’re a creative type, you can color in the area between the new line and the center of the circle. Here’s a sample completed Wheel of Life:

Once you’ve scored your level of satisfaction in each area, take a look at the new circle you created. Just imagine riding around on that wheel! A bit bumpy, isn’t it?

Well, relax. The goal isn’t to create a smooth wheel. Life is too short to reach for unattainable perfection. We’re looking for maximum impact in a short amount of time.

The way you make that happen is to take the second step, which is to select which area you want to focus on. How do you select the area? The simplest way is to select an area with a lower score (“6” or below). Or pick the one that’s been bugging you the most lately. Got a “4” on Health and feel like you simply must make changes or you’ll drown? Go with Health.

The third step is to answer four questions. You can ask yourself these questions or do this exercise with a friend. I prefer the buddy system because you can motivate and cheer each other on. Here are the four questions:

    1. What is the best possible outcome?
    2. What is important to you about this?
    3. What qualities do you need to bring out of yourself to accomplish this?
    4. What is the first step?

Let’s look at these questions one by one. They may seem simple but in my experience the results you can achieve from answering them and following through are phenomenal. Take the example of Edward, a mythical partner at a prestigious New York law firm, who answered “Health” as the section of his life he most wants to focus on.

What is the best possible outcome?

Lawyers are often cautious. We may even be hesitant to dream about “best possible outcomes.” But try to put aside any skepticism. Give it your best shot.

Let’s hear what Edward had to say, when poked and prodded into revealing his dream:

“The best possible outcome? Well, it’s actually more than cutting back on cigarettes, alcohol, and fast food and hitting the gym. I’ve always wanted to run the New York City Marathon. So the best possible outcome would be if I could get in good enough shape to run the Marathon.”

Terrific. A bright and shiny vision that can propel Edward forward.

What is important about this to you?

The answer to this one is usually more profound than you think. Edward came up with the obvious answers first: a sense of accomplishment, feeling healthier, losing weight, etc. But as we continued to explore this question, here’s what he revealed:

“My dad passed away when he was 45—that’s only ten years older than I am now!—massive heart attack. He worked too hard and lived very little. I’ve got two little girls and I’d like to make it to see them married and to see my grandkids. I guess I’m a bit scared that I’m headed in his direction.”

It can be a bit frightening to dig deep. But if you’re looking to make changes—significant changes—you’ve got to find your meaningful motivation.

What qualities do you need to bring out of yourself to accomplish this?

No one can say HLS grads aren’t capable. It took a tremendous amount of perseverance, focus, and sacrifice to get where you are today. Now it’s time to use some of those same qualities to balance your life.

Here’s how Edward responded:

“I’ve got a one-track mind. Sure I’m juggling multiple projects at the office but when I’m working on one of them, I’m totally there. That laser commitment is something I need to bring to improving my level of satisfaction with my health. I don’t want to be too grim about it though. I’ve been told I’ve got a great sense of humor. So I’d like to make pursuing this goal fun too.”

What is the first step?

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you think about making changes in your life. So my recommendation is to make this one a baby step. Make it something achievable.

Edward’s first step? “There’s a group program for people who want to train for the Marathon. I’ll sign up for that so then I don’t have to do it alone and there’ll be some automatic structure to it. I also like the founder’s attitude. He seems like a fun guy so that’ll help keep me motivated.”

Commit to this step. No, “Yeah, sure, I’ll do it.” Commit to it as if not following through would mean that you are breaking a promise to someone. Because you are. Not following through with your commitment means breaking a promise to a mighty important person—you.

I like my clients to make commitments using a three-part structure: (1) what will they do, (2) when will they do it, and (3) how I will know they’ve done it. Edward committed to signing up for the program by the end of the week and sending me an email to let me know.


Just like that, Edward is moving toward more balance in his life. We’ll take it step-by-step. After he’s signed up for his program, we’ll create new steps. Once he’s met his goal of running the Marathon, we’ll proceed to examine other areas in his life and come up with first steps to help him improve his level of satisfaction there.

I’ve found the Wheel of Life to be a simple yet incredibly powerful that you can use over and over again to assess and improve your work/life balance. I like to return to it when I’ve had too many weeks of feeling out of sorts. That’s an indicator that my life may be out of whack.

Balancing is a lifelong process, by the way. As much as we’d like to do so, we don’t reach “Balance Nirvana” and then stay there. Depending upon where you are in life, you’ll be more or less balanced. For example, if you’re traveling every week to conduct depositions for a case or if you’ve just had a child, it’s a bit much to expect balance at that point in time. Don’t despair—life will return to a space where you can strive for balance again.

It’s also a myth that all of the aspects of life and work have to be perfectly balanced for you to experience a significant increase in satisfaction in your life. In fact, taking a single step in one area of your life can have a dramatic positive effect on your balance.

Challenge

I wouldn’t be a very good coach if I didn’t leave you with an assignment. Do the Wheel of Life Exercise described above within one week of reading this article. If you do it with a buddy, you’ve got someone who will know that you’ve done it. Or you can use me as your accountability partner and share your experience at my blog.

Monica R. Parker © 2007 All rights reserved

Monica R. Parker, HLS ’99, left the practice of law to work with lawyers seeking fulfilling work outside the legal profession. Previously, Monica served as a Lecturer on Law at HLS, teaching the Negotiation Workshop, and a faculty member for the professional version of the Negotiation Workshop with the Program of Instruction for Lawyers at HLS. She is the author of Getting Hit by a Bus Isn’t the Answer: A Road Map for Finding Meaningful Work Outside of the Law and publishes a free e-mail newsletter, Lawyers On The Move. Further information about Monica and her work is available at http://www.LeavingTheLaw.com.

Last modified: November 18, 2008

© 2014 The President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.