Updated on 03.05.09

Review: The One-Life Solution

Trent Hamm

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or entrepreneurship book.

one lifeA few weeks ago, I went out to breakfast with a big group. Most of us were engaged in great conversations about blogging and, frankly, Iowa media gossip, but a few people were pretty noticeably withdrawn from the discussion. They were busy checking their Blackberries every five minutes, putting them down and seeming to pay attention, then picking up that Blackberry again.

When the person next to me pulled out his Blackberry for the sixth or seventh time, I asked him if he was expecting something important. “Oh, no, just a crazy start to the day at the office,” he said as his thumbs scrolled through a document. “Shouldn’t you maybe slip out and go put out the fire?” I asked him. “Oh, no, I’d rather be here chatting with you guys,” he said.

Was his statement true? On some level, he might have felt that way, but when he pulled out his Blackberry yet again just a few minutes later, it was clear that both his heart and his mind were already in the office.

Where’s the divide between professional life and personal life for this person? It’s obvious, based on his use of the Blackberry at a breakfast with friends, that the divide is pretty blurry, if there is one at all. That blurring leads to a life that is truly centered around work – and over a long period, often leads to burnout and disenchantment with all of life.

The One-Life Solution, by Dr. Henry Cloud, focuses on this very problem, one that seems incredibly prevalent in modern life. How do we have a successful career without it completely dominating every aspect of our lives? Let’s dig in and see what Cloud has to say.

Identifying the Problem – and the Solution
Cloud gets right to the point. The reason many people find that their personal lives are being overrun by their careers is that they fail to set boundaries between their work and their personal lives. Boundaries create structure within your life, enabling you to firmly separate the professional and personal aspects of your life. Cloud argues that people who fail to create these boundaries are lacking an internal core that gives them the strength to simply put their foot down on issues of personal-professional separation.

Your Vision and Your Boundaries
On some level, people want to be wanted, but when that’s coupled with an inability to set boundaries, it often results in one’s professional life dominating their entire life. Boundaries include six key elements: ownership (who’s running the show), control (who can set the limits), freedom (how much or how little energy one can devote to something), responsibility (who faces the consequences of failure), limits (when and where does a certain part of life begin and end), and protection (disallowing negatives from one part of life to intrude on another part). Most of us struggle with one or more pieces of this puzzle most of the time.

Structure and Boundaries
You are a distinct person. You have your own wants and needs that are completely separate from the needs and wants of everyone else. Boundary issues usually occur when you allow the needs and wants of others to supersede your own wants and needs. For example, you need a certain amount of uninterrupted time each day to focus on your personal needs and interests. When you allow that time to be interrupted because a colleague wants you to do something, you’re giving up much more than a few hours. You’re showing that you’re willing to sacrifice your needs for their wants – a sure sign that you’re not standing up for yourself.

Reclaiming Your Power
So, how do you fix the problem? It’s not as hard as you might think, actually. The first step is to simply take inventory of your life and figure out the areas where you’re failing to set up boundaries. Are you accepting projects that are poorly defined? Are you allowing work projects to interrupt the time you spend with family? Are you incapable of saying “no”? Do you feel guilt about things potentially left undone? Try to identify what is compelling you to violate the barriers you want in your life.

The Audit
Once you start to figure out what exactly is wrong, take an audit of your life. Be mindful and look for the situations where you find yourself falling prey to violating the separation you want. Who is causing you to break these barriers? What projects are causing the problems, and why? Study your own life carefully and look for the patterns. One good way of doing this is by keeping a detailed time diary for a month or two, detailing what you’re doing every fifteen minutes or half hour of every single day.

The Laws of Boundaries
It’s very difficult to give up the patterns of life that leave you with little true personal time. Here, Cloud offers some tough encouragement to make some changes. The piece of the chapter that really hit home with me was the idea that you sow what you reap. One of the big reasons why I felt a need to draw a boundary between my personal life and my professional life was that I worried about becoming the father in the song Cats in the Cradle – a person who didn’t have enough time for my kids when they were young, only to find that they didn’t have enough time for me when they grew up. I then reflected on my own relationship with my parents, particularly with my mother – she always made plenty of time for me and now, as an adult, I love making time for her. She’s not just my mom, she’s one of my best friends, because I know she will always be there for me until she draws her last breath, and I, without hesitation, will be there for her. You sow what you reap.

You and Your Words
Quite often, when faced with situations where someone or something is trying to stretch out of its barriers, we know that we should say no, but our words undermine what we want. We find ourselves agreeing and then, later, we regret it desperately. Cloud walks through many common situations where this occurs, but the real underlying message here is to always ask for more information when you’re unsure and take time before giving your answer (so you can realize that you need to say no or at least set some limits on the commitment).

Make the “No-Choice” Choices First
What about the things that you simply can’t choose? I know a big handful of system administrators who are constantly on call for their job – if the servers go down at 2 AM, they get called and they go in to the office. For them, this is not a choice – it’s a requirement. Cloud argues that there is no aspect of professional life that is truly a “no choice.” In fact, he argues that any “requirement” that truly reduces the quality of your life should be discussed in detail in an attempt to find a better solution that doesn’t knock down barriers in your life.

Follow the Misery and Make a Rule
What if your job isn’t filled with strict requirements to fill your life, but it somehow seems to eat up all of your time? Quite often, there’s just a single root cause (or perhaps two). Spend some time evaluating why you let those walls break down. Track those influences down to their root cause. Is it a person who pushes too much? Is it a confluence of too many responsibilities? Dig down to that root cause, then develop a clear rule to handle it and give you the space you need – and make that rule clear to the people who may simply expect you to break it.

Time, Space, and E-Mail
With the prevalence of Blackberries and other such devices, many people carry their jobs along with them in their pocket. In many ways, it makes the work-life barrier very low – you can just pick up that device and check in on your work quite quickly, after all. My solution for this kind of problem is the same as Cloud’s: turn the device off and leave it somewhere where you can’t easily access it. If something is constantly breaking down your barriers, you need to avoid that thing. This ties directly into the need to focus on tasks – the best way to get something important done is to simply shut off all possible distractions. Close the email program. Turn off the phone. Shut the web browser. Then, focus on what you need to get done.

Getting Your Balance Sheet in Order
Here, Cloud connects all of this to personal finance. Many people put up with such issues at work and allow work to pervade their personal life because they simply cannot afford to lose the job. If they say “no,” they’re worried the boss will simply find someone who will say “yes” and you’ll be jobless. This is a brilliant argument for sound financial planning. You should always have a strong emergency fund to help protect you against job loss. Living below your means at all times is simply a strong tactic, all around – your boss then loses that bit of financial leverage over you.

End Some Things Now
If there is a long term negative in the workplace – an uncooperative employee, an inscrutable task – that does nothing more than bring down everyone that is involved with it, it’s vital that some sort of resolution is reached as soon as possible. Negatives that don’t seem to ever be going away do nothing more than bring you down and likely bring others down as well. Address it now, not later.

Communicating Your Boundaries
One final stumbling block: how do you make it clear to others what your boundaries are without creating additional problems? This is difficult for nearly everyone. The best approach is to explain things calmly – don’t get angry or aggressive, but state things clearly and firmly. Remember, no aspect of your life should ever have absolute dominion over your whole life. In the end, you get what you tolerate.

Is The One-Life Solution Worth Reading?
Some people have a natural knack for feeling completely in control of their life. For others, it’s not quite so easy, and their personal boundaries seem to get trampled over and over again. If you find yourself in that latter camp, The One-Life Solution is an excellent read. It’s thorough, detailed, and insightful – you will wind up with a lot of food for thought and a lot of tactics to use to handle your situation.

If anything, The One-Life Solution is a bit too broad. Cloud gets into specifics with many workplace and life-boundary issues, but so many different scenarios are addressed that the book sometimes feels unfocused. If you’re looking for solutions for a specific problem, there are large swaths of the book that can be skimmed.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of great advice between the covers here.

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  1. NYC reader says:

    It’s not realistic for those sys admins to say no to the 2AM support call. My own job description says, “Provides support 24/7, as required.”

    Presumably, they (like me) took those jobs knowing the 2AM call was a possibility, and that they were expected to respond if the call came in. It would be unreasonable for them to turn around and tell the employer, “Sorry, I only work banker’s hours.” The off-hour support is POJ (Part Of the Job).

