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How To Stop Subconsciously Sabotaging Work-Life Balance

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Each of us has different issues that subconsciously drive our behaviors at work (and in our lives generally). Some behaviors are useful; others, not so much.

If you find certain behaviors stressing you out, diminishing your performance, making you unhappy or otherwise holding you back, it’s time to STOP these behaviors and find a better path.

It’s not easy. Humans are very good at ‘programming’ themselves throughout their life to adapt to curves life throws at them. It may work in the moment, and even over a long period (e.g., teenage years, young adulthood and even through middle age), but at some point things change and the behaviors no longer serve you. What do you do?

Could Regulating Emotions Improve Work-Life Balance?

I’m not a psychologist (though I lived with one for 30 years; kind of like ‘playing one on TV?’) but have done a fair amount of reading on the subject of why and how people change. Recently I happened on a couple of New York Times articles that caused me to reflect on how nonprofit staff might achieve better work-life balance by identifying some of the ‘coping’ strategies that may be adversely affecting office relationships, work productivity and a personal sense of satisfaction and balance.

If you’re game, let me walk you through my takeaways from The 4 ‘Attachment Styles,’ and How They Sabotage Your Work-Life Balance and Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control).

The first article, by Elizabeth Grace Saunders, holds that the “attachment styles” we develop (usually beginning with bonds between parents and children) dictate how we relate to others – including in the workplace. The second article, by Charlotte Lieberman, posits that procrastination is not laziness but a form of “self-harm” you can learn to overcome.

Tying the articles together? The emotional place from which you’re approaching work and life balance. So…

When people ask “Where are you coming from?” it’s actually an important question!

Let’s take a look.

Attachment Styles Dictate How You Handle Stress

Are you coming from a place of weakness or strength? A place of security or insecurity? A place of hiding or stepping forward? Attachment theory offers us clues as to why we often behave irrationally in the workplace. Often these behaviors occur in stressful situations. Then, because we acted against our rational best interests, we manage our time poorly and create additional stress. It becomes a dysfunctional cycle.

Saunders posits if you can identify your attachment style you can take control of how you manage your time. She notes you often know what you should do – it’s what you would tell someone else to do in a similar situation — but sometimes an uncontrollable urge to do the opposite overtakes you.

“You know you should say no when you’re asked to take on that new project, but you say yes. Or you know your boss said your report was good enough, but you work until midnight perfecting it. Or you’re just stuck — wanting to do better but unsure that trying will help — so you do nothing.”

She sets forth four attachment styles:

  1. Secure
  2. Fearful Avoidant
  3. Anxious Preoccupied
  4. Dismissive Avoidant

It’s important not to judge yourself, or others, by whatever attachment style applies. These styles are generally developed over years and years of reacting to external stressors. You aren’t good or bad because you display one style or another. You may simply be lucky or unlucky. But, if you become aware, you can often create your own luck! And if you’re a nonprofit manager, you may be able to help others create theirs.

Do You Come from a Place of Security?

Those with secure attachment styles tend to manage time best, prioritizing tasks and asking for help when needed. They’re confident, capable and know others respond to them well. This is you if you take tasks as they come, work hard and feel comfortable setting boundaries. You’re not afraid to say ‘no.’

STOP and START: You don’t have to STOP what you’re doing so much as make sure you START being aware of whether you’ve got all the information you need to perform optimally, manage your time effectively and sustain a good work-life balance. Whenever a task is unclear, or communication between you and someone else seems to have deteriorated, don’t be afraid to clarify with your boss or co-worker. And don’t assume it’s the other person’s problem; ask how you might be contributing, clear the air, and set the stage for moving forward productively.

Do You Come from a Place of Anxiety?

I find a lot of folks in the nonprofit space come from this place. I struggle with it myself. We fear upsetting others, so we don’t like to say ‘no.’ This may be you if you check emails incessantly for fear of leaving someone waiting, get easily distracted by perceived threats and ‘fires’ that must be put out, and worry when you get called to a meeting you’re going to get in trouble. If you agonize about every complaint, every perceived slight and every potential rejection, you’re going to have a hard time focusing, buckling down and doing the work that really needs to be done.

Anxiety-driven folks can also tend to be procrastinators. Because anxiety and fear create self- negativityyou literally put yourself in a bad mood you don’t quite know how to manage – you tend to avoid doing anything… until you feel more positive. Lieberman posits we know avoiding the task in question is a bad idea, yet we do it anyway. She calls this ‘negative bias’:

“[Y]our anxious brain jumps to negative conclusions and gets obsessed with issues until they are resolved.”

STOP letting the anxiety take over by becoming aware when you’re feeling in fight or flight mode. START engaging in calming, self-care practices like taking a walk, doing a breathing or meditation exercise, or giving yourself a little pep talk (e.g., “You’ve got this,” “It’s going to work out.”. START setting boundaries, beginning by staying off email 24/7. START building a support network (e.g., a mentor or coach) to whom you can turn to for support, guidance and reassurance. START taking charge of resolving issues proactively, rather than waiting passively for them to resolve themselves.

Do You Come from a Place of Fearful Avoidance?

Those who come from a place of fear lack confidence they’ll be able to achieve a positive outcome. I find this a lot in staff and board members who fear fundraising. It’s similar to coming from a place of anxiety, but the feeling of insecurity is stronger. You don’t put things off because you’re in an anxiety-driven negative mood, but more because you’re in such a negative head space you’re afraid acting can only result in bad things happening.

This may be you if you often feel ‘stuck.’ Fearful avoiders are also procrastinators. I’ve seen it happen to writers who delay getting started because they believe whatever they put down on the page (for a fundraising appeal, newsletter article, grant proposal, advertising campaign, blog post, etc.), it just won’t be good. This may be you if you avoid opening emails, because they can only mean bad things (e.g., you’ll get a complaint; you’ll get work you don’t want to do). This may be you if you don’t speak up at meetings, because you fear no one cares what you have to say so there’s really no point. This may be you if you don’t ask for a deserved raise, because you’re afraid of rejection or you simply fear it will be pointless.

STOP and START: STOP avoiding big, important tasks by getting lost in minutiae that feels like ‘work,’ but isn’t your most important work (e.g., getting lost in social media, cleaning your desk, schmoozing with other staff, writing ‘to do’ lists). START by calming your fears to take back your power to act, not just avoid (e.g., look at the strategies suggested above for people with anxious attachment style; engage in training to help you overcome lack of confidence). START by breaking tasks into smaller, approachable steps and by setting manageable goals (e.g., work 30 minutes on a project you’ve been avoiding; make one phone call; schedule one meeting; speak up in a staff meeting; write just one section of a grant proposal, etc.). It’s important to realize you can get something done.

Do You Come from a Place of Dismissiveness?

This may be you if you think no one else can do the job right. You may be a smart, super-star worker, yet this attachment style can really get in the way of creating a healthy work-life balance. Folks with dismissive avoidant attachment are often poor delegators and/or micro-managers, all of which takes up an awful lot of time. They are also the folks about whom others say “They let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

If you ignore others’ input you’re not reaping the benefit that comes from collaboration. Sometimes it really does take a village, and two heads can be better than one.

STOP and START: STOP acting as if you’re smarter than everyone else. Chances are you’re not. And even if you are, everyone else is not that stupid; they can help you and free up your time to do those things you most need to be doing. START trusting others more so you don’t feel you must complete and/or micromanage their work. START putting time limits on your projects so you don’t work ridiculously long hours; be okay with A- work sometimes. START listening more to others, considering they may have a point, and sometimes just simply doing what they suggest rather than wasting time fighting them.

Do You Come from a Place of ‘Busy’ Procrastination?

Procrastination isn’t an attachment style, but it most assuredly affects confidence, productivity and work-life balance. If all the psychological attachment theory discussed above leaves you cold, how about if we just get practical?  

Do you ever find yourself putting off ‘til tomorrow what you could do today? Again, no judgments. You’re likely not a bad person or a lazy person. Rather, you’re an avoidant person. At least some of the time. And you may often cloak that avoidance in business – just no time to get to the thing you’re avoiding. Alas, as Seth Godin states, you get no points for busy.

Points for successful prioritization. Points for efficiency and productivity. Points for doing work that matters. – Seth Godin

The word procrastination, Lieberman notes, is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare — to put off until tomorrow. But it’s also derived from the ancient Greek word akrasia — doing something against your better judgment. This is a form of ‘self-harm,’ and something you can learn to overcome.

Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond. – Charlotte Lieberman

This may be you if you have difficulty managing negative feelings around a task. I tend to think most people have at least a little bit of this. I’m not a huge procrastinator (especially compared with my spouse!), but it’s been years and I haven’t managed to tackle cleaning the garage. And I’ve known I should call a roofer for two years now, but have I? How often do you avoid going to the doctor or dentist for preventive care, knowing you should, but you simply wait until an emergency presents itself?

Procrastination means focusing on the immediate rather than the important. It turns out humans possess a ‘present bias;’ we’re wired to prioritize short-term tasks over long-term ones. It’s evolutionary to focus on providing for one’s needs in the here and now. At one point in time it was a useful survival adaptation. In a modern, post-industrial society, not so much.

“Over time, chronic procrastination has not only productivity costs, but measurably destructive effects on our mental and physical health, including chronic stress, general psychological distress and low life satisfactionsymptoms of depression and anxietypoor health behaviorschronic illness and even hypertension and cardiovascular disease.– Charlotte Lieberman

All procrastinators may not begin by coming from a place of anxiety or fear, but ultimately the act of putting things off – when you know you should not – makes you feel bad. It becomes an emotional problem that gets in the way of managing tasks in the most effective way possible. By the time you really do get to the roof, or the doctor, the situation has become more urgent and inherently more stressful.

STOP and START: Every procrastinator knows they should STOP putting things off to avoid negative feelings, understanding they’ll end up feeling worse later as a result. But change is especially difficult because procrastination brings immediate rewards. Negative emotions are avoided, at least temporarily. START to rewire your brain by thinking about the better reward you’ll get if you don’t procrastinate. Remind yourself of a time you didn’t procrastinate, and how well that worked out. START by removing procrastination temptations (e.g., having emails or texts ping you when they arrive; having social media notifications delivered to your primary inbox, etc.). START by starting. You don’t have to commit to finishing in one fell swoop. Sometimes just beginning creates the motivation to continue. Be self-forgiving when you lapse; you’re likely to feel less emotionally negative the next time.


Work-life balance is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. In the United States, 66% claim they don’t have a good work-life balance, and this results in all sorts of negative outcomes. Since many nonprofit cultures are starvation’ models, where staff often feel overworked, underpaid and undervalued, I’m guessing the percentage might be even higher (if anyone has data on this, please let me and Bloomerang know).

Your attachment style and/or tendency to procrastinate aren’t the only things contributing to a less than ideal work-life balance. A toxic culture can contribute greatly. But your own approach/avoidance style does connect to deeply wired behaviors and habits that may not be serving you well and may, in fact, be contributing to higher levels of stress and lower levels of productivity than ideal or necessary.

Just think about it.

You may not be able to control your organizational culture (if you’re in a position to do so, here are some tips from Beth Kanter), but you can control yourself.

You may need to leave a toxic culture to achieve better balance. But sometimes you cannot. And sometimes you may be able to improve things tremendously by your own thoughts and actions. You can’t change the environment, but you can change the way you approach and feel about that environment.

Try to better understand, and tweak, your own approach to your work. Consider whether one or more of these styles and tendencies may apply to you. If you realize you’re repeatedly doing things you know are against your better interest:

STOP doing things that contribute to feelings of incompetence, low self-esteem and stress.

START becoming more self-aware, emotionally tuned in and curious about why you’re feeling what you feel and doing what you do.

MOVE FORWARD from there towards better work-life balance.
As the brilliant sociologist and futurist Brian Solis reminds us, with balance, generally, comes greater clarity, equilibrium and productivity.

To your work-life balance success!

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