Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Thoughts on a Balanced Life

What does it cost to find balance in life?

Balance rock formationWe marvel at good balance whether in nature, athletic pursuits or in our day-to-day lives. In our lives, balance is often advocated as a way to live more healthily and to decrease stress. If you are striving for balance, it's important to understand that it comes at a cost.

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I want to emphasize something from the outset. I am NOT advocating for a way of living here. I am NOT suggesting that a "balanced" life is better than one that is more single-minded in focus (or however you would like to phrase it). You can make up your own mind about the value of any approach to life. My blog posting is simply about what I think are the costs and benefits of a balanced, day-to-day life, that's all.

Background
I received an email from a colleague the other day. I had written to this very accomplished academic to say "hi" and to ask about a promotion he was seeking and for which I had written a letter of recommendation. His reply prompted my blog entry today.

He did get his promotion to full professor, increasing the percentage of faculty at this rank to 4% in his institution. This well-deserved recognition of his scholarly accomplishments is in addition to his administrative work as the Dean and Associate Vice President (Academic & Research) of his institution. As I said, he is "accomplished."

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In his reply to me, he wrote:
"My professional life, it seems, I've approached with single-mind. I've made many personal sacrifices - several of which have given me pause (such as marriage and children). To be sure, I did not give up those things to be a full professor; however, I am mindful that my focus on my work has come with a cost. While I have - I feel - much life to live, in the next stage I shall be more mindful of balance...a lesson I know you have come to brilliantly."

Two things struck me in this thoughtful and honest reply (that only a good friend would write). First, he identified the "cost" of his single-minded approach, and as you read, he was able to articulate some of these costs. However, implicit in this, I think, is that there is no cost associated with what appears to be the less single-minded approach, that is the path of "balance." In fact, the balanced approach may be a goal in the next stage of his life. I take this to mean in the "post-accomplishment" stage, as you can't get any "fuller" than the rank of "Full Professor."

Second, he provided his perspective on my life. If you have read Dr. Simine Vazire's recent post from her blog "Know Thyself" - you will know that I should take this seriously, and I did. As Simine has demonstrated in her research, friends "can see things we don't see in ourselves, and though they probably won't tell us outright, by taking their perspective we might be able to learn something."

The thing is, my friend was outright in his assessment of my life, and he is not alone in this assessment. Many of my other close friends have told me that they think that I have a balanced approach to life. I take it as a compliment, much as I did (somewhat more reluctantly) when in my teen years I was told that I was an excellent tennis instructor (of course, the "cost" of that to me seemed to be that I wasn't much of a tournament player! - there was truth in that of course, but it took me a long time to realize the gift of teaching).

The cost of balance
Lest I digress, let me bang on my point a little more directly. To the extent that my life is balanced, it has come at its own costs. For example, I have refused to take the path to full professor, refused to make it a goal, as it requires that I give up other things to be so single-minded. I haven't purchased a "dream home" in the modern sense of the expression (e.g., huge house with all the best furnishings etc.) because it takes too much just to pay for it. I haven't run the Yukon Quest or the Iditarod even though I have an overwhelming passion for long-distance dog sledding, because, again, the one pursuit demands too much. Any one of these things if done to its fullest extent undermines my "balance."

Balance recognizes that life is a zero-sum game in so many ways, and this is a fact that very few want to face. We want to believe we can have our cake and eat it too. When thinking of it in terms of balance, the zero-sum can be expressed as an "if . . . then"  -  if we lean too far in either direction without compensating somehow, then we lose our balance.

What I think is at the heart of the issue here is that the cost of balance is compromise on seeking excellence in any one domain. Oh, it's true that you may say, "well, for these years, I'm going to devote myself 100% to this, and after that, I will do these other things, and that will be my balance overall." The thing is, no one can be guaranteed that there will be an "after that." In my opinion, if you want balance, it needs to be a day-to-day balance. It needs to be a now balance, not a tomorrow balance. In fact, I think for many people this notion of doing X now and Y later is just a myth or white lie that they tell themselves as they strive for another day most single-mindedly on one aspect of their lives. In addition, after living many years in one mode, it is exceptionally difficult to define a new way of being.

On a very practical level, balance means being able to stop the pursuit of one goal, perhaps far short of the desired excellence, to give time to another. A common example and one from my own life, is to stop reading or writing to be with my children. I'm not talking about that over-used expression of spending some "quality time" with them. I'm saying I have to stop my academic pursuits and just be with them, be present, be available. It also means my "being" with my spouse, my dogs, exercise, and many, many other things.

Each of these moments where I must stop one pursuit for another means compromise. Compromise is the cost of balance, but compromise has its own rewards. And, balance has its own sort of excellence. It doesn't receive outward recognition or awards; balance doesn't have to.

As in nature or athletics, I see balance in my life as an art form. When balance is achieved, it is a special kind of beauty. It is reward in and of itself.

I'm happy that my friends think I have a balanced life. I hope they're right ☺ - certainly Dr. Vazire's research indicates that our friends know better than us whether we're smart and creative. I think the same is true for this issue of balance. But, of course, all things are relative as my dad often reminds me, so leading a balanced life relative to some of my colleagues' lives may not be much of an accomplishment at all! And, of course, it could be argued that my own personal boundaries on achievement are as much a reflection of my ability (or lack thereof) as my choice for balance. Perhaps, but experience has taught me otherwise, and this discussion would take me into another issue that is beyond the scope of my posting for today, that of "overachievement" . . .

Concluding thoughts
I want to close by commenting on two things. First, balance doesn't mean half-paced, half-hearted or half-assed. I think balance in life is created by working, playing and loving with all your heart and soul. The point is more about having work, play and love in the mix, or having any sort of mix at all!

Second, balance is a dynamic thing, constantly changing moment to moment within the ever-present finality of the zero-sum game of life. Balance requires a dynamic response to losing balance, to regaining balance, to trying again. Keeping one's balance as we all know from all sorts of everyday athletic experiences requires effortful practice before it becomes a seemingly effortless art form. This effort is also the cost of balance. Perhaps that is why many of us end up so unbalanced in our approach to life. It just takes too much effort (and compromise) to do otherwise.

 

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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