Balance is an Illusion
Oh balance. I'm not talking about the kind where you can stand on one foot for hours at a time. I'm talking about the kind where you feel like you have a good grasp on all the things that are important in your life. Family, health, exercise, hobbies, money, leisure time. Many of us feel if we could just achieve that perfect equilibrium, everything would be easier and we could feel whole.
The problem is that balance is such an imperceptible state that it is more like a mirage in the desert than an actual object or state of being. It's an illusion and, generally speaking, no entity can be optimally efficient at more than one thing, but yet we try.
The other issue is that balance exists on a sliding scale. I'm sure you've heard the saying that we all have the same 24 hours in a day, it's just a matter of how you use them. This is true to a certain extent and why balance is nearly impossible to achieve and definitely impossible to maintain. Let's assume that you have 24 hours to work, sleep, and play (for the sake of simplicity). In order to work more you have to either sleep less or play less. In order to play more you have to either sleep less or work less. This becomes infinitely more complicated the more pieces you add into the mix. Something always suffers when you try to do more of something else. Working less in order to play more means making less money at work which will probably lead to less happiness. While you may be happier overall because you are playing more, you are still making a compromise.
One study found that 70% of Americans struggle to find a balance that works for them. So perhaps redefining your purpose and priorities is a better option. Rather than trying to make more money faster at work so you can retire early and start playing more, perhaps maximizing your efficiency so you are doing the same amount of work in less time is a better approach. It may mean enlisting help (and changing your purpose), but if you can do the same amount of work in 40 hours that you used to do in 80 hours you've come out ahead.
For me balance means having time to play and (believe it or not) working on projects related to my blog and business. I don't mind going to a job every day (ok, I do mind going every day, I'd prefer four days a week or less) as long as I have time to do the things I want to do on either side of my work hours and am allowed to have the time I want to travel. I've adapted a little over the years by getting up early in order to have time in the mornings to work on blog/biz tasks because the evening hours are often filled with cooking dinner (something else I enjoy), watching TV, and unwinding from the day. Overall, I feel very at peace with the way this works for me.
Balance when it comes to the way I eat is also important and I could probably write a whole blog post about it (I might). I'm not striving for perfection when it comes to food. Perhaps that's a good way to approach everything in life when trying to achieve balance. I'm all about doing the best I can with what I've got. Some people might strive for "moderation" in everything they do, but when it comes to most things, that might actually be causing more stress and knocking you off balance. Why would you work so hard 80% of the time only to undo your hard work in the other 20% of the time. Then you have to work even harder for the rest of the 80% in order to undo what you undid in the 20%. Seems counterproductive.
I've talked about how there's no one sized fits all approach to diet, but I think that goes for lifestyle as well. Don't blindly follow what other people are doing, or what you think you should be doing. If you are going to get anywhere near to a state of balance you need to figure out what works for you and put that into action. For my diet that means that when I'm at home I eat mostly paleo with some gluten-free grains thrown in, when I eat out, I usually eat gluten-free. But sometimes that doesn't work for me and I've figured out that I can tolerate a small amount of gluten so long as I leave out 90% of the time. Am I telling you this because I think you should do the same? No, I'm telling you this so you can see how I have taken a set of dietary guidelines laid out by someone else, and adapted them for me!
While I do not believe that we can achieve a permanent state of balance, I do believe that it is possible to bring more balance into our lives. Finding a way to get to a place that works for you and is sustainable over the long term is better than trying to find that perfect balance point. It's also important to realize that this place is constantly up for reevaluation.
Here are some steps you can take to find more balance in your life:
1. Set Goals That Align With Your Passion
Think of this more as a process than a step. So many people work just to pay their bills and buy the things that they really need. Make sure you take some time to figure out what you are passionate about. Some people are lucky and have just known this since they were kids, but for many of us this times some time.
Once you discover what you feel you were meant to do, take some time to set specific goals and have a list of actions. Be sure to make your goals measurable and easy to track. Write them down. These goals help you to make deliberate choices about what you want to do with you life and how you want to spend your time. Also, remember that the path may not be straight, there may be many twists and turns along the way before you reach your final destination.
Review your goals regularly, and stay focused on reaching milestones that support your goals. Be intentional about your work and minimize your distractions.
2. Learn to Be a Better Manager of Your Time
Just because you set your goals does not mean that they are just going to happen. You will have to dedicate time to reaching them. Make sure that you map out your priorities and responsibilities and create a schedule. Be sure to start with the things that are most important and least flexible. Eliminate the least important things so that you can focus on your priorities.
