This month a client called me feeling overwhelmed and frazzled.  She set out with good intentions and goals this year to balance her life, but it’s not working and it’s only March.  She has a beautiful little girl and a husband she adores, plus she really likes her job. She woefully asked me, “What am I missing? What can I do?”

I’m not sure she’s missing anything. Each of us who chooses to work outside the home juggles many balls and often lives in fear of what would happen if we dropped one. When that happens it’s hard for the best version of us to show up in any part of our life.

I have spent 42 years trying to achieve some sort of balance myself with a husband, two sons with families, work, friends, and self-care. I have come to the conclusion it really isn’t about balancing, because I don’t know if you ever really can. What I have learned is that if I can stay connected with all those aspects of my life, it actually works. I can bring sanity to my life.  I think she can, too.

Our contentment in life and work has more to do with how well we are connected with ourselves and each other than whether we can check off an item on a list. Balance is not an issue of just time management, but about gaining clarity on how we are connected in our lives… or not. I believe underneath all our “busyness” is a desire to let people at work and in our personal lives know we appreciate them, we love them, we care about them, and we want them to know how important they are to us.

It starts with us. When we lose ourselves in the rush of getting everything done—what I call the “do-it-all-syndrome”—the impact on us is often like shooting Novocain into our heart. We quit feeling. The focus becomes getting done what is in front of us. When this happens, we halt our ability to be present, to notice the expression on our spouse’s face, or the tone in our colleague’s voice, or the message underneath what our child really wants to say but doesn’t know how.

We know something is off, so we often work harder thinking that will help. We stay up until two in the morning whittling away a never ending to-do list, or say yes to cookies at school when we really don’t have time, or go on auto-pilot with the people most dear to us.

This is the cost to us when we think there is no other way. But there is.

Hit the pause button and consider this pearl of wisdom from Wayne Muller in one of my favorite books, Sabbath“Because of our desire to succeed, we do not rest. Because we do not rest, we lose our way. Without rest, we respond from a survival mode, where everything we meet assumes a terrifying prominence…every encounter, every detail inflates in importance, everything seems more urgent than it really is, and we react with sloppy desperation…If we do not rest, how can we find our way, how can we hear the voices that tell us the right thing to do?”

That is why connection with ourselves is so important. When we do that, we can more easily bounce back from overwhelm and frazzle because we are able to rejuice and recharge. Bouncing back is a conscious choice we make, choosing what makes us happy, what feeds our soul. It’s a question of how to enjoy ourselves, to be present and notice, while still doing what needs to be done.

When we are feeling fried, however, it’s hard to think of what makes us happy or what would bring us peace. After all, if we already knew, wouldn’t we be there?

One of the best ways to start is by identifying what brings us happiness. Make a list of 10 items. Start a list now, even if you can’t come up with 10 right away. Add to it for the next couple of days. You might ask your spouse or a friend to create one, too, explaining why you are asking for this. Then share your lists with each other. I’ll bet your list will grow as you hear and discover together what makes you happy. If your child is old enough, ask her to create her own list. I can guarantee you will be delighted and surprised in listening to her ideas.

Start with one of the ideas that speaks to you today; the smaller the better. A five-minute morsel of soul food may be all you need to jump-start your connection with yourself. Then select another item on your list for the following week.

Of course, to even make time possible to create this list, I found I needed to learn the art of making appointments with myself. I make appointments with other people all the time and I hold that time as sacred. I don’t miss appointments, show up late, or forget them. Do the same with yourself. When someone calls and wants to schedule time with you, you aren’t lying when you say, “I have an appointment then, let’s find another time.”

One of the items always appearing on my “what makes me happy” list is my weekly deposit. It’s a practice that stops the overwhelm cycle in its tracks. I’ve learned when I’m stressed, it’s hard to contribute to my family or my colleagues, so I plan a deposit.  On Sunday of each week, I list one thing I’m going to do for my husband and myself during the week.  Even with both sons and their families living in other cities, they are still on my list.

This deposit is something above and beyond everyday life. I may decide to play a card game, like Gin Rummy, with a son. I may offer my husband a 10-minute shoulder rub. I may close my office door and ask myself these five questions:

  1. What do I need right now?
  2. What do I want right now?
  3. What needs to happen for me to get that?
  4. If I can’t do that, what can I do instead?
  5. Who do I need to ask for help?

You get the idea. You can see that knowing their happy lists and yours as well helps. The point is, it doesn’t have to take up much time. It’s about me being able to be 100% present in that moment. It creates a richness that connects deeply. During one Gin Rummy game, my son, who was 13 at the time, said after 15 minutes of playing, “Thanks, Mom. This was fun. I’m going outside to play now.” He was happy and full after 15 minutes, and so was I. That’s what a weekly deposit can do.

Balance isn’t always a matter of the amount of time together. It’s what the time is like when we are together. That’s what keeps life sane. Little by little, you’ll notice your connections deepen while the overwhelm and frazzle recede. You’ll notice feelings of more contentment. Less isolation and more presence. Less overwhelm and more peace. Gandhi had it right when he so beautifully said, “There is more to life than merely increasing its speed.”