March 2002

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Smart Practices: On Balance

Wake Up, Choose, Change

Stewart Levine

We have a natural tendency to seek out better prospects in response to negatives. Doing so provides an opportunity to move toward a more balanced life. Successful change initiatives, however, are rarely easy because we do not like change. But if you are conscious of resistance and follow these guiding principles, you can meet your opportunities.

The events of recent months have been profound for all of us. And yet, within the devastating sense of loss and negativity, there arises some natural inclination to search for balance. My suggestion is to use the current situation as a wake-up call, a catalyst for making changes you’ve been putting off. Take some time and reflect. Use this time to realize that the life we took for granted, the values and behaviors we may have unconsciously adopted, may not be serving our well-being. Make some decisions that will provide more balance in your life. Things have changed, and we are not going back. What follows is some guidance that may help as you choose what, and how, you wish to change.

Stop, Keep, Start: Your To-Do List

You can start with a very simple and effective exercise that takes less than an hour. Choose a favorite spot that you find peaceful: a lakeshore or forest, the ocean, your private study or your office after everyone has left for the day. Take off your shoes and assume a comfortable, relaxed position. Take five deep breaths, deeply inhaling the relaxing air and exhaling all the tension and anxiety in your mind and body. Let go of the chattering thoughts dancing in your head and, instead, in your mind’s eye visualize your favorite place of beauty.

Now, take out an old-fashioned pen and legal pad.

P On page one, list the areas of your life you want to examine. Some examples are your practice or your firm, your marriage or relationships, your social activities, your kids, your clients, your hobbies, your relationship to money, your values, your spiritual life or things you would regret if you were gone tomorrow.

P On page two, at the top, write the heading "Stop Doing."

P On page three, at the top, write the heading "Keep Doing."

P On page four, at the top, write the heading "Start Doing."

P Spend 10 minutes quietly thinking about the things you listed on page one. Then, on pages two, three and four, do 10 minutes of automatic writing in response to your reflections on page one and the direction on the top of each page. Just put pen to paper and start writing (even if some of it is gibberish). When you are finished, go back through what you’ve written and circle with a red pen the changes you’ve decided to make that will help you move toward a more balanced life.


If you are excited by the potential of what you’ve just learned, you will be motivated to make changes in your home or organization. There are, though, some key things to keep in mind before you begin.

A Map to Change

Exactly how you move forward depends on the context. There is no cookie-cutter "right way" to start a change process. Only you know the players and the territory you will be navigating. However, there are some guiding principles that will help you find your way.

Guard against overzealousness. My experience is that most people fear zealots who come with "the" answer. Even if you are excited by possibility, please dampen your enthusiasm around others for the purpose of achieving the impact you want.

Start anywhere. You don’t have to be a CEO, executive director, patriarch or person who has influence. If you believe you have a good idea, you do. And your good idea will attract the resources it needs to grow and flower.

Make a plan. If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. But before you whip into action, remember: "Ready, aim, fire" is not "Ready, fire, aim."

Make a clear case. You will mount the best, most convincing case for change through an awareness of the costs associated with your current habits. Take the time to analyze all costs of current practices in your firm or family. Make conservative assumptions and projections. You will still see the huge sum total that results from not making changes.

Build a team. You can’t do this alone. Look around you for people who will understand what you are saying. Recruit them.

Enroll broad support. If your change is organizational, you must get other people on board from all levels and all departments. Remember that playing organizational politics is nothing more than jumping into the soup of organizational decision making and ensuring your voice is heard. It’s not dirty business, unless you play it that way. Similarly, if your change is personal or family based, think of who you must influence.

Manage up. The art of organizational effectiveness requires managing your initiatives in all directions. If you see things you don’t like, and ways to improve them, speak up. You are not being compensated for holding a place. You bring value through initiative and results.

Find a champion. If you can convince a senior person of the value of your ideas, the road will be easier. Doors will open and you will have resources.

Have nothing to lose. Yes, you care. Yes, you present your ideas well. Yes, you move forward with passion. But you are not attached to any particular outcome for your initiative. Although you can influence others, you cannot control them. If people are not ready for whatever gifts you bring, accept that now is not the time. Move on and devote your energy elsewhere. What you learn in the process will help in your next attempt.

Start with a pilot. Regardless of how good your idea is, everyone affected will want proof of success. The best way to gather that proof, with minimal risk, is to begin with a pilot. This allows you to test the waters and provides useful feedback for modifying your tactics.

Teach and learn, learn and teach. Personal and organizational improvements are about learning new skills. The most effective learning tactic is to teach. Always be aware that the process of change is fundamentally an educational process that happens through the vehicle of communication. We receive information from others; we communicate with ourselves about what we’ve received; then we make decisions about the actions we will take.

Stay conscious of your resistance. The value of the new information will only be realized if you can control your resistance to change.

Embrace dignity of beginning. When we begin any new activity, we are not competent. And no one likes the feeling of incompetence. But only through learning do we become competent. If we can accept the process of change as a learning experience (like riding a bike or using a computer), we will be able to laugh at our incompetence, stay engaged and gain the new competence we desire. It’s the surest way to quiet resistance to change.

Don’t get pickled. My favorite theory about change is the Pickle Barrel Principle. It holds that no matter how hard a cucumber resists, it will turn into a pickle when placed in the pickle barrel. Stay mindful and look for small victories.

Celebrate success. Publicly celebrating an accomplishment reinforces the positive results for both an organization and an individual. Especially at the beginning of a project, it generates enthusiasm and enrolls other participants. Since success breeds success, you will generate the beginning of a movement.

On Your Way

This map to behavioral change is not intellectually challenging. The principles are very simple once you overcome your resistance to the process. Do that, and congratulations—you’re on your way to discovering the opportunities that arise from any change. I call that balance.

Stewart Levine ( is the founder of ResolutionWorks. He practices and teaches others how to resolve conflict and collaborate effectively.


P The Change Handbook by Peggy Holman and Tom Devane. Berrett-Koehler, 1999.

P Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. Bantam Books, 1995.

P Getting to Resolution: Turning Conflict into Collaboration by Stewart Levine. Berrett-Koehler, 1998.

P The Lawyer’s Guide to Balancing Life and Work by George W. Kaufman. ABA Law Practice Management Section, 1999.

P Visit