    But there are other areas in daily worklife that can be better regulated and where clear boundaries are appropriate.

    I LOATHE the Blackberry culture where people seem to think it’s perfectly ok to be Blackberrying during meetings, training sessions, meals, etc. It’s not only an energy sapper for the person who is compulsively checking the BB, it’s RUDE and inconsiderate to those around her/him.

    I also can’t stand the people who walk around all day with the Bluetooth headsets on their ears, and who seem to think it’s ok to interrupt the real time face-to-face interactions around them to take a call from someone else. That sends a really obnoxious message that the person on the other end of the phone call is more important than whomever is physically standing in front of her/him.

    I set boundaries around certain times of the day, which I use to get uninterrupted work done. Except for certain critical situations, I try very hard to have a chunk of time in the morning and another in the afternoon where I can read and review material, write lengthy e-mail responses, and do other thought-intensive activities without constant interruptions.

    It’s really ok to let messages bounce to voicemail. It’s really ok to let the non-critical e-mails pile up until you respond to them at your leisure. And it’s really ok to establish boundaries, it will make you a happier person and a more effective employee. But don’t think you can change the terms of your employment if you were hired with the expectation that you would be available off-hours to deal with unique situations.

  2. Anna says:

    from NYC reader #1:

    “…the people who walk around all day with the Bluetooth headsets on their ears…seem to think it’s ok to interrupt the real time face-to-face interactions around them to take a call from someone else. That sends a really obnoxious message that the person on the other end of the phone call is more important than whomever is physically standing in front of her/him.”

    I feel the same way about call waiting.

  3. Dave says:

    2 things on this post.
    1st: This book seems (based on your review) to be an extension of the Chapter on Time Management and “Quadrant I” issues as discussed in “The 7 Habits…”-Covey, which I’m working thru now. I think this is a HUGE problem in corporate America, and in my job, and I hope that people start to realize it. Maybe we can turn this country around.
    2nd: My sister-in-law is on of those BlueTooth/Textmsg junkies. 24-7-365. It exhausts ME trying to deal with her on those things. The kicker is that she’s un-employed and all the energy she uses is for GOSSIP. 100% pure Gossip, and I know this becuase I end up hearing so much of it.

  4. Evangeline says:

    Whenever I’m around someone who is taking one call after another, checking email relentlessly and such it’s usually not nearly as important as they are making it out. It is almost always office gossip or somebody needing some sort of personal advice. The translation is simple: “This is way more important than you.” The era of good manners, being polite and just plain acting like you have good sense seems to be over.

  5. Jules says:

    This is why I never check work emails at home.

    This is also partly why I’m loathe to get a cell phone, though I most probably will, at some point–good for emergencies and all that.

    But I don’t know where I set the boundaries on my writing stuff. I don’t do it at work, but sometimes (especially when I have a good idea) it eats up my life at home.

  6. Sarah says:

    “Cloud argues that there is no aspect of professional life that is truly a “no choice.””

    Cloud’s obviously never had a grown-up job in law, finance, or IT. In those jobs, either you agree to work whatever hours are necessary or you find work elsewhere.

  7. Dave says:

    @ Jules… honestly a cell phone is really a great tool. I can shut it off anytime I desire. Use vibrate for quiet notification. I can check Caller ID (or not) and let calls go to Voicemail that I don’t wish to take. Voicemail is accessible anywhere, instead of at an answering machine. And on top off all this, it’s a Frugal Choice for communication if done right.
    There is also the numerous tools not mentioned above on most standard phones: Calendar, Alarm Clock, Notepad, Contact List (holds more than #’s)

  8. T says:

    >“Cloud argues that there is no aspect of
    >professional life that is truly a “no choice.””
    >Cloud’s obviously never had a grown-up job in law,
    >finance, or IT. In those jobs, either you agree to
    >work whatever hours are necessary or you find work

    Or medicine!

    The tendency to present the choice as “doing things for yourself (personal time) vs doing them for others (work time)” also seems strange to me. A lot of my tendency to spend more and more time on work even when I’m at home is that *I* become invested in the work – and am rewarded for it. It’s not necessarily putting someone else’s needs ahead of mine. Or, when it is, it’s patients needs – not some obnoxious boss, but some sweet kid with a confusing and concerning medical picture that you just can’t get out of your head even though you’re at home trying to go to sleep.

