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Chasing the Elusive Work-Life Balance

Updated: Mar 6

Do you ever find yourself like our friend here, overloaded, stressed, unable to think clearly and causing you troubles in balancing your work and life commitments? Well, it turns out there is a very good neuroscience explanation for this phenomenon and it's based on a children's fairy tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

The Goldilocks Principle

There's a principle in neuroscience regarding the release of stress hormones and the effect they have on our brain's ability, specifically the prefrontal cortex to perform at peak conditions. The prefrontal cortex's executive function is just that, higher level thinking such as

  • the entire sequence for goal attainment (identification, execution, order, timing)

  • problem-solving

  • decision-making

  • self-control

The relationship to Goldilocks, the children's fairy tale of a child finding things from two extremes as "too" hot or "too" cold and finding what was 'just right' for her, is this concept of just right.

The Relationship to Stress?

It turns out that neuromodulators such as norepinephrine and dopamine are strong players in the prefrontal cortex. Too much stress or stimulation leads to an overload of norepinephrine and dopamine resulting in poor execution in

  • the entire sequence for goal attainment (identification, execution, order, timing)

  • problem-solving

  • decision-making

  • self-control

Too little stress or stimulation paradoxically leads to the same result due to a lack of norepinephrine and dopamine. This is exemplified in the figure of Performance versus Stress.

It turns out the prefrontal cortex needs a healthy dose of both norepinephrine and dopamine for peak performance. In both cases of 'too little' and 'too much', what happens is foggy thinking, racing thoughts or an inability to focus and sluggish memory. What is needed is the right balance - not 'too little' and not 'too much', which results in peak performance.

The Lesson for Leaders

Contrary to the popular belief of working full out and then stopping suddenly for rest or due to a breakdown can actually send you from one extreme to the other. I had a coaching client who operated in this "too much" zone and a sudden and prolonged stop didn't fix her foggy thinking. While she was on break she found her mind was still racing and she couldn't focus. Can you relate?

Does it take a few days into your vacation before you can actually start enjoying it? If so, that may be a sign of an imbalance happening. There is a balance that's needed and that balance in the brain is delicate. This may be why it can be so difficult to attain. It can be hard to recognize and be aware of this and it can be tricky to balance. This is why working with an accountability partner or a coach can help you.

An executive coach can help your self-awareness so you can start to address the particular moment when imbalance appears. This will help keep you at operational peak performance. In fact, that is the main job of a coach and the return on your investment that you'll start to see. When you work with a coach your awareness peaks and your peak performance skyrockets.

Resources for you

I coach emerging and elite leaders juggling multiple moving targets to tap into their inner superhero. When my clients find their inner superhero, they excel, advance and lead impactful lives full of confidence and serenity. If any of that sounds relevant to you, you might want to explore more about coaching and see if we might be good coaching partners.

All my best,


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