We never received an allowance for doing chores like drying the dishes. Which was probably fair, considering how much we owed Mom for all the dish towels we ruined in our snapping wars. And since my pitiful pitch at the board game company failed to attract the million-dollar contract I was hoping for, I needed to find another way to amass my fortune. 

So Nicholas and I followed in the footsteps of our big brothers and found work as hired hands for local farmers.

We were only making five bucks an hour, and even that was tough to get sometimes. I recall the outrage of one old-timer who insisted that when he was our age, he’d be lucky to get a bucket of green apples for a day’s work. 

One sweltering summer day, Nicholas and I were haying — a process that involved a few steps. After the grass in a hayfield was high enough, the farmer would cut it and leave it to dry in the sun. Later, they’d use a baler to bind the hay into tightly packed bales that Nicholas and I would then stack onto a wagon pulled behind the tractor.

Once the wagon was full, the driver would take it to the barn, where other workers would unload the bales onto an elevator — essentially an inclined conveyor belt leading into the barn’s hayloft. Inside, we’d be waiting to grab the bales and stack them neatly in a pile.

If we were starting in an empty hayloft, the bales would often be dropping off the elevator from a considerable height. And with each of these dense bricks of grass weighing anywhere from 40 to 70 pounds, you didn’t want to be on the receiving end of an incoming haybale as you stooped to pick up another one. 

Our boss knew all about this risk. “Let’s watch out for each other, boys,” he reminded me and Nicholas. 

“Okay,” we replied shyly. 

The work started at a manageable pace. But before long, we noticed that the bales were dropping off the elevator faster and faster. Clearly whoever was unloading the wagon had consumed way too much caffeine that morning.

Doing his best to keep up, our boss reached down to grab a haybale, trusting that his five-dollar-an-hour lookouts would alert him to any impending danger. Apparently that was too much to ask.

Maybe I figured Nicholas would say something. Maybe he thought I would.

Whatever the case, Nicholas and I watched in inept silence as the next bale dropped from the elevator and slammed into the back of the man’s head, mashing his face into the ground. For a moment, he was quite literally buried in his work.

Our concussed boss staggered to his feet. “THAT’S WHY WE LOOK OUT FOR EACH OTHER!” he bellowed.

We mumbled a sheepish apology and got back to work. By this point, we’d be lucky to get half a bucket of green apples.

Whether you’re filling a hayloft, trying to meet a stressful deadline or fighting a deadly disease, having people you can count on to watch your back is crucial. Because when you’ve got your head down, focused on the task at hand, it’s easy to miss things happening around you. 

Clearly, my brother and I were not those people for our boss that day. But thankfully, I had a better experience during my cancer journey. 

My friend Janele arranged to have meals delivered to my home so I didn’t have to cook after a long day of chemo. My colleagues worked extra hours to take over my projects so I could focus on my treatment. My doctors never hesitated to order another test if something in my latest lab results looked the slightest bit suspicious.

In short, they did what my brother and I failed to do in the barn: they looked out for me, ensuring life’s rogue haybales didn’t knock me silly. And no amount of green apples could ever repay their kindness. 

Impacts of poor work-life balance 

Life can sometimes feel like that barn: a frantic rush to keep up with a fast-paced barrage of work and activity. We scramble to do the best we can and fear that if we stop to take a breather, the pile of haybales will grow out of control. But like that blow to the farmer’s head, there are consequences to working and living that way.

It impacts the quality of our work — The faster those haybales came at us, the sloppier our haymow became. Similarly, trying to keep up with a dizzying pace at work is a sure-fire recipe for so-so results. You may be getting a million things done, but it’s a million things done mediocrely. I know for me, I’m more productive and better able to problem solve when I’m not stressed to the max with metaphorical bales of hay crashing around me.

It impacts our health — Although you might not be at risk of haybale-related injuries, stretching yourself too thin can lead to a slew of other health problems. Poor work-life balance can result in unhealthy eating because you don’t have time to prepare nutritious meals; not enough room in the calendar for exercise; sleep loss; stress-induced heart problems; nervous breakdowns; burnout and more.

It impacts our relationships — An imbalanced life often means we don’t get to spend much time with loved ones. And the quality of what little time we do get with them is often diminished, either because we’re so exhausted from our jobs or because our minds are still back at the office. Meanwhile, it’s often the people closest to us that feel the brunt of our pent-up stress and frustration. 

It impacts our overall happiness — Our hobbies and pastimes are also some of the first things we sacrifice when we’re buried in work. Furthermore, when all you’re doing is trying to keep your head above water (or hay), it doesn’t leave much space for important things like inner reflection or personal growth.

Balance is about living healthier, happier lives in line with the things we value most. Making room for those things is a journey, and no two paths are alike. What works for me may not work for you — or even be possible given your personal circumstances. But I do believe that no matter who you are or what your situation, there is something you can do to achieve greater balance. 

The first step is recognizing the fact that there are simply too many haybales on your elevator. The next is taking action to address the problem — before you find yourself buried by it. 

Next: Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward