Read the current Progressive Forage digital edition

0907 PD: Integrating work and life: Maintaining personal and professional balance

Jim Henion Published on 31 August 2007

Once I visited the farm of a close friend of mine whom I’ll call John (not his real name). Since John wasn’t at his computer (the usual spot I could find him on a Saturday morning) I went around to the back porch and found him slouched over, holding his head in both hands, gazing at the ground.

Clearing my throat in order not to startle him, John looked up at me as though he had just returned from a far-off place, another world. After spending some time with my friend, he mentioned that he thought something must be wrong with him - that he was feeling overwhelmed, burned out and exhausted.

Unfortunately, John’s condition is not unique to him. As I work with producers and the employees of the ag businesses that serve them, it seems like everywhere I go I hear people talking about their struggles to maintain personal and professional balance.

In his book Overload Syndrome,  Dr. Richard Swensen writes, “Life in modern day America is essentially devoid of time and space. People are exhausted. People are stressed. People are breaking the speed limit of life, overloaded. We need more time. We need more space. We need more reserves. We need, in short, more margin.”

Another author, Jeff Davidson, in Breathing Spaces, writes, “Merely being alive today and participating as a functioning member of society guarantees that your day, week, month, year and your physical, emotional and spiritual energy will be depleted easily without the proper vantage point from which to approach each day and conduct your life.”

The pain of overload: Stress, strain and change
In engineering terms, stress is explained as the result of placing an object under pressure. In physiological terms, stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or threat. This is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response.

A stressor is anything in the environment that triggers the fight or flight response in our body. In the past, stressors were more physical, such as our body’s response when we are in danger. In modern times, stressors are more subtle and intangible. Examples include constant change, uncertainty, hurrying and, of course, the constant pressures of crop and animal diseases, unknown milk prices, the weather and government actions.

Chronic stress and overload is linked to a whole host of diseases and premature aging. If the fight or flight response stays turned on over an extended period of time, our body (like an engine that’s been revving past the redline for too long) eventually burns out and breaks down.

What’s causing all the change?
In 1970, Alvin Toffler predicted in Future Shock that “changes are coming at us so fast that they may exceed our abilities to cope with them.” So what is it that’s causing all the change? The following lists three critical factors that contribute to new levels of pressure, stress and imbalance:

In 24 hours, world population (births minus deaths) will increase by another 265,000 - as it does every day. One stalled car on an overloaded highway can cause 15,000 people to wait in their cars for an hour or more.

Implications: More people means more world economic competition, more effort to maintain our quality of life, less breathing space and loss of balance.

Ninety percent of all scientists and engineers who ever lived are alive today. What are they doing? Building new technology that changes everything about the way we live and work.

Implications: Progress causes high-velocity changes. The result is massive restructure, new ways of doing things and the death of long-standing businesses and industries to make way for entirely new ones. Change that used to take eight or 10 years now takes only one or two.

A weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person in 1892 was exposed to during a lifetime. The documentation for a Boeing 747 weighs more than the plane itself. (Take a look at the owner’s manual for your new corn planter.) There is simply more to learn, more details and more to keep on top of.

Implications: When the volume of information you need to function exceeds what you can absorb and apply, the result is frustration, overload and imbalance.

A strategy for integrating work and life
It’s clear we are experiencing conditions unlike any other time in history. Overload, stress and lack of balance appear to be of concern to nearly all of us. The logical question is:  What can we do? What strategies can we implement on an individual basis that will restore some of the breathing space we long for?

The good news is that it is possible to restore balance and enjoy the fruits of our age - even as we are living in these incredibly crazy, wonderful times. Here are the key steps that enable people to integrate work and life, and maintain a sense of balance:

Step 1. Put down in writing a listing of the “first things,” the major priorities in your life.
This doesn’t have to be complicated and can be done by simply listing six or seven items on a 3” x 5” card. For starters, most of us might include things like our health, important relationships, work or business priorities, financial issues or spiritual priorities.

Step 2. Next, periodically check your actual schedule to see how your priorities are being addressed in a typical seven-day period of time.
Why do this?

Because the way we spend our time reveals our true priorities. In my workshops on this topic, I provide a simple one-page, seven-day worksheet for participants to record how many hours out of each 24 they spend in several areas such as work, completing regular daily tasks and activities related to their stated priorities.

Needless to say, this is a painful experience for most of us. However, it is essential because what we call important is shown by how many hours we devote to that activity each week.

Step 3. The last step relates to a concept (called “margin”) coined by Dr. Swensen, quoted earlier in this article. He defines margin as “the space that once existed between our load and our limits.”

Examples of “marginless living” include flying from New York to Los Angeles with a 15-minute connection in Chicago. Or traveling down the interstate at 65 miles per hour with 10 feet between you and the car ahead. Or having an income of $2,000 per month and expenses of $1,995.

It’s clear the only way you can possibly make space in your 168-hour weekly schedule for the first things in your life - your priorities - is to do a self-assessment (rate yourself 1 to 10) and then take steps to restore margin in each of the following critical areas:

1. Emotional margin
“I have people in my life who care for and support me. When I am with them I feel nourished and energized. With them, I can freely share my feelings.”

2. Physical margin
“I practice good health habits, eat nutritious foods, get enough exercise, rest and relaxation.”

3. Time margin
“I have adequate time from my routine responsibilities to relax and recharge. I am able to do the things I enjoy, not only with my friends and family, but I also take time for personal hobbies and interests.”

4. Financial margin
“I earn the amount of money I need so that I’m not always worried about making ends meet. I live within my means, and I am thankful for what I have.”

A very interesting exercise for you, your spouse and family is to periodically discuss the following:

•Clarify the “first things” in your life and list your priorities.
•Develop specific strategies that will restore emotional, physical, time and financial margin.
•Periodically check your schedule and take action with different ways to positively address competing priorities.  PD

—From Cooperative Resources International (CRI) website

Jim Henion
Director of Consulting Services for Cooperative Resources International

Q. From your experience, what noticeable signs should alert you that your life may be out of balance?

The term ‘margin’ for me illustrates when things are getting out of balance. When you think about producers around the country, they are running major businesses nowadays. I think some of them are under a state of overload, feeling there is no margin left.

I talk to producers who occasionally feel like, “Why am I doing this for a living?,” “Why do I have this farm?” or “Why did I hire all these employees?” There is a sense among these people that they are alone or isolated. Having an emotional margin means having people in your life that you can talk to.

I think those of us that operate businesses like to talk to other business owners. That is why I think trade shows, conferences and training seminars are so critically important.

In this area here, we have producers that get together each Saturday morning for breakfast. That is an important thing - for managers and employers to get off the farm and go to the local dinner and have people in their lives, namely other producers.

So what is the sign? Anytime a person begins to feel a sense of loneliness or isolation, that’s a state of overload and lack of margin.

See more articles like this at