You’ve stopped drinking. Or you’re eating right and practicing portion control. Or you’ve been smoke-free for 30 days. Great! But will you relapse like you’ve done before? How do you know if your habit change will last?
You are much more likely to relapse when your life has become unbalanced. So claimed Dr. Alan Marlatt, a specialist on relapse, who did extensive research on relapse prevention. But what is a balanced life, and how can you achieve it? Philosophers have debated this question for centuries, but you’ll have 4 practical answers by the end of this blog!
Here are 4 ways to see if your life is in balance. Choose the one that makes the most sense to you.
1. Balance the “wants” and “shoulds” in your life.
Marlatt believed that your life is more balanced if you do some things you should do and some things you want to do. If your day is filled only with things that are “shoulds” for you—let’s say, work, errands, and paying bills—you are at risk for relapse because you might experience a sense of deprivation. When this happens, you might see your old problem habit as something you’ve earned. For example, you might tell yourself, “I’ve had such a hard day. I deserve to go online and shop ‘til I drop.” In this case, you’ve fallen victim to the entitlement trap—“I’ve earned my habit.”
In an unbalanced day filled only with “wants”—say, chatting with friends, watching TV, flipping through catalogues, and lounging around—you never do the hard work you need to do to keep up with the demands of life or set goals for a better future. This is the pleasure trap—“It feels good, so why change?”
Self-check: Are you all play and no work? Or all work and no play? Consider adding or subtracting some activities to get a better balance.
2. Check your energy flow—does your outflow match your inflow?
To prevent relapse, burnout, and even depression, check your energy flow. “It is important to assess what gives you energy versus what depletes you,” writes psychologist Margaret Wehrenberg. Many people “spend” their energy on work, caring for family, paying bills, and other such tasks. While these things can be rewarding for some, they may drain you if you don’t replenish your stores of energy. To create an energy “inflow,” consider some of these activities: taking short breaks at work, walking outside, resting, eating regular meals, short periods of meditation, or whatever works for you.
What gives you energy and what takes it away is as individual as your fingerprint. An introvert will be energized by quiet time, an extrovert by a chat with a colleague at work.
Self-check: My bank sent me an email the other day entitled, “Balance Snapshot: Your Available Balance.” Wouldn’t it be great if your body-mind could send you an Instant Message about your energy level? It could read: “Balance Snapshot: Your Available Energy Balance.” Occasionally you might get an IM from yourself like this: “Warning: Your Energy Levels are Dangerously Low!”
Canadian Mental Health Counseling Association
Actually, if we pay attention, our body-mind does send us signals. Signals we are burning out include: irritability, bad moods, weariness, and headaches. Why not send use these signals as cues for a little R & R?
3. Check your “self-other” balance.
What we give to others and what we save for ourselves is a lifelong dilemma. If you give only to yourself, you might not feel connected to others or to the larger community. If you give only to others and neglect yourself, you become a candidate for burnout. In order to keep sane and healthy, you have to set some boundaries by saying NO to demands on your time and energy. (Here’s how.) If you feel too self-absorbed, you may want to say YES more often to the needs of others or of your community.
Self-check: Grab a piece of paper. Draw a line down the middle. Label the left, “Self-care,” and the right, “Other-care.” What do you do for yourself? You could list exercise, other healthy activities, and down time, for example. What do you do for others? You could list helping a friend, volunteer work, or writing a letter to the editor. Does your life seem balanced in this area? If not, do you need to set better boundaries or reach out to others more often?
4. A Balanced Life: My View
In my view, these three activities are the foundation of a good life as well as of a balanced life:
- Meaningful activities: Activities that reflect your most important values, goals, and motivators and that connect you to something greater than yourself
- Self-care activities: Activities that contribute to your physical, emotional, or spiritual health, such as exercise, meditating, or spending time with family and friends
- Pleasure and fun: Activities you enjoy that do not harm you or another
When to UN-balance Your Life
Bringing balance to your life is not always desirable. If you become devoted to an all-consuming project, such as writing a book, creating a film, or organizing a charity event, you may feel motivated to follow your obsession until the project is complete. And you may even be "in flow"—a peak state of consciousness in which you are utterly absorbed in the activity. In a different situation, if there’s a crisis in your life—a loved one who suddenly becomes critically ill or a rush job at work or even finals week—you may choose to brush aside other things to take care of The One Big Thing That Matters Right Now.
Dedicating yourself temporarily but fully to a work project, a significant other, or your own health is often the best decision you can make. When it’s time, pull back and rebalance your life.
In fact, healthy living requires constant rebalancing.
How Do You Know When Your Life Is In Balance?
A balanced life is more likely to give you a sense of inner peace. You feel more centered, more truly yourself. When you’ve had a day that brings you peace of mind, analyze it and use the results to guide your tomorrows.
I am struck by this wise old saying: “Live every day as if it were your last and also as if you were going to live forever.” Now that’s a balancing act!
© Meg Selig
Note: Portions of this blog were adapted from the chapter, “Keep Your Life in Balance,” from my book Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For more info on habit change, willpower, and health, like me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.
Wehrenberg, M. The 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010).
Wants and shoulds. G. Alan Marlatt & Gordon, J. R. Relapse Prevention: Maintenance Strategies in the Treatment of Addictive Behaviors (New York: Guilford, 1985), 47.
My definition. The book, The Solution, by Laurel Mellin (NY: ReganBooks, 1997), was particularly helpful in formulating my own idea of a balanced life.