    Maybe the “standing up for yourself” / limit setting approach is helpful for many people, but as someone who, along with *many* of my peers is really struggling with this balance right now, this review makes it sound like this book misses 90% of the issue for people who are struggling with a career they really love and which they feel is important, but which they have trouble keeping from impinging on their home life.

  9. Vicky says:

    You can mitigate the effects those “no choice” aspects of your job have on your personal life, but it’s preposterous to say there are none. I say this on behalf of the fire fighters, police officers, teachers, doctors, soldiers, real estate agents, nurses, reporters, system administrators, support professionals, professors, construction forepeople and college students in my group of family and friends. These are not careers with fixed hours, and incidentally most of them are not jobs which provide Blackberries either.

  10. I’ve been a long time reader of this blog. I am the author of a blog about trading stocks called Charts and Coffee. I’ve enjoyed this site so much that I have added it to my blog roll even though it is a little outside of the box of what my readers typically read.

    Every Sunday Night I do my weekly market wrap up post and hopefully it is useful to the readership on this blog.


  11. NYC reader says:


    I’m with you on call-waiting too. When I call someone’s cell and get that special beep that indicates s/he is on the phone, I never let it ring more than twice. I don’t want to interrupt someone’s conversation. Even if the other party doesn’t pick up, there’s that repeating beep on one side of the conversation and a voicegap on the other each time the phone rings.

    And of course, I NEVER put someone on hold for the incoming call, unless I’m intending to make it a three-way conference call.

    Sometimes I think the compulsive Blackberrying and cell phoning are ways that people try to convince themselves and others that they are wanted, needed, important, indispensible, and valued. It’s more psychological and emotional than any true business need.

  12. guinness416 says:

    I work long hours, a lot of early starts and late nights, so my pushback is to refuse to get drawn into the blackberry addiction thing. My blackberry is with me and on when I’m at meetings or travelling during office hours, but at other times it’s in my office’s desk drawer. I have noticed that if you let a boss or client know you check in on your own time even once, it’s expected you’ll be doing it forever.

    I haven’t found scheduling personal things (eg putting gym time on my outlook calendar) to be respected by colleagues or bosses, but I still stick em on there. I’ve found that communicating your boundaries early and firmly will often get them through – it may not be fair but doing it after you’ve had a job for a while is sometimes interpreted as our being a whiner.

  13. Mule Skinner says:

    A cell phone is a leash. When I used to do on-site consulting, all of my coworkers had cells, sometimes two. While in the middle of a client session they would get phone calls from the office, or from some other client. These calls of course continued during the evening and into the night. Since I didn’t have my own link to the cell tower, my boss could only attempt to reach me by e-mail or by calling on the client’s phone. Calling on the client’s phone meant discussing that client’s issues with them, which would be a distraction if he really wanted to discuss another client, the usual case. Because many clients objected to my laptop being attached to their network, the e-mail was usually unavailable during the day as well. All told, I just went out on the road and did my job one client at a time.

    BTW I have never had call waiting. (I once exploded a budding relationship by objecting the young lady’s call waiting!)

  14. Tyler says:

    I agree with T… I am working, in some way or another, 24/7 because I have a career that I am really into and is just a part of what I do with my life. I don’t consider it an infringement on my “personal time” to deal with a work-related issue, read up on stuff, return emails, brainstorm, whatever. It’s a lot more interesting than watching TV.

    On the other hand, I’m lucky enough to work for an employer that respects my time. If I need to leave early or get something done during business hours, they’re cool with that.

    It sounds like this book deals more with “a job” than “a career”.

  15. Deborah Johnson says:

    After working for someone who does not understand what boundaries are and watching how it negatively impacts his life, I have made setting boundaries a priority. While I love my career and what I do, it is not my life.

    While saying no can be difficult, it’s necessary at times. What I’ve found works for me is just saying no without trying to offer some excuse or explanation why I can’t do something. When I offered the explanation, I often found myself getting sucked into whatever I wanted to say no to in the first place.

    I also make sure I respect the boundaries of others.

