The Single Most Powerful Way to Improve Work/Life Balance
"It seems like just when things start going right, something comes along to change that."
Have you ever felt that way? Work and life never seem to balance and productivity and time management seem like a never ending battle.
Just as soon as you get the hang of a system or tool, life takes a turn and you give up the whole process only to have to start over again at some point in the future. Why is it that one system can't be the perfect productivity system and result in ultimate work/life balance?
I recently took a very long car trip across the country from Long Island, NY to Phoenix, AZ.
On the way, I had the opportunity to listen to around 35 hours of podcasts and do a lot of deep thinking. One podcast I listened to was Stuff You Should Know and the episode on How Chaos Theory Changed the Universe. I highly recommend you listen.
Chaos theory seems to perfectly fit our struggle with productivity and work/life balance. However, it may also be the single most powerful way we can improve both.
What is Chaos Theory?
I'm not a scientist and won't bore you here with lengthy scientific discussions. However, I do want to provide you with some basics. I'll also share some links throughout the article if you'd like to learn more.
Chaos theory is often known as the butterfly effect: the idea that small, seemingly insignificant variables can have a significant impact on systems. The mathematical concept argues that there are so many variables at play in any one system that all the variables can't be accounted for. This variety makes it nearly impossible to have accurate predictions of how systems will appear over time.
Dr. Malcolm, a character in the movie Jurassic Park, was a chaos theorist. Dr. Malcolm argued with park owner, John Hammond. When Hammond suggested that nothing could go wrong in the park, Malcolm responded, "Life finds a way".
Chaos theory may be most visible in the weather. It is the reason we wonder why we listen to weather people since their predictions never seem to be accurate anyway.
Those Attractors are Strange!
A concept within chaos theory that I find truly fascinating is that of attractors and strange attractors. Chaos theorists began to discover that complex systems appeared to run in certain cycles even though scenarios were never exactly identical.
Doesn't that sound like life in general?
When plotted out, there appeared to be an equilibrium or balance of sorts. This balance within the system is the "status quo" where everything seems to fall into harmony. However, whenever there is a change to the system, that balance is disturbed. The system would respond by working to restore the balance. The state at which a system settles into balance is called an Attractor while the state a system is in while attempting to regain that balance is called the Strange Attractor.
As a system is undergoing a strange attractor, it can either adapt and establish a new balance or struggle and fail. Let's take the example shared by Chaos Theory for Beginners. A city has 10,000 residents and opens a new supermarket, swimming pool, library, etc... Everyone adapts to these new additions and the city achieves a new balance.
However, then a new factory opens on the outskirts of town creating jobs for an additional 10,000 people.
Based on Chaos Theory, either the town will adapt adding enough new residents and supporting services to establish yet a new balance or it will falter. Perhaps several residents become unhappy with the growth and 3000 of them move away. The new supermarket bosses have determined it needs 8000 residents to be successful and only 7000 remain. As a result, the supermarket leaves the town and the residents are now underserved. Due to the now limited resources, even more residents leave.
The new balance is far below the original starting point.
Chaos Theory and Work/Life Balance
Chaos theory gives us a much better understanding of why we long for and never quite achieve that elusive work/life balance. No matter what stage you may be in, you are either in a temporary period of balance or and active period of adjustment. It's a lot like those perpetual motion toys. They never settle into place.
Just as soon as you think you are getting the hang of things, something will come along to mix it up. Well isn't that a negative thought! If we can't maintain balance forever, what is the purpose in even trying?
To answer that question, let me share with you another example of chaos theory.
The Tail of Two Boys
One area that has affirmed in me a belief in chaos theory is that of parenting. From my early years in college psychology classes, I've had an interest in the argument of nature vs. nurture. Having raised two sons who were just three months apart in age allowed me to see more of this in practice. The two boys had entirely different genetics because they were from previous marriages. However, from the ages of 4, my husband and I raised both boys with similar values and objectives.
As most parents have witnessed when raising multiple children, the results can vary significantly. While some children may grow up to have assimilated all of the lessons, values and beliefs of their parents, others can go in an entirely different direction despite their parent's best efforts.
And yet, as parents, we don't stop trying to raise our children into successful, happy, contributing members of society. We know that we will make mistakes and that many of our lessons will fall on seemingly deaf ears.
We keep trying because, while we may not have total control over the outcome, we have some control even if we can't predict the results of that control.
How Chaos Theory Works to Improve Work/Life Balance
Remember, chaos theory is only a theory. While certain aspects may hold true, it has not yet been established as a scientific Law. We can choose to use the concept of chaos theory to our benefit instead of as a reason for added stress.
Here's how that works.
Expecting things to be unexpected makes unexpected events less stressful.
Knowing things won't turn out exactly as planned reduces the risk of disappointment in the outcome.
If you aren't hung up on what the outcome (or destination) will be, then you will be more inclined to learn to enjoy the journey.
Embracing the understanding that circumstances and outcomes can't always be predicted allows you to give up the shame and guilt that may be associated with not being "perfect".
Chaos theory is about minimizing as many variables as possible to increase our ability to predict the outcome. And then, when we've done that, accepting that the outcome still may not be what we expect. Chaos theory is also about knowing that we will never be done working towards a new balance and allowing this knowledge to release us from the stress and guilt of not being perpetually in balance.
Embracing chaos theory allows us to feel acceptance that also frees us to set bigger goals and more ambitious dreams.
It is my argument that The Single Most Powerful Way to Improve Work/Life Balance is to embrace the idea that balance is temporary. There will always be minute variables present that will affect balance. We are more frequently in a scenario of seeking status quo than we are actually IN status quo. Learn to enjoy the strange attractor rather than constantly longing for the attractor.
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