Here is what that might look like:
- Track your time
- Have a plan of action for each goal
- Make a to do list
- Be flexible with your time
- Identify time-sapping habits
- Learn to say no (remember that "no" is a complete sentence)
- Eliminate unnecessary obligations and tasks
Just like any skill, managing your time efficiently will take some practice, but it is the backbone to a purposeful and stress-free life. Going through this process can be an excellent way to find out what is really important to you and to get rid of the things that you can live without.
3. Get Rid of Distractions
Distractions ruin your focus. Have you ever been really into a task and then the phone rings or you get up to switch over your laundry, and when you return, you can't focus anymore? It can take 20 minutes or longer to regain your focus once you've given time to a distraction.
Some common distractions are:
- Social media
- The internet
- Checking email
- Getting coffee
- Letting your mind wander
Here are some ways you can work at eliminating those distractions:
- Turn off notifications on your phone, tablet, and computer
- Put your cell phone on silent or vibrate, or leave it in another room
- Set some rules with the people around you
- Work in scheduled chunks of time.
- Clear your work area of clutter.
- Read and answer email at scheduled times (no more than twice a day)
Once you have done all you can to eliminate these pesky distractions, work on building your ability to focus on your tasks. Again, this is a skill that might take some practice. Distractions will always be around, but you can learn to decrease them as well as increase your ability to focus on your current tasks. Also, knowing that you have scheduled times to answer emails, or even to do laundry, can help free your brain of those distractions and allow you to have better focus.
4. Make Time for Yourself
This one is a hard one for a lot of folks. Most of us can always find something that needs to be done or someone who needs our attention. Remember that time for yourself is not something that you should feel guilty about, it's a necessary thing. It can give you an opportunity to relax and refocus on your priorities. Creating a daily ritual can be an efficient, but still effective way to take time for yourself. It can be as simple as reading for 15 minutes in the morning while you drink your coffee. You may need to get up 15 minutes earlier to have this time, but it's well worth it. Also, remember that delegating things that don't need to be done by you can create some extra space in your day for taking care of yourself.
Whatever you do, make sure it's something that you look forward to so that you'll be sure to keep that time for yourself. You might be amazed at how much taking this time can change your perspective and make you more productive.
5. Make Time for Family
If you have children this is especially important. A recent survey said that most parents and children have less than eight hours together in total each week. Time together helps build a stronger family team. Even if you don't have children, it's important to make time for your family - whoever that is to you. When I was growing up I was always expected to be home for dinner (unless I got permission to eat somewhere else). This is pretty uncommon these days, but eating dinner together made sure that my dad knew what was going on in my life and gave us a chance to check in each day.
Here are a few other things that can help you ensure that you are working towards more balance with less stress:
- Define what balance means to you. Many people think that having balance means spending the same number of hours on work as you do on personal activities. However, most of the time this isn't realistic. In order to define what will work for you, you need to consider that life is constantly changing. The right balance for you today, may not be the right balance for you tomorrow or next week or next month. Over time your priorities change.
- Create boundaries. Whether that means not taking work calls while you are at home, turning off your computer at 7pm, or being available to your work by phone or email at all hours in order to spend more time at home. These are personal decisions that you have to make for yourself depending on what your priorities are.
- It's ok to say no. No likes to say no to their boss, their spouse, their employees, their friends, or their kids. But in order to achieve more balance, you are going to have to do it once in awhile and understand that no explanation is needed. We cannot possibly do everything that we want to do and everything that everyone else wants us to do in our 24 hour day. So a big part of leading a more balanced life is to get rid of the unnecessary tasks and be extremely protective of your priorities.
- You are not a superhero. Having a more balanced life means having realistic expectations and accepting that some things are just not going to get done. You have to be ok with that. But the good news is that you get to decide what those things are. In my house, it's housework. That is the last thing to get done every week, and sometimes it just doesn't happen.
Have You Found Balance in Your Life?
Hopefully these suggestions are helpful to you. Often the lack of clear direction and goals can lead us to waste our time and energy and contribute to more imbalance in our lives. An unbalanced life is like a car tire that is out of balance - it makes the operation of the car rough and unsafe. Take some time to ensure that you have done everything you can to find a state of balance that works for you. Remember, what is right for other people may not be right for you and what other people think about the choices you make doesn't matter.