  16. joan says:

    Trent: What I enjoy most about your site is the variety. You are always coming up with new authors, and new subjects, and although the subjects all tie in together, they can also go in another direction at the same time. Thank you.

  17. Sandy says:

    I’m glad that I’m not the only one who objects to the constant flow of interruptions in people’s lives with new tech. I understand that some jobs are 24/7…both my husband and I had jobs with that requirement in the past. But there was always a week off in between so that you weren’t at the office’s beck and call your whole life.
    But with a whole set of kids being raised to be available for anything 24/7, there won’t be much objection in the future, I think.
    We’ve gone out to dinner recently, once with another family and then the other night as a family. With the other family, the 14 year old sat there the entire evening and texted during dinner (parents had no objection to this) and the other night, the boy in the booth across from us texted about every 2 minutes throughout the meal….the parents didn’t seem to notice. So, I can see that in the future, not really being present with those actual humans sitting and being with you will become the norm. That’s what most kids are being trained for today.

  18. Rob says:

    I think a few of the rudest things, is either not putting a cell phone on vibrate while at dinner, ( I have a 2 year old, so obviously there can always be an emergency, shutting off is not an option ) texting at dinner, or people talking on cells while in an elevator.

  19. NYC reader says:


    I agree with most of your observations, but I’m not so sure cell phoning while on elevators is up there in the rudeness department, compared to the other situations.

    I have heard my fair share of cell phone conversations in bathroom stalls, and I wonder what the people on the other end think when they hear the toilet flush.

    Also makes me go EWWWW about the sanitary issues handling that phone after using the restroom facilities.

    Definitely most phones need to be on vibrate instead of those inane ringtones. It’s always a riot when I see some straight-laced looking businessperson answering a phone with a heavy metal or vulgar rap ringtone.

    I find it’s easier to let the incoming call go to voicemail if it’s on vibrate, even if it’s buzzing loudly, as compared to a ringtone. There’s the compulsive need to stop the ringing/singing, and it’s much more likely that I’ll pick up the call if the phone is in an audio mode.

  20. Karen says:

    That is why they are called CRACKBERRIES!!!! I think it is rude when I am out with friends and they are checking emails. Their jobs are not 24/7 so no need for them to be on their crackberries.

  21. Brent says:

    just to provide balance to the post
    “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”

    I’ve worked in multiple jobs where being available for just a couple minutes during “personal time” could save a contract. Web services,like many other services, are expected to exist 24/7. When they are down from 6pm to 8am because you “needed to stand up for yourself”. You might just find yourself out of a job. Other times trying to delay a launch or launch a faulty product is far far worse than working a couple hours over. That being said, when the need isn’t there I don’t answer. I don’t read work email at home anymore and unless my boss calls my personal phone I’m oblivious to any work problems till I come in.

  22. getagrip says:

    IMHO too often the device (cell phone, texting, blackberry e-mail) is used because you can instantly reach out and grab someones attention, not because you have something important to share or because it really can’t wait. This applies whether at work or at home and is part of our instant gratification culture. I have a question, I’ll ask now. I have an observation, I’ll share it now. I have a need, I want it addressed now. I’m not gettting it now, I want to complain, now.

  23. jreed says:

    It is totally fine with me if someone wants to bluetooth,call wait, blackberry or cell phone while I’m talking to them….I just wave my fingers and say I’ll catch you later! If they choose to direct their attention elsewhere, I’m free to move on. The type of person who behaves like this is usually someone I’m happy to move on from anyway.

  24. Dreamer says:

    This is nonsense. In this economy who has any bargaining power? People are nervous about losing their jobs – some realism please.

  25. no_sked says:

    it’s a sad statement of society… we are so accustomed to multi-tasking that single-tasking is often difficult to do!

    for example, do you ever see anyone just sit and wait for a bus anymore? no, we crack-berry, i’m, etc while waiting for the bus/train. anyone just walk from point a to point b? nope, we walk the dog, talk on the phone, use wrist-weights all at the same time. anyone just participate in a teleconference? no, we check email and listen to the teleconference on mute while we discuss an issue with our cube-neighbor.

    guilty as charged! but i do make a conscientious effort to ‘be in the moment’ and focus on people that matter. i.e. no phone calls during family dinner.

  26. mb says:

    hm… looks like a book for my library